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Tim Archer: Why we need electoral reform – and it’s got nothing to do with AV

Tim Archer was the Conservative Parliamentary Candidate for Poplar and Limehouse at the 2010 General Election.  Tim is a Conservative Councillor in Tower Hamlets.

Screen shot 2010-09-16 at 17.30.11 The current debate about reform of the voting system is all very well and good, but many activists in certain parts of the country feel it somewhat misses the point; it’s not necessarily the system used to tally up who has won that is broken, but rather the underlying process itself.  It is this process of voting that is in need of urgent reform and that’s why Mark Harper’s recent announcement in the House of Commons that the Government will move to individual voter registration cannot happen soon enough.  But it’s only a start and more needs to be done to solve the problems our democracy is facing.

The Electoral Commission’s report into the 2010 General Election highlights some of the worries about our current voting system.  A quarter of Parliamentary Candidates surveyed had concerns about election fraud taking place in their constituency and 28% thought that voting was unsafe.  This is hardly a ringing endorsement for the status quo. 

The Commission also confirms that some 200,000 completed postal votes were rejected nationally following signature and date of birth checks.  That’s 5% of the total issued.  Whilst the Commission tries to play down the suggestion of fraud by claiming many of these will be genuine mistakes, it should also be borne in mind that only a minimum 20% of postal votes have to go through these additional fraud checks.

Tower Hamlets was certainly the place to be at the last election when it came to allegations of election fraud, but despite Tower Hamlets council alerting the Police to at least 10 instances of suspected fraud, the Police have recently announced that not a single case will be progressed.

In Tower Hamlets some 8,733 people were added to the electoral register in the 20 days of April before the final cut-off for the election.  That compares to just 3,566 electors that were added at the time of the annual canvass in December 2009.  A staggering 5% of the electoral register for the entire borough were added in just 12 working days.

Tower Hamlets is known for its overcrowding and currently has 221 homes where more than 8 people are registered to vote.  These include a number of infamous Labour party households.  For example, one Labour councillor who lives in a 3 bedroom property has 12 people registered to vote at his home– 7 of those were added on to the register in the month before the election.  His sister who lives locally has 13 voters in her flat, two brothers have 16 voters in their two flats and three cousins have a further 23 voters between their 3 flats.  That’s 64 voters in one family between 7 homes, all in Tower Hamlets.  Most of those were registered in the last 20 days before the election and had postal votes.

Tower Hamlets Council says it is powerless to act and is obliged to add these names onto the register unless it can prove that these people don’t actually live there.  The Police did investigate this claim but are taking no further action.  There are numerous cases elsewhere in the borough of up to 18 people being registered at the last minute as living in two bedroom flats and of course requiring postal votes.

Elections in Tower Hamlets and other urban areas demonstrate that our current system has three major flaws which are open to abuse.  Anyone can go on the electoral register, anyone can apply for a postal vote whether they need one or not and  ballot papers are given out at polling stations to people based on trusting they are who they say they are, rather than proving who they are.  Believe me, you have to provide more proof to borrow a library book in Tower Hamlets than you do to vote in one of its elections.  Moving to individual voter registration rather than household registration, combined with the need to provide a National Insurance number will help with the voter registration issue and the government now needs to implement this as soon as possible.

Tower Hamlets issued 24,898 postal ballots, that’s 25% of all the votes cast.  Why? For a few, a postal vote makes the difference between being able to cast your vote and not.  But a postal vote can also facilitate fraud and intimidation.  It’s hard to intimidate someone in a secret ballot where you can’t follow them into the polling booth.  It’s much easier though to turn up mob handed at someone’s door the day their postal vote has arrived and ‘help’ them fill it in.  Postal votes go missing in the post, take longer to count, are more expensive and increasingly, because of their complexity to complete, disenfranchise the very people who want to cast their vote in the first place.  My experience in Tower Hamlets has led me to conclude that we need to revert to the pre-2000 system of needing a reason to have a postal vote, something that Northern Ireland has already re-adopted.

Northern Ireland is an example of how our system can still work.  Clearly they’ve got their history which explains the extra checks, but then you speak to a Conservative Party activist in any inner-city area and they will share their concerns about our current voting system and the need for change.  In Northern Ireland your National Insurance number is required when you register to vote and you have to produce photographic ID when you go to vote at a polling station.  These measures combined with restricting on-demand postal votes, would curtail many of the opportunities for election fraud that are believed to be taking place in urban areas up and down the county.

Finally there is one more area of concern, the intimidation that goes on at polling stations themselves. In Tower Hamlets, we have seen party workers follow voters into polling stations and walk with them right up to the polling booth itself.  We have seen groups of up to 50 party workers congregate at the entrances to polling stations, literally pestering every passing voter.  I myself had to escort one elderly voter on polling day from her car to the entrance to the polling station.  She confided in me that she felt so intimidated, that were I not there she would not have voted.  The rules on behaviour at polling stations needs to be tightened up and of course enforced.

But does any of this really matter?  For a start true democracy is at stake here.  When you lose a council seat by just 33 votes, as we did in Wapping, the above shortcomings can clearly be enough to change the result.   Furthermore we have an election in October for Tower Hamlets’ first directly elected Mayor, which will take place using the same system with the same flaws as evidenced in the last election.

Finally, and most crucially, I suspect that many of the examples above will prove familiar to party workers up and down the country, especially in urban areas.   The real issue is how widespread this abuse is.  The answer to that, I believe, would prove a compelling case for a different type of voting reform.


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