Oliver Wright: Toothless and, sadly, the useless side of ruthless

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One might reasonably assume a body called the Electoral Commission would be responsible for elections. You might also think that with a budget of £30m a year, such a Commission would have the resources and powers to deal with electoral fraud. Sadly, you'd be wrong. For a variety of reasons, a decade on from its establishment, the Electoral Commission is not fit for purpose. Part of the problem is in its remit, hampered severely by Britain's hotchpotch 19th-century electoral system.

Under present laws, the returning officer for each of the country's 650 constituencies and local council areas reign supreme in their fiefdoms. They cannot be challenged, sacked or disciplined by the Commission – only "guided". It also has no powers to investigate electoral fraud or the integrity of the electoral register.

If anyone complains to them they pass on concerns with no power or interest in determining whether the problem has been resolved satisfactorily. Returning officers themselves don't have the resources either. They tend to pass allegations of fraud directly to the police.

Electoral fraud is also hard to prove to the standards needed to bring a successful prosecution. It is little wonder that in a report earlier this year it emerged that of 224 cases of alleged voter malpractice, only one – an allegation of voter personation at a polling station – resulted in court proceedings. But that does not excuse the Commission. It needs to fight loudly and publicly to bring the electoral system into the 21st century, but hasn't done so. It fails to use the considerable bully pulpit it has to improve things – preferring instead to make excuses about why it can't.

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