The manipulative dangers of the postal vote

Four years ago we looked on in amazement at the electoral machinations in Florida with an American president with a minority of the total vote being elected by a split vote in the Supreme Court. We saw voting cards being examined for "hanging chads" - ie whether or not the indentations by a candidate's name had been properly pushed out. The consequences in Iraq of George W Bush being placed in office through a flawed electoral system soon became evident. Thank goodness, we thought, that our splendid electoral process in Britain ensured that it could not happen here. We were wrong. The all postal ballots now taking place in Yorkshire and in three other regions allow just as much manipulation. The equivalent of the hanging chads has arrived in Yorkshire.

The focus in the past few days on the problems of delivering ballot papers has obscured the much more fundamental defects of postal voting itself. It is interesting how unaware even intelligent and concerned members of the general public are of the flaws inherent in the current postal ballot. Administering a secure and secret ballot is not easy, and the electoral laws have been carefully built up over 130 years to counter manipulation and to protect every elector's vote. These laws have been based upon the elector voting in person at a designated polling station, in the knowledge that only in this way can the legitimacy of the ballot be guaranteed. At a stroke, with the introduction of all postal ballots, these safeguards have been cast aside.

Over the past fifteen years I have worked in thirty different new democracies around the world. In every case, the effectiveness of the electoral administration depended on the independence and authority of the country's electoral commission. Time after time, when I would harangue politicians and officials in Africa or in Asia about weaknesses in their electoral commission, they would respond by pointing out that Britain had no electoral commission at all. Until 2000 this was true and, in fact, we didn't need one, because all the major parties worked together to guarantee the rules and regulations that guaranteed the quality of UK elections. Time after time the rules were changed to improve the security of our ballot processes.

Then in 2000 an Electoral Commission was established here. Curiously, any previous involvement in the political process was regarded as a disqualification for appointment as a Commissioner. Consequently we have Commissioners who are personally unaware of the levels candidates and parties will go to manipulate votes and of how such manipulation can take place. Those of us involved in elections over the years could run a seminar on the techniques and methods of election fiddles.

Worst still, the Electoral Commission is not in charge of elections. It has only advisory powers. This gives us the worst of all worlds. We have a Commission that is naive with regard to electoral malpractice and which has no authority to enforce its views. However, its existence has enabled the Government to abandon the consultations with all the major parties that have always previously led to a consensus on good electoral practice and instead to force partisan legislation through Parliament in the teeth of opposition from Conservative and Liberal Democrat parties. Before the arrival of the Electoral Commission it would have been inconceivable for any party to have changed the electoral law in such a fundamental way purely on the basis of a massive Government majority. It would be regarded in every one of the new democracies I have advised in, as completely unacceptable for a government to determine the electoral law on its own, particularly if against the views of a powerful and independent electoral commission.

The Government hides behind the description of these all postal elections as "pilots". Leaving aside the question as to whether elections covering 14 million electors - one third of the English electorate - can be regarded as only a demonstration sample, they simply cannot be evaluated. For instance, how can any check be made on how many male heads of households make their wives and children hand over their ballots, or have them mark them openly around the kitchen table? How can there be a check on how many postal ballots are collected by party workers - who may well also have called to offer to witness the identity declaration? How can there be a check on multiple voting, or on deceased electors voting, when there will not be a published marked register? And why can candidates and parties discover before polling date who has voted, but the individual elector cannot check that his or her ballot has been received, even after the election?

It has always been accepted that postal voting is not secure. Merlyn Rees, in his memoirs, records in relation to the northern Ireland Convention election of 1974 that, "as Enoch Powell pointed out after the election, unrestricted postal voting was a cause both of intimidation and malpractice." David Butler in his book on electoral systems states that "successive Home Secretaries rejected demands (for the extension of postal voting) on the grounds of administrative inconvenience and of the dangers to the secrecy of the ballot."

The postal voting figures may show an apparent increase in electoral turnout but it will not show how many votes are fiddled. The valid vote may well have gone down, and no-one will know. Increasing genuine electoral turnout requires more attractive politics and politicians, not unsound electoral gimmicks.