There are two big questions about the local [British] elections on Thursday, but only one of them is being asked. The first is whether people will bother to vote. The emerging rule of British politics now appears to be that the bigger the issues at stake, the smaller the choice. The Liberal Democrats’ pathetic capitulation ensures that no major party in England now represents the people who may have wished to use their vote to protest against the war with Iraq. The smaller parties, in most constituencies, are locked, by first-past-the-post elections and the lack of state funding, into electoral insignificance.
The second is a question seldom asked of British elections: will it be free and fair? While British people may regard the process of choosing between almost-identical candidates as unspeakably dull, we retain an affecting faith in its deportment. After all, we invented the idea, and we send election monitors all over the world to ensure that lesser beings are implementing it properly. Our complacency is beginning to look ill-founded.
The government’s problem is that it needs to raise the vote. It knows that there is little prospect of revitalizing people’s interest in politics until some significant difference between the major parties re-emerges, but it cannot present us with distinctive policies without upsetting the powerful agents – everyone from Lord Sainsbury to President Bush – it seeks to appease. It also knows that a government elected by a small proportion of its people is a government whose claim to legitimacy is dubious. So, rather than expanding our choice, it has sought to boost the turn-out by tinkering with the mechanics of voting. In doing so, it has also enhanced the opportunities for interfering in the way we vote.
Under the Representation of the People Act 2000, all electors are now entitled to apply for a postal vote, without presenting a reason for not turning up in person.1 Convenience voting appears to be working. About three times as many people (7.7% of the electorate) voted by post in the local elections last year as in previous ones.2 Encouraged by this success, the government has now scrapped the polling stations in 33 of the elections on Thursday3: 3.6 million people are no longer entitled to vote in person.4 If this approach is popular (and already, in places such as Rotherham and North Lincolnshire, the vote has beaten the entire turn-out in the last local elections5), it could be applied universally. British people might never need to enter a polling booth again. During last year’s local elections and the General Election of 2001, some candidates began to discover just how convenient the new voting can be.
The new technique for winning votes is simple, effective and legal. You pick up a stack of postal vote application forms, then walk from door to door asking voters to fill them in. You either leave the form with the voter or encourage her to complete it on the spot, then take it back and deliver it to the registry yourself. You come by this means to possess a list of the people who have applied to vote by post in your constituency. Postal voting forms are all sent out on the same day: to seek to govern the way that confused or vulnerable electors may vote, you merely need to arrive at their homes soon afterwards. Your conversation goes something like this.6
“Hello, I’m Algernon Scroggs, your Bring Back the Poll Tax Party candidate. I was just wondering whether you’d received your postal voting form.” “I don’t know. Is this it?” “Yes, that’s the one.” “What do I do with it?” “You put a cross next to the name of your favourite candidate. If, for example, you wanted to vote for me, you’d put your cross just there. Would you like to borrow my pen?” “Like this?” “Yes, that’s it. Shall I witness it for you?”
This approach has already proved to be devastatingly effective in old peoples’ homes and sheltered housing and among those who have difficulty with English. It is not hard to see how it can influence the decisions of people who either don’t understand what is happening or wish to oblige their authoritative visitor. If the candidate is already a councillor, and the voter lives in accommodation provided by the council, she can, if she doesn’t understand her legal rights, be made to feel concerned about the conditions of her tenancy, without any actual threat being issued. These are among the long-established reasons for the secret ballot. The secret ballot has just been thrown to the wind.
As ruthless parties in every British constituency wake up to these opportunities, elections will come to be decided less by people’s voting preferences than by the swiftness and the lack of scruples of the canvassers turning up on voters’ doorsteps. The universal postal votes the government is introducing permit party activists to follow the postman down the street, then hover over the voters as they fill in their forms.
The new procedures also introduce plenty of scope for criminality. The act permits candidates to gather up the postal votes and take them to the polling station: during the last local and general elections there were allegations from several constituencies that candidates had collected uncompleted postal voting forms from people who didn’t understand what they needed to do, and filled them in themselves. Electors may also request that their postal votes are sent to a different address: in places such as Birmingham, Bradford and Pendle, in Lancashire, candidates are alleged to have filled in the voters’ application forms themselves, ensuring that the voting slips were sent to their own addresses or those of their brothers or cousins or friends, then either forged the voters’ signatures or taken the forms to the voters’ houses. There they could bully them into voting on the spot, or pretend that they were collecting signatures for another purpose.7,8
The Electoral Commission’s response to these abuses is amazingly relaxed. It suggests that “candidates, agents and local party workers should not handle ballot papers”, but proposes that this be enforced by means of a voluntary code of conduct.9 Far from introducing restrictions on their distribution of application forms, it believes that the practice should be encouraged, because the hazards are outweighed by “the potential gains in terms of increased participation”.10 In the short-term, the aggressive pursuit of postal votes will, as it suggests, encourage participation, even if that participation is not entirely voluntary. But little could be better calculated to damage people’s faith in the electoral process – and, therefore, in the long-term, their turn-out at elections – than the perception that other people’s votes are being unfairly solicited.
There is no substitute for democratic choice. People will regain their interest in elections only when they see that there is something worth fighting for; that there are, in other words, either significant differences between the major parties or realistic opportunities for the minor ones. The gimmicks intended to encourage us to vote in increasingly pointless ballots will engender the very cynicism the government claims to be contesting.
1. Available at http://www.hmso.gov.uk/acts/acts2000/20000002.htm
2. The Electoral Commission, March 2003. Absent voting in Great Britain: report and recommendations.
4. Andrew Norfolk, 19th April 2003. Police and parties fear vote-rigging in council polls. The Times.
5. BBC Online, 26th April 2003. Vote’n’post given thumbs up. http://news.bbc.co.uk/1/hi/england/south_yorkshire/2978269.stm
6. From conversations with councillors and candidates.
7. Eg Jeevan Vasagar, 28th September 2002. Rigging doubts over postal ballots: Government scheme to improve turnouts could be exploited. The Guardian; Andrew Norfolk, ibid; Paul Waugh, 4th June 2001. Claims of postal ballot fraud to be investigated. The Independent. Martin Wainwright and Steven Morris, 2nd June 2001. Police investigate postal vote ‘coercion’ claims. The Guardian.
8. See also the reports and case studies at www.stolenvotes.org.uk
9. The Electoral Commission, ibid.