General Election 2015 explained: Impropriety

Continuing our daily miscellany celebrating the facts, figures and folklore of British general elections

Tuesday 21 April 2015 20:13
A police officer outside a polling station in Tower Hamlets during last May’s local elections following accusations of voter intimidation in the area
A police officer outside a polling station in Tower Hamlets during last May’s local elections following accusations of voter intimidation in the area

Electoral Offences

Key electoral offences include: Undue influence – that is, using or threatening to use force, violence, restraint or injury to induce or compel any voter to vote or refrain from voting; Bribery – ie, giving money, or procuring any office to influence someone’s voting; Personation – where any individual votes as someone else; various deceptions relating to postal and proxy voting; Giving false information in nomination papers and in relation to registration; and Treating – giving, providing or paying for any food, drink, entertainment or provision in order to influence a voter. (Treating is the offence a Ukip candidate, Kim Rose, was accused of this month when he handed out sausage rolls at a community event in Southampton. He was interviewed by police but no further action was taken.)

At The Polling station

A Presiding Officer may order the arrest (by a police officer) of anyone who: interferes with, or attempts to interfere with, a voter while casting their vote; finds out, or attempts to find out, how someone has voted; tells anyone, or tries to tell anyone, the serial number of the ballot paper issued to a voter; persuades a voter to show them their ballot paper; wilfully defaces or destroys a ballot paper; takes a ballot paper out of the polling station; deliberately puts into a ballot box any paper other than the ballot paper issued to them; or (see below) is accused of “personation” by a candidate or an election or polling agent who will substantiate the charge in a court of law.


Presiding officers who suspect someone of personation are required to ask that person the “Prescribed Questions” (see below). Beyond that, there is little they can do, unless the suspect is accused by a candidate or election or polling agent who will substantiate the charge in a court of law – in which case the presiding officer may order a police officer to arrest the suspect. This may explain why no more than 12 allegations of personation were made in the 2005 general election.

Prosecutions for personation must be brought within 12 months of the alleged offence being committed.

If you suspect someone of personation while you are in the polling station, it is illegal to perform a citizen’s arrest on them.

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Prescribed Questions

If a Presiding Officer at a polling station has reason to suspect certain irregularities in the voting procedure he or she is required to ask the voter in question two “prescribed questions”.

The first question is: “Are you the person registered in the register of electors for this election as follows: [followed by the entry for that name on the register]?” If the would-be voter answers “No”, he or she cannot be issued with a ballot paper. If he or she answers “Yes”, the second question is asked.

The second question is: “Have you already voted here or elsewhere at this election otherwise than as a proxy for some other person?” If the answer is “Yes” then, again, no ballot paper can be issued. If the answer is “No”, the officer must issue a ballot paper. Depending on the nature of the suspected irregularity, this can be an ordinary ballot paper or a “tendered ballot paper” (see below).

The officer should ask the questions if he or she suspects someone of personation, or of being under-age or incapacitated by drink or drugs, or if the voter’s entry has already been marked on the electoral register; or if a candidate, an election agent or polling agent requests them.

The questions must be asked “precisely and calmly”.

Tendered Ballot Papers

If a voter is asked the Prescribed Questions and gives satisfactory answers, he or she must be issued with a ballot paper (even if the officer suspects the voter has lied).

In certain circumstances (eg, if a mark on the register suggests that that elector has already voted), this will not be an ordinary ballot paper. Rather, it will be a pink “tendered” ballot paper. This is not put in the ballot box but, instead, is endorsed by the presiding officer and placed in a separate official envelope.

The voter’s electoral number and name are recorded on a separate list.


There is no law against voting while drunk. None the less, a Presiding Officer who suspects you of being “incapacitated due to alcohol or drugs” must ask you the “prescribed questions” – unsatisfactory answers to which will prevent you from being issued with a ballot paper.


Under the 1729 bribery act, any voter can be required to swear a “bribery oath” confirming that he or she has not been bribed.

Electoral Fraud

More than 100 people have been found guilty of electoral malpractice in the UK in the past 20 years. Most of the convictions have involved postal or proxy ballots, usually at by-elections.

In 2010, according to the Electoral Commission’s most recent report on the subject, 232 cases of alleged electoral malpractice were reported to the police. Only one resulted in a conviction.

Of these, no further action was taken in 137 cases, while informal police advice was issued in 23 cases. Sixty-eight cases were still under investigation a year later. Formal cautions were issued in two cases, and there was one conviction.

In 2012 there were nine cases of alleged proxy voting fraud recorded by the police. None of these resulted in a conviction.

In a report last year, the Electoral Commission identified the following local authority areas as being at particular risk of electoral fraud: Birmingham; Blackburn with Darwen; Bradford; Burnley; Calderdale; Coventry; Derby; Hyndburn; Kirklees; Oldham; Pendle; Peterborough; Slough; Tower Hamlets; Walsall; Woking.

The Electoral Commission has been campaigning for many years for voters to be required to produce some form of proof of identity when voting.

Such a change is expected to be in place by 2019.

Tomorrow: No.10 - Jargon

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