Mary Dejevsky: We're not above tolerating a bit of electoral malpractice ourselves



In a week that opened with reports of widespread fraud in Russia's presidential election, I feel obliged to point out that, for all their preaching about the conduct of democracy, Western countries are not all squeaky clean when it comes to voting. Canada is currently embroiled in a scandal related to automated cold-calling (robocalling) that apparently sent some voters to the wrong polling stations, potentially favouring the Conservatives in last year's general election.

In the United States, John McCain was cheated out of the Republican nomination in 2000, by highly personal and utterly scurrilous campaign methods. And even if you allow that the US election of 2000 was exceptional in requiring a recount in West Palm Beach, Florida, which proved physically impossible to perform – remember those chads? – the US has elevated gerrymandering to a fine art, even before anyone sets foot in a polling station.

The real Achilles heel of US elections, though, is voter registration. One of the high points of the Civil Rights movement was the drive to register black voters – Bill and Hillary Clinton were among many student volunteers. Even now, some places do their utmost to disenfranchise (predominantly Democrat) black voters by ensuring that the stations are hard to get to and that ex-prisoners are not reinstated on the rolls when their disqualification is spent. Russia was paradoxically complimented by international observers on the quality of its electoral rolls.

What may be less appreciated is that voter registration also leaves something to be desired here. For the best part of a year, I have been receiving emails from a laudable outfit called Unlock Democracy, whose name says everything anyone needs to know.

It is warning about a change in the registration procedure that will require every voter to sign his or her form, provide date of birth and National Insurance number. Before, only the head of the household had to sign.

The campaigners' argument is that the change – to be phased in by 2015 – could reduce registrations by as much as 10 per cent – which is what happened when a similar system was introduced in Northern Ireland – and place whole groups, for instance, ethnic minorities, at a disadvantage.

I must admit, though, that this particular campaign is wasted on me. In so far as recent UK elections have been found to be defective, it is the household registration system that is abused. If registration falls as a result of new checks, this may well be because it has been fraudulently inflated. And for voters who can't sign their name, well, you might ask how much sense they ever made of the ballot paper.

If it's such a good service, show me!

Few things annoy me more than the loudspeaker announcements on the London Underground that say: "We have a good service on all lines". It annoys me, first, because a good service, at least on the now-misleadingly named Circle Line, appears to mean once every 10 minutes, which is a good deal fewer than the 2- or 3-minute frequency on many other lines. That means quite a wait if you've just missed one. The definition of a good service is, therefore, relative – though I dare say it locks into some target/performance/bonus scheme for someone.

Mostly, it annoys me, though, because I don't think it is for the providers to judge whether the service is good. They're free to say that the Tube is running normally, or that there are no delays (granting that the official definition of "delay" seems rather elastic, compared with mine). But to say there's a good service? Thank you. I'll be the judge of that. And for most passengers, at least on the strange loop that now constitutes the Circle Line, I'll bet it would be a very rare accolade indeed.

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