The UK’s former communities secretary, Eric Pickles, ended 2016 by claiming the mantle of defender of British democracy. To combat electoral fraud in local government he called for new controls to guarantee the probity of voting in municipal elections. Most notably, this would mean the requirement of voters to produce photographic ID before they are allowed into a polling booth.
The proposals were dismissed by some as using “a sledgehammer to crack a nut”. But that metaphor may actually be too generous. The intended target of the reforms may be missed altogether, while the collateral damage to British elections could be significant. Pickles’s sledgehammer is more like a blunderbuss.
The Tory MP argued that recent episodes of electoral fraud in local contests illustrate a wider problem of corruption whereby votes are cast in other people’s names. He proposes that in future, in certain areas, voters should present documentary identification prior to voting at the polling station.
It is true that there have been episodes of electoral fraud in recent years, and, as Mr Pickles states, in strongly diverse communities. One resulted in the unseating of three Birmingham councillors in 2005 for the mishandling of postal ballots “on an industrial scale”. And a directly-elected mayor in a London borough was accused of falsifying postal vote applications and manipulating voters through community leaders in 2015. But the rarity of these cases demonstrates that Pickles’s proposals are based on an exaggeration of the situation, and likely to be welcomed by divisive extremists.
Nowhere has personation (falsely claiming a voter’s identity) at the polling station been widespread enough to undermine the credibility of a British local election. A House of Commons briefing paper found that the majority of the 224 allegations electoral fraud made to police in 2011 had not been substantiated. And most of those that had been concerned a failure to print agents’ details on posters, or claims of false information issued by candidates. There was only one case of personation that had been the subject of any court proceedings.
Pickles’s proposals for dealing with this supposed problem range from the obstructive to the ineffective, and are mostly impracticable without considerable extra public investment. In all cases they are likely to diminish still further the already shrinking community of municipal voters.
Voters would apparently have to identify themselves using documents such as a passport or driving licence – but these documents are not possessed by all adults. Pickles has also suggested a “voter ID card” might be made available at taxpayers’ expense in the small number of areas where he wants to pilot this idea. But this would exclude those people not determined enough to acquire the card, retain it and then remember it on polling day.
First past the postal vote
A far greater potential menace to fair procedure in elections is actually postal voting. Postal (or as it was once known, “absent”) voting was originally used only for members of the armed services overseas, or for others whose occupations made it impossible for them to vote in person. In the 1950s this was extended to those prevented by disability from getting to the polling station. Until 2000, though, the postal vote was for those who could not, rather than chose not, to get there. After 1945 it never accounted for more than 2.6% of votes cast.
Then the Blair government made postal voting an on-demand choice for all voters in the hope of improving sluggish voter turnout. Postal voting surged to represent over 15% of votes cast, yet turnout overall fell from 71% to 59%. It was after this that the electoral fraud cases came. It would be unfortunately ironic if Pickles’s measures deterred voters from actually going to the polling station while leaving the more vulnerable option of the postal vote open to anybody who asked (or appeared to ask) for it.
There is a last, potentially sinister twist to Pickles’s proposals. The current idea is that only in 18 authorities will this identification requirement be imposed – all with unusually high ethnic minority populations, mainly Muslim. Pickles makes no apology for pointing to the “vulnerability of some South Asian communities, specifically those with roots in parts of Pakistan or Bangladesh, to electoral fraud”. He accuses those running elections of “turning a blind eye” out of “political correctness.” He is also pressing for documentary proof of nationality to prevent immigrants voting in local elections.
Election Commissioner Richard Mawrey pointedly told the High Court in unseating the mayor of Tower Hamlets: “This is not the consequence of the racial and religious mix of the population.” But the association drawn by Pickles between these communities and electoral fraud, might be regarded by the far right as an acknowledgement of racist sentiments, and by segregationist Islamists as proof of the official persecution they claim their community suffers.
For the great majority of British citizens, regrettably, it will just be seen as another reason not to vote in elections in these areas.