Monday, 12 November 2012

Is vote fraud a price Cameron is happy to pay?

One of the practices that has risen up the news agenda in recent years has been vote fraud. The level of ballot manipulation has risen - partly due to changes to make it easier to vote by post - and politicians and commentators have also started to take more notice of the problem that has always existed.

For all that some people would have you believe that we live in a perfect system, there has always been electoral fraud in the UK and the law is frequently changed to try to stamp it out. We have adopted the secret ballot and abolished rotten boroughs. We have also tried to stamp out intimidation and group voting.

But one issue that has become more prevalent has been fraud involving postal votes. In the past, a postal vote was only issued for cause - in other words if an elector was ill or away from home on polling day. Then the Labour government introduced postal voting on demand. I think they did so for good reason - turnout was falling and they were trying to make it easier to vote.

But taking ballot papers out of the supervision of election officials increases the risk of fraud. And there were cases of significant fraud taking place. The Birmingham case (where the judge described the system as being like a banana republic) was the most high profile, but there were many others.

One way to combat fraud of this type (and other frauds too) is to introduce individual voter registration. Instead of a 'head of household' filling in a voter registration form on behalf of the whole household, each elector will have to fill in their own form. This allows for personal identifier - signatures or dates of birth or NI numbers - to be collected. Then, when a person applied for a postal vote, officials can check to ensure it is really the voter themself making the application. We already check that the person who returns the ballot paper is the person who applied for it - but that doesn't help if it was fraud in both cases.

This is a significant step in the right direction for UK democracy. But it is all at risk because David Cameron won't let the Bill be debated in the House of Lords. It is a government bill which has already been debated in the Commons and passed two Lords hurdles - so why the problem?

The issue is that Lib Dem peer Chris Rennard has tabled an amendment to rule out boundary changes until 2018. Cameron is worried that this amendment will be passed and he will lose any chance of the Conservatives' 20 seat bonus that they expect from the boundary review (the review that will also introduce a Devonwall seat, by the way).

Cameron has already tried a 'cash for constituencies' deal with the Lib Dems by offering party funding reform in return for the new seats. But Nick Clegg has refused to play ball. Now he is apparently trying to cobble a deal together with the SNP, Plaid Cymru and DUP.

In the meantime, whilst Cameron tries his best to get his new seats, he is delaying legislation that will help to prevent vote fraud. According to reports by Paul Waugh from this morning's Number 10 lobby briefing, the Prime Minister might even be trying to declare the bill to be a financial one in order to assert the right of the Commons to pass it without Lords interference. Sounds to me like the nationalists have told him where he can stick his deal.

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