This year, five councils ran Voter ID pilots designed to crack down on voter fraud – in this case impersonation, where someone votes pretending to be someone else. None of these five pilot areas had seen an allegation of impersonation in the previous decade.
Electoral Commission data shows that in 2017, of the 45 million votes cast, there were 28 allegations of impersonation – that is one for every 1.6 million votes cast.
That rather begs the question: what problem are we trying to solve?
The Association of Electoral Administrators (AeA) reviewed the 2017 local government and 2017 UK parliamentary General Elections. Their report, endorsed by the Society of Local Authority Chief Executives (SOLACE), called for urgent Government action, stating: ‘Without positive and urgent action, we are concerned that the many weaknesses and contradictions identified in current systems and procedures will cause the system to further fracture and fail.’
When that failure happens, of course, public trust in the democratic process is derailed.
I am clear that, as a returning officer, it is my personal responsibility to ensure a safe, secure, transparent democratic process in which the public and political parties can have confidence.
The AeA report made 33 recom-mendations to ensure the safety and security of the electoral system, some of which had been made before and which had not been actioned. Not one of the recommendations related to impersonation.
Top among AeA’s recommendations were issues to deal with the integrity of the electoral register and the problems caused by having to deal with unprecedented numbers of duplicate registration requests, which should be fixed relatively easily with a bit of wit, wisdom and technology.
The AeA urged Government to act with more haste than ever before and in good time for the 2022 General Election.
This month the Electoral Reform Society produced new polling data which showed that with voters, personation did not feature high on their list of concerns.
Like the AeA and SOLACE, the top public concern was an accurate voting register (56%). This was followed by balanced media coverage (52%), elections free from big donors (48%), elections well managed with information widely available (46%) and elections monitored and observed for security (46%).
Data shows without question that voter fraud via impersonation is not remotely widespread. Those charged with running elections smoothly have many urgent requests for action and this is not one of them. Nor is this an issue of public confidence in our electoral systems.
There is no evidence of a problem that needs solving. That said, Voter Identification requirements are widespread in other democracies, so shouldn’t we be doing it here nonetheless?
If Parliament wills it, then it is our job to make it work, but it won’t come cheap. Doing this properly to ensure maximum enfranchisement would suggest that we follow the Northern Ireland experience and go for voter identification cards. That is a significant cost. Then, add in staff training costs, public awareness, IT costs and there will be a significant price tag for the country.
In a world where there is no clear plan for council financing, local government has suffered huge cuts in budgets. That means potholes are not filled, homelessness is rising, care is pared back, essential services have been cut, transport has been stopped, councils are veering towards bankruptcy and demand for adult and children’s services are through the roof, so prioritising voter identification implementation costs is an interesting position to take.
I am not alone in thinking that there are more pressing problems to be solved. I am sure.
What about my returning officer duties and ensuring maximum enfranchisement? Is my presiding officer, who has known Mrs Norah Jones for 10 years, really meant to deny her a ballot paper because she has failed to bring along identification requirements?
You can bet this will be a significant issue. And what happens when an election petition against a returning officer is brought because the numbers of voters turned away for lack of identification, though their identity was known, has changed the outcome of an election? Beware the law of unintended consequences.
I venture that of all the problems to be solved right now and electorally, our systems are stretched wafer thin, this is a sideshow. Nor would this top my list for investment in cash-starved public services.
Jo Miller is chief executive of Doncaster MBC and president of SOLACE (Society of Local Authority Chief Executives)