The Electoral Commission and police have just published a report into the allegations of electoral malpractice for the elections held in June 2009. What does this report show about the state of our electoral system?
The good news is that the headline figures for the number of allegations and convictions are relatively modest:
- A total of 48 cases involving 107 allegations were recorded by police forces across Great Britain.
- The largest single case in Great Britain involved allegations that 24 photocopied ballot papers were sent to a Returning Officer in Aylesbury.
- A total of 38 cases (79% of all reported cases) involved only one allegation against a single individual.
Less good is the degree to which time continues to be consumed and hassle generated by imprint issues. Just under one in five of all cases were about imprints. The occasional imprint case involves (alleged) serious abuse – passing off a leaflet as if it were from another party – but many involve simple clerical errors with not only no intent to deceive but with it being clear who the published material was from and how to contact the publisher/promoter.
It is a reminder that good intentions are not enough to keep election agents free from police cautions – or worse – but it is hard to see how this ends up being a good use of time for the police and CPS.
That is particularly so because other, more serious, cases can take a long time to be resolved. At the time of the report, just over a third of cases are still under police investigation or awaiting a decision by the CPS (Crown Office in Scotland). For allegations to be left hanging in the air so long after an election has concluded is highly unsatisfactory.
Of course, electoral law is by no means the only area of law to suffer from this problem and it is an oddity of the tough on crime rhetoric of the last few decades that speeding up the exercise of justice almost never features. Perhaps in part that is because the big losers are the innocent people who have police investigations or charges hanging over them for months and years, with the hurt, anger, disruption and depression that often goes with that. But the hurt and damage done to people who turn out to be innocent is only rarely talked about.
Both the question of imprint allegations clogging up the system and the speed of justice problems are not new and the 2009 round of elections does not seem to have thrown up any new problems or trends in electoral fraud.
With the measures taken over the last few years against postal vote fraud having had a good impact in most areas, the main danger for the future looks to be personation (stealing someone’s vote by turning up to the polling station and pretending to be them). Over a quarter of all cases and nearly half of all allegations arising from the June 2009 elections related to personation.
A plan to try tackling personation by requiring people to sign for their ballot papers (which would provide a paper trail, including fingerprints, to help track down fraud as well as providing an extra security check) was previously abandoned in farcical circumstances. Although the law allowed polling station staff to ask for a signature, due to faulty drafting they would still have had to hand over a ballot paper even if someone refused to sign. Hence signing for ballot papers is still stuck in the starting blocks.