Leading article: Our democratic process needs better safeguards

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

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

Recruitment Genius: Project Implementation Executive

£18000 - £23000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: They work with major vehicle ma...

Recruitment Genius: Chiropractic Assistant

£16500 per annum: Recruitment Genius: A Chiropractic Assistant is needed in a ...

Recruitment Genius: Digital Account Executive - Midlands

£18000 - £26000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: They work with major vehicle ma...

Recruitment Genius: Web Developer

£28000 - £30000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This company provides coaching ...

Day In a Page

Read Next

Errors & Omissions: how to spell BBQ and other linguistic irregularities

Guy Keleny

South Africa's race problem is less between black and white than between poor blacks and immigrants from sub-Saharan Africa

John Carlin
NHS struggling to monitor the safety and efficacy of its services outsourced to private providers

Who's monitoring the outsourced NHS services?

A report finds that private firms are not being properly assessed for their quality of care
Zac Goldsmith: 'I'll trigger a by-election over Heathrow'

Zac Goldsmith: 'I'll trigger a by-election over Heathrow'

The Tory MP said he did not want to stand again unless his party's manifesto ruled out a third runway. But he's doing so. Watch this space
How do Greek voters feel about Syriza's backtracking on its anti-austerity pledge?

How do Greeks feel about Syriza?

Five voters from different backgrounds tell us what they expect from Syriza's charismatic leader Alexis Tsipras
From Iraq to Libya and Syria: The wars that come back to haunt us

The wars that come back to haunt us

David Cameron should not escape blame for his role in conflicts that are still raging, argues Patrick Cockburn
Sam Baker and Lauren Laverne: Too busy to surf? Head to The Pool

Too busy to surf? Head to The Pool

A new website is trying to declutter the internet to help busy women. Holly Williams meets the founders
Heston Blumenthal to cook up a spice odyssey for British astronaut manning the International Space Station

UK's Major Tum to blast off on a spice odyssey

Nothing but the best for British astronaut as chef Heston Blumenthal cooks up his rations
John Harrison's 'longitude' clock sets new record - 300 years on

‘Longitude’ clock sets new record - 300 years on

Greenwich horologists celebrate as it keeps to within a second of real time over a 100-day test
Fears in the US of being outgunned in the vital propaganda wars by Russia, China - and even Isis - have prompted a rethink on overseas broadcasters

Let the propaganda wars begin - again

'Accurate, objective, comprehensive': that was Voice of America's creed, but now its masters want it to promote US policy, reports Rupert Cornwell
Why Japan's incredible long-distance runners will never win the London Marathon

Japan's incredible long-distance runners

Every year, Japanese long-distance runners post some of the world's fastest times – yet, come next weekend, not a single elite competitor from the country will be at the London Marathon
Why does Tom Drury remain the greatest writer you've never heard of?

Tom Drury: The quiet American

His debut was considered one of the finest novels of the past 50 years, and he is every bit the equal of his contemporaries, Jonathan Franzen, Dave Eggers and David Foster Wallace
You should judge a person by how they peel a potato

You should judge a person by how they peel a potato

Dave Hax's domestic tips are reminiscent of George Orwell's tea routine. The world might need revolution, but we like to sweat the small stuff, says DJ Taylor
Beige is back: The drab car colours of the 1970s are proving popular again

Beige to the future

Flares and flounce are back on catwalks but a revival in ’70s car paintjobs was a stack-heeled step too far – until now
Bill Granger recipes: Our chef's dishes highlight the delicate essence of fresh cheeses

Bill Granger cooks with fresh cheeses

More delicate on the palate, milder, fresh cheeses can also be kinder to the waistline
Aston Villa vs Liverpool: 'This FA Cup run has been wonderful,' says veteran Shay Given

Shay Given: 'This FA Cup run has been wonderful'

The Villa keeper has been overlooked for a long time and has unhappy memories of the national stadium – but he is savouring his chance to play at Wembley
Timeless drama of Championship race in league of its own - Michael Calvin

Michael Calvin's Last Word

Timeless drama of Championship race in league of its own