H S Chapman
Society (UK)

Trust our elections?

This article appeared in the Daily Telegraph on Tuesday May 9th, 2000

Can we still trust our elections?

Paul Gribble argues that checks on voting changes are needed in the wake of last week’s events

SURPRISE, confusion, bafflement: these will have been the reactions of some of those who voted in last week's London mayoral elections.

The combination of two preferences for a mayoral candidate, a vote for an assembly candidate and a vote for a political party will have puzzled many Londoners. This doesn't mean that the new system is a mistake: it always takes time to get used to change. But new voting systems are one thing; the corruption of elections themselves would be quite another.

I am not suggesting for a moment that our elections are not among the most trustworthy in the world. But there is a danger, because of certain changes taking place, that British elections as we know them will never be the same again, and that they may not continue to be seen to be free and fair.

Extensive reforms are under way that will alter many vital aspects of election procedures. Some of them will reduce the opportunities for the procedures to be fully scrutinised and could well increase the opportunities for unscrupulous individuals to cheat the system.

Just over three years ago, this Government was voted into office. It was, reasonably enough, concerned about the level of interest in our democratic process and was committed to a fundamental review of how elections take place.

In due course, the Neill Committee reported on the funding of political parties and a Home Office working party on elections was set up — the "Howarth Committee". Both bodies have made recommendations that affect the existing procedures and law.

Last week's London elections saw the widespread use of new practices — not least electronic counting, which had a troublesome first outing. The official mark on ballot papers was removed and bar-coding was introduced. At the same time) 32 pilot schemes were introduced for local elections.

One of the Howarth Committee's most important recommendations was the introduction of a new "rolling registration" system, to speed up the whole process of registering as an elector, especially when voters move from one constituency to another. It also proposed that a number of new electoral ideas be tested by way of "pilot" schemes, which would be reviewed by the Home Secretary. This proposal was contained in last year's Representation of the People Act.

Many election experts are concerned that the Act requires that the only reports on the pilots to be reviewed will come from the very local authorities that run them. If the Home Secretary so decides, they could be imposed on the rest of the country without any further primary legislation. Independent assessment of the pilot schemes is essential if electors are to be able to place their confidence and trust in the new procedures.

Of even more concern are the moves toward a weakening of the safeguards that exist to ensure the integrity of our polling and counting. Already there are calls for internet voting, but there are numerous questions that need to be asked — about ballot secrecy, ballot security, vote tabulation accuracy, user-friendliness and scrutiny of the ballot.

In America recently, the internet was used in Arizona, in part of the Democratic Party's primaries. This exercise was not a wholehearted success, since the system hit a glitch that (unlike last week's) no computer technical team could fix.

There are many potential threats to internet voting, including software deliberately designed to change votes on an electronic ballot, to reveal the supposedly secret votes to outside bodies, or simply to prevent a person from voting, possibly leaving him with the impression that the vote was recorded.

One of the most important lessons of last week is that it is vital that, if the United Kingdom is to move towards electronic voting and counting, it should establish an independent commission whose responsibility is to authenticate and approve the software used.

Few would deny that there are a number of areas within our existing electoral procedures that need review and many welcomed the legislation that has permitted the pilot schemes.

But every election system needs to be seen to be free and transparently fair, so that voters can place their confidence in it and their trust in the results. They need to know that their vote will not be tampered with.

Since the introduction of the ballot act in 1872, and further legislation in the 1880s, our elections have rarely been challenged. This is a direct result of the safeguards in the legislation that enable the closest scrutiny of polling and counting.

Wherever you stand in the political spectrum, you need to know that, at each election in which you play a part, either as a voter or a political activist, you can trust the outcome and accept the result, in the knowledge that the election has been seen to be free and transparently fair.

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