With exemplary irony, that bastion of democracy, the House of Lords, yesterday defended the right to a secret ballot. The Government's proposal for Yorkshire and Humberside and three other regions, which would have abandoned over a century of good electoral practice, were defeated. Its plan was for elections for the European Parliament and for local councils to be entirely by postal ballot. The Government may still try to reverse this defeat and the implications of doing so need to be appreciated. No method of absentee voting, whether by post, proxy, or internet, is safe. Only voting in person can prevent manipulation and can ensure that an elector's vote is not stolen or bought. The results of elections contested entirely by post cannot be relied upon.
A move to postal voting would be turning the clock back with a vengeance. From the 1450s onwards election results in Britain were regularly challenged before the courts. Voting was conducted in public and bribery was rife. It is difficult to realise today that "poll books" were once published showing how each elector had voted. By the 1860s, as increasing numbers of working men were given the vote, it was clear that voting methods had to change.
A key piece of law, the Ballot Act of 1872, was passed to deal with the many abuses prevalent at the time. Among many other things it provided for a secret ballot. Over the intervening years many additional improvements have been made to our electoral processes, but the 1872 Act was the foundation of a secure and safe electoral system.
A vital provision of that Act is the availability to the public of the official "marked register" for six months after polling day. This shows which electors actually voted and its existence is a considerable inhibition to any candidate or party activist thinking of impersonating an elector - dead or alive. Also, given that in the UK it is legal for those, including students, with more than one residence to register for each one, the marked register is a key means of checking whether more than one vote has been cast illegally at a general election or at a European parliament election. There is no marked register for postal voters.
I have been involved in elections for forty-five years and along with other candidates and agents I am well aware of the underhand practices that have always gone on in relation to postal and proxy votes. In Leeds I had to write to postal voters warning them against allowing a stranger to assist them with their ballot paper. My opponent's workers were known to visit those on the absent voters' register on the day their postal vote arrived and offer to help them. Given that many were elderly and vulnerable they were happy to let a friendly visitor witness their form or even complete the ballot paper. And I couldn't guarantee that some over zealous members of my team did not do the same. In the heat of the final days of an election campaign it takes a very principled party worker to resist the temptation not to post a postal ballot known to contain a vote against his or her candidate.
In Northern Ireland at a Westminster election, a very distinguished MP arrived at the office of the Chief Electoral Officer with a large box containing thousands of completed postal votes which he and his workers had collected. The officer refused to accept them, saying that postal votes should be posted. The eventual effect was the same - the party had engineered a large number of votes and organised their completion and collection. There was no guarantee that the voters involved had been able to cast their votes individually and in secret.
Since the restrictions on postal or proxy voting were abandoned, there have been instances of parties applying for large numbers of such votes, in some cases with the address for the delivery of the postal vote being a party worker's address. In a number of such cases the voter whose vote had been diverted was unaware of it and tried, unsuccessfully, to vote in person.
It is naive to think that candidates and parties will refrain from using such opportunities when political power is at stake and when it is possible to secure election by manipulating postal and proxy votes. It has been bad enough in the past when the relatively small numbers of such votes have been fiddled in order to secure marginal seats but in future a well organised and determined party may be able to manipulate enough votes to win any ward or constituency. Voter turnout may well increase but it will not be an indication of voter enthusiasm but rather of a party's, or parties', manipulative efficiency.
The system is even open to bribery. The secret ballot ended the practice of buying votes. As soon as it was impossible to know how an elector had voted there was no point in trying to bribe him or her, but if an elector's postal vote can be handed over to a party worker it is clearly possible to sell one's vote, and with a great deal at stake it is likely to happen.
Some countries use a mobile ballot box which is taken round to institutions and to homes at the request of ill or infirm electors. Others enable electors living abroad to vote in advance at their embassies. These methods should be introduced in Britain to minimise postal voting. Ironically it is the independent Electoral Commission, set up in 2002 ostensibly to protect the best electoral practices, that has been steam rollered by the Government into having four regions using postal votes this May. The electors deserve candidates and political parties that inspire them to vote, and not systems that enable others to vote for them. The Lords have done democracy a great favour.
24 February 2004