Government's postal vote proposals fall well short of the mark
The number of investigations into postal vote fraud in the UK has reached 25 in 19 constituencies. In the city of Bradford alone, 252 allegations of fraud have been made.
In response, the Government has outlined legislation to tighten security. The measures include:
- A new offence of fraudulently applying for a postal vote, which mean up to five years in jail - this is welcome but useless without the resources and means for electoral officers and police to investigate fraud.
- Preventing candidates and party officials from handling postal vote applications - good. This is common sense and it is staggering that this was legal before the election.
- Increasing the time election administrators have to check postal voting applications by extending the deadline from six to 11 days - given how much is on their plate in the run-up to the election, this extension is not enough.
- Making it harder to forge ballot papers by using barcodes - with scores of computer programs out there that can produce barcodes and cheap high-quality printing, this is a cosmetic change at best.
- Using signatures and dates of birth as additional verifiers - as signatures can be faked (and there is no existing register of them), and one's date of birth is rarely a secret, neither of these measures will guarantee fraud will be cut. This is especially pertinent as (see below) registration will still be done at the household level.
The Consitutional Affairs secretary, Lord Falconer, has defended keeping the household register, saying: "If we had separate registration forms for everybody would that reduce the number who register?". He cited Northern Ireland as an example where it has. But he misses the point completely - it doesn't matter if the number of registered people falls. What matters is whether the number of people who are eligible for a vote falls. Given the current registers are flawed and almost certainly over-state the number of people eligible, a fall is to be expected.
The question the Government needs to be asking is "does this system deny a secret, secure vote from people who are eligible for it?". Household registration, as outlined above, can. However, individual registration does not deny the vote to anyone who actually has the right to it. And by removing fraudulent votes, it will improve the quality of the votes that eligible citizens cast. Making applications for the vote more secure does not threaten to disenfranchise people - it does the precise opposite.