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Saturday, May 31, 2014

A flawed voting system?

Whilst we all recover from the European and English Council elections, it is worth reflecting on what lessons we can learn from the fiasco at Tower Hamlets. Over at the Telegraph, Charles Moore does precisely that and concludes that we are focussing on engagement rather than on making votes trustworthy:

Our modern democratic system dates from 1872 when the secret ballot was introduced. The modern system of unrestricted postal voting almost reverses that great step forward. After the 1872 Act, voting became a private act, performed in public. Today, in postal voting, it is all too often a public act, though performed in private. There is no protection of its secrecy and therefore nothing to stop its manipulation. Another big problem is “personation” – voting at the polling station as someone else. It is actually illegal to ask a voter to produce proof of identity at the poll, so personation is well-nigh undetectable.

You would have thought politicians would be worried. They are rightly alarmed by public disillusionment with politics. If the nuts and bolts of democracy shake loose, that disillusionment will be complete. Yet the parties seem to be facing the other way. All of them voted for the extension of postal voting. They seem obsessed with the question of “engagement” – getting more people to take part. They neglect the integrity of the process itself.

He also calls into question the role of the Electoral Commission with a commentary that reinforces my view that the body is not fit for purpose:

The Electoral Commission is the body supposed to ensure that all is well with British voting. But if you look at its remit and pronouncements, you will see that it focuses more on engagement than on making votes trustworthy. In a speech in March, its chairman, Jenny Watson, seemed preoccupied with the need to “modernise”. “As a society, we are at risk,” she said clumsily, “of how we ask people to engage with our electoral system… becoming increasingly disconnected from how they interact with both each other and with other institutions, from their banking arrangements to their weekly shop.” The system needed to be “more reflective of the wider society”. She said how nice it would be if people could register to vote on the actual day of the election. She played down issues of fraud. She praised the work of pressure groups, such as Operation Black Vote (OBV), which try to get new voters. She did not praise anyone who checks that registered voters are true ones.

Miss Watson is right that we expect things to be quicker nowadays, but if you think about it, modern society actually makes far more demands for proof of identity than in the past. Try getting on an internal flight, or buying a drink if you are young, or hiring a car, to see what I mean. Some of this is irksome, but the essential point is that the transaction matters, and so it should be accurate and legal. Jenny Watson mentioned banking. Would it be good if you could walk in, or write off, to demand a bank account and get one without proving who you were? No, but you can get the vote that way.

His conclusion that an electoral system without clean voting quickly becomes like a hospital with MRSA is one that should worry us all.
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