Leading article: Our democratic process needs better safeguards

The Electoral Commission is a watchdog that has a remarkable propensity not to bark

Share
Related Topics

When voters arrive at polling stations in the London borough of Tower Hamlets today, they will find a police officer. Police will also be patrolling polling stations elsewhere. For all the hue and cry about anti-aircraft missiles positioned on high-rise East End roofs, these measures have nothing to do with advance security for the Olympics. They reflect growing fears about electoral fraud. And there is room for considerably more alarm here than is apparent at the Electoral Commission – a watchdog with a remarkable propensity not to bark.

Not so long ago, this country was an acknowledged leader in the integrity of its democratic process, and we still send emissaries around the world preaching the benefits of well-run elections and observing flaws in other people's votes. We take a perverse pride in the simplicity of our secret, pencil-and-paper ballot and our manual counts. We see electoral fraud as something that happens in Russia and Zimbabwe, not in advanced countries such as ours.

This complacency is unwarranted. The British electoral process has weak points, which have become weaker over the years. One is the conspicuous laxness – by the best international standards – of our registration process; another relates to the huge rise in postal voting. Separately and together, these two shortcomings have raised doubts about the validity of the vote in some places. While the number of elections where the result has been found actually to have been rigged remains thankfully small, the extent to which elections have been influenced may well have been underestimated, along with the potential for manipulation in future.

True, the most obvious failures in the registration system are being remedied. Compared with, for instance, opening a bank account – where the identity checks often seem excessive – scandalously little is required of would-be voters. The say-so of a "head of household" suffices – with penalties advertised for those who fail to register everyone living at that address, rather than for those who register too many (which now seems the greater problem).

From 2014 – why so long? – each first-time voter will have to produce proof of identity and a signature to qualify for a vote. This has democracy campaigners worried that some of those entitled to vote – women in Asian households are cited – could be disenfranchised. Efforts must be made to prevent this. But the proliferation of phantom votes is a proven danger that has to be addressed.

If the good news is that this Government is trying to improve the registration process, the bad news is that it appears insouciant, to say the least, about the downside of increased postal voting. It was the last government that extended the right to a postal vote, in the hope of increasing turnout in general, and Labour turnout in particular. While a qualified numerical success, the bigger postal vote has created problems of its own. It is not clear that all postal voters actually exist or, if they do, are entitled to a vote. And it is all too easy for votes – real or fraudulent – to be "harvested" by supporters of a particular candidate, who may exert financial or clan pressure to secure their goal.

The Electoral Commission appears to have put little or no pressure on the Government to change this. And while the police and local authorities have been more assiduous in advance of today's elections about checking on multiple voters registered at one address, this is a costly remedy for a problem that would not exist if registration were harder and postal votes had not been distributed so generously. Some might say that it is to Britain's credit that we take the honesty of our elections for granted. Regrettably, that reflects a national naivety we can no longer afford.

React Now

Latest stories from i100
iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Graduate / Junior C# Developer

£18000 - £25000 Per Annum + bonus and benefits: Clearwater People Solutions Lt...

IT Project manager - Web E-commerce

£65000 Per Annum Benefits + bonus: Clearwater People Solutions Ltd: If you are...

DT Teacher - Food Technology & CACHE

£24000 - £36000 per annum + pre 12 week AWR : Randstad Education Manchester Se...

Female PE Teacher

£85 - £125 per day: Randstad Education Chester: Job Opportunity for Secondary ...

Day In a Page

Read Next
 

i Editor's Letter: Take a moment to imagine you're Ed Miliband...

Oliver Duff Oliver Duff
The longer David Sedaris had his Fitbit, the further afield his walks took him through the West Sussex countryside  

Autumn’s subtle charm is greatly enhanced by this Indian summer

Michael McCarthy
Secret politics of the weekly shop

The politics of the weekly shop

New app reveals political leanings of food companies
Beam me up, Scottie!

Beam me up, Scottie!

Celebrity Trekkies from Alex Salmond to Barack Obama
Beware Wet Paint: The ICA's latest ambitious exhibition

Beware Wet Paint

The ICA's latest ambitious exhibition
Pink Floyd have produced some of rock's greatest ever album covers

Pink Floyd have produced some of rock's greatest ever album covers

Can 'The Endless River' carry on the tradition?
Sanctuary for the suicidal

Sanctuary for the suicidal

One mother's story of how London charity Maytree helped her son with his depression
A roller-coaster tale from the 'voice of a generation'

Not That Kind of Girl:

A roller-coaster tale from 'voice of a generation' Lena Dunham
London is not bedlam or a cradle of vice. In fact it, as much as anywhere, deserves independence

London is not bedlam or a cradle of vice

In fact it, as much as anywhere, deserves independence
Vivienne Westwood 'didn’t want' relationship with Malcolm McLaren

Vivienne Westwood 'didn’t want' relationship with McLaren

Designer 'felt pressured' into going out with Sex Pistols manager
Jourdan Dunn: Model mother

Model mother

Jordan Dunn became one of the best-paid models in the world
Apple still coolest brand – despite U2 PR disaster

Apple still the coolest brand

Despite PR disaster of free U2 album
Scottish referendum: The Yes vote was the love that dared speak its name, but it was not to be

Despite the result, this is the end of the status quo

Boyd Tonkin on the fall-out from the Scottish referendum
Manolo Blahnik: The high priest of heels talks flats, Englishness, and why he loves Mary Beard

Manolo Blahnik: Flats, Englishness, and Mary Beard

The shoe designer who has been dubbed 'the patron saint of the stiletto'
The Beatles biographer reveals exclusive original manuscripts of some of the best pop songs ever written

Scrambled eggs and LSD

Behind The Beatles' lyrics - thanks to Hunter Davis's original manuscript copies
'Normcore' fashion: Blending in is the new standing out in latest catwalk non-trend

'Normcore': Blending in is the new standing out

Just when fashion was in grave danger of running out of trends, it only went and invented the non-trend. Rebecca Gonsalves investigates
Dance’s new leading ladies fight back: How female vocalists are now writing their own hits

New leading ladies of dance fight back

How female vocalists are now writing their own hits