There’s more to Eric Pickles’s report into electoral fraud than the title suggests

A long list of recommendations should always have a careful reader diving for the details to see quite what is lurking in the list. So here’s my dive into Eric Pickles’s “review into electoral fraud” which comes complete with a long list of 50 recommendations, and a list moreover which justifies my use of quote marks around the purported purpose of the Pickles review because some of the recommendations are either not really about fraud or not solely about fraud. The lack of detailed evidence behind the recommendations might also lead the sceptical to think that headline emphasis on tackling fraud is really being used as a cover for other political agendas.

But first, let’s clear out the less contentious and clearer recommendations.

One bundle is all about making it easier for people or parties to challenge election results, by reforming the convoluted, difficult and expensive petition system. This includes making it easier for a Returning Officer to challenge their own result, which would remove the current absurd situation where when an error is spotted there is no simple legal route to rectifying it. These sorts of reforms have all been called for by numerous parties for decades. Long time readers of this site who have read about some of my previous submissions to electoral reviews over the years will have seen this issue crop up regularly – and, so far, without action. The benefits of these reforms are not simply restricted to cases of electoral fraud, but if this new report gives this long-sidelined area of reform a boost, that is good news.

A second bundle is about dealing with in-person intimidation at or near polling stations, something which has been a growing problem in (so far) a limited number of places. Steps such as making it easier to prosecute for intimidation and banning the (potentially intimidatory) taking of photographs inside polling stations all make sense.

Another bundle is about tightening up the rules around specific ways of voting that could be open to fraud, such as the emergency late proxy application process. However what is notable about this bundle of reforms is that they cover means of fraud which are not amenable to mass fraud. Stealing one person’s vote is bad, and elections should be run in a way to protect them. It is also, though, very unlikely to alter the result of an election. If there is a problem with serious fraud endangering election results, as Eric Pickles and his supporters frequently imply, then it is odd to spend so much of the report on tackling possible individual problems which – if they happen (and the report is very light on any evidence to this effect) – are not suitable for fraud on a sufficiently widespread scale to steal an election. So this bundle is meh – not bad, but unclear if it would actually fix any real problems, and if those problems do exist they are small scale.

There is also a bundle of detailed, sensible reforms, such as better guarding against mass electoral registration applications from the same computer. Likewise the idea of creating a new register which people who are legally entitled to live in Britain but who are not entitled to vote could join. This would ease their ability to apply for credit, get a mobile phone and so on – and remove the temptation, whether triggered by deliberate mischief or simply confusion, to join the electoral register even though they are not entitled to.

Then there are the reforms which are really about curbing the Electoral Commission. The need to ensure that Returning Officers do their job well, for example, hasn’t been translated in the Pickles review into giving the Electoral Commission extra oomph over recommending financial fines on Returning Officers when they fail to do their job. Instead the Pickles Report recommends changes that take powers away from the Electoral Commission, such as involving completely new bodies (Local Government / Public Services Ombudsman) in handling complaints over electoral administration.

These recommendations are not based on a clear evidence-based and closely argued view about why fragmenting responsibility amongst a larger number of bodies is desirable (especially odd given that the current election expenses investigations highlight the problems of fragmentation with the Electoral Commission responsible for only some of the issues). Instead, this looks more like a continuation of the Conservative Party’s dislike of the Electoral Commission via other means.

Then there are the two recommendations that could have a widespread impact on honest voters: requiring ID to be shown when you vote and abolishing permanent postal votes (allowing instead applications to last for no more than three years). Other evidence about turnout suggests that making voting harder in these ways is likely to reduce turnout, and that it will reduce turnout in way that benefits the Conservatives over Labour. (The likely net effect for the Liberal Democrats one way or the other is minimal.)

So are these carefully thought through recommendations, based on clear evidence both that there is a problem and that these steps are the best, or least worst, way of tackling it? Not really. Indeed the report itself, for example, quotes research from 2015 showing that over 99% of polling station staff thought there had not been any issue with personation at their polling station.

Which makes it look like, as with reducing the role of the Electoral Commission, these recommendations are infused with partisan self-interest rather than simply being about tackling fraud.

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