Thursday, September 23, 2010

Voter identification

The final of my pieces provoked by Tim Archer's ConservativeHome piece Why we need electoral reform – and it's got nothing to do with AV.

Imagine the following situation at the last election:

A person walks into the polling station covering a particular part of Westminster, goes up to the polling clerks and the following conversation occurs:

"Name and address?"
"James Gordon Brown, 10 Downing Street."
"Ah, there you are." (Marks the register and produces the ballot paper.) "Here is your ballot paper Mr Brown."
"Thank you."

(Note: I have no idea if Gordon Brown actually was registered to vote in Downing Street.)

As absurd as it sounds, obtaining a ballot paper is that simple and legally it would have been entirely possible to obtain Gordon Brown's ballot paper. (The likelihood of Brown himself having already obtained it is next to zero as party leaders nearly always vote in their own constituency.) Whilst in this particular case it's likely the polling station clerk would have warned the applicant of the danger of committing fraud and called the police, the vote(s) cast would still be perfectly valid. But what about people the polling station officials don't recognise from the media? Well they would have no way of knowing if impersonation was taking place or not. And the law does not require it - it takes the applicant's word at face value. The only legal challenge before the vote is cast is if one of the party polling agents present in the booth objects - but few parties have the resources to spare.

Plus some of the checks are difficult to perform - there is no requirement for individual voters to provide their signature to the register so there is nothing to check against.

To anyone reading this from abroad it may seem like I'm making all this up - how an any advanced democracy have such a primitive system that is blatantly open to abuse and fraud (especially when combined with a registration system that makes it possible to register extra bogus voters). But I assure you that this is most definitely true - and a very worrying state of affairs. There are numerous allegations of fraud but it's very difficult to do much about them under the current arrangements (although even when something can be done it rarely is).

In Northern Ireland one now needs photo ID in order to vote at a polling station - is this a workable solution? As with so many things it would take time to implement - it's surprising how many people don't have it - but it would be a significant step towards restoring confidence. Here's hoping such a step will be taken soon.

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