Voter Suppression?

The Guardian reports that the electoral commission have announced that they propose to extending proof of identity checks at the polling station from Northern Ireland to the rest of the UK. This has been a while coming. I reviewed Mike Buckley’s Banana Republic UK, in which he argued that, proof of Identity should be presented when voting and/or applying for a postal vote,
identity checks should be undertaken when applying for inclusion on the electoral roll & postal votes should be restricted to those who have a need. His arguments also strongly suggest that judicial scrutiny of contested or suspicious results should be easier to start.

At the moment, Election Courts can only be requisitioned by a candidate; whose investigative ability is constrained by law and budget, and they have to underwrite the cost of an unsuccessful hearing. Buckley also quoted previous reviews from the European Council and Commonwealth obeservers . I summarise his polemic as follows,

The European Council has investigated both the UK elections and “Remote” and Electronic voting throughout Europe and Buckley deals with their report sensitively and finds a quote agreeing with his thesis that both the construction of the electoral register and the lack of systemic security around the postal voting system, together with permitting postal votes on demand permit vulnerabilities to remain.

While the Law has been amended to improve the administration of the postal vote it remains the most vulnerable part of the election system; ballot papers leave the custody of the election officials and the secrecy and validity of the vote can no longer be guaranteed. The growth of and importance of postal votes is explored by me, in my article on the Southampton area in the Police and Crime Commissioners. While the obvious impact of postal votes in that election was reinforced by the appalling turnout; postal votes are becoming important and popular. Taking them away is probably impossible if you care what people think. (If you are choosing to act in a way to maximise party advantage, it may be easier.) The fact remains that a lot of ballot papers go missing.

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Another of my findings while researching the PCC results is that the impact of postal voting is poorly reported to the public by the returning officers.  I am unclear if reporting drop-in vs postal votes at each level of the count would aid transparency. ( I sort of think it should. I don’t think it would violate secrecy.)

In the USA, identity checks at the polling station are seen as right wing voter suppression tactics. The current stop-and-search powers of the British police are a cause of friction in the black communities since these powers are not usually used on whites. This may become another excuse to stop Asians  going about their business on election day. The Guardian article, quoting  the Commission press release states that the focus for this year, will be a list communities most of which have a high proportion of Pakistani and Bangladeshi citizens. Tower Hamlets is the only London Borough on the list.

It will be interesting to see how this plays out. One big problem is that there is no guaranteed government proof of identity in the UK. I have just gone through a torrid time at a place of work where they want to take custody of my passport in exchange for a door swipe, because I do not have a photo-id driving licence. These are the only, highly pervasive, and yet still not comprehensive government photo identity documents. It should be noted that British Citizens abroad also have a right to vote, by post. How are these to be checked?

When the poll tax was introduced, another Tory innovation, large numbers of people left the electoral register. This government has already introduced individual registration which makes it harder to get on the roll, they are minimising rollovers which makes it easier to fall off the register.  The electoral process must get it right, those entitled should vote, those not so entitled should not. It would is wrong if the bureaucratic tasks inhibited or denied the vote to those entitled.

It’s a shame that the proposal to tighten up on party workers handling postal vote administration documents, including the ballot paper will get lost in arguments about the bureaucratic overhead for voters and the potential for state intimidation.The party workers constraints is just a mechanism for proof of wrong doing but unless the police or the the election returning officers are entitled to take action, or request judicial review, there will be little change. How one ensures that election investigations are transparent, neutral and incorruptible is not easy. We know that Boris had lawyers in place on election night in London in May 2012, but he was also the de-facto Chief of Police, is it really right that employees of the victorious candidate should investigate the probity of the election?

These proposed reforms miss their target and seem designed to stigmatise citizens of Pakistani and Bangladeshi ethnicity. We can do better than this.

I conclude that while no-one has yet suggested that we outsource identity verification to google, Facebook, twitter or Kroll, I am just waiting. Obviously, this needs to be opposed as does the racism in the proposals for later this year.

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