Foiling electoral fraud

Written by Jenny Watson, chair of the Electoral Commission on 9 January 2014 in Diary
How to stop electoral fraud

Electoral fraud is a serious issue. There is no evidence that it is widespread in the UK, but where it does happen electoral fraud has the potential to undermine public confidence.  And the truth is our elections are run on a system of trust that is fundamentally the same as it was in the 19th century.

During our consultation we asked 'is our trust-based electoral system sustainable?' The answer that came back, following several months of listening to voters, electoral administrators, parties, candidates and academics, was a clear ‘no’.

But in making our recommendations, we have been conscious of the need to strike the right balance between keeping voting accessible and making it more secure.  Getting this right will mean voters and candidates can participate in elections, while corrupt campaigners cannot win votes through fraud.

Steps have already been taken to help protect people’s votes. This year will see an end to voter registration by household – where one person can list everyone who is eligible to vote where they live – so everyone will have to register individually in future.  We’ve been calling for the change since 2003 and it’s long overdue.

But as registration becomes more secure, those who want to commit fraud will look elsewhere for weak points in the system. To safeguard polling station voting for the future voters need to be asked to show ID before receiving their ballot paper. Failing to address this vulnerability could leave our voting system open in the future to damaging allegations which can destroy public confidence. Voters recognised the current weakness in the system and we know it can be exploited by those intent on doing so.

Before recommending change we considered carefully if some people might be deterred from voting because of it.  We concluded this shouldn’t happen providing it is done in the right way.  In Northern Ireland, for example, you can apply for a free ‘Electoral Identity Card’ if you don’t have one of the other forms of identification – such as passport, or public transport passes - that are required under the rules in place there since 2002.   And looking further afield many countries, from Canada to the Netherlands, use systems we can learn from.

Getting the forms of identification right will be crucial and we’ll look at that carefully now before making further recommendations about how it is implemented. 

In the meantime our report identifies what needs to be done to prevent and detect fraud within the current system. To be tackled effectively it will require close working between local police forces and election officials across the country, but particularly in the sixteen areas our report shows have a history of alleged fraud.   There also needs to be a change in campaigner behaviour to help rebuild trust in the system. Campaigners must no longer handle postal votes, or postal vote applications under any circumstances.

By working together now, and making changes that improve security in the longer-term, we can ensure that faith in our electoral system is not just maintained, but strengthened.

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