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Electoral fraud: holding back the purple fingers

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LGC’s essential daily briefing

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There would probably be public comment were a council to turn its residents’ fingers purple, but in some countries ‘election ink’ – usually made from silver nitrate – is deployed to prevent multiple voting by staining voters’ fingers at polling stations. The stuff is reputedly is only removed through exfoliation.

Things are done differently in England.

So last week saw a pilot in which voters in two areas were asked to bring their polling cards to prove their identities, and in three more places any piece of ID from a specified list.

These innovations have their roots in the scandal that saw Lutfur Rahman – of the now-defunct Tower Hamlets First party – ousted as that London borough’s elected mayor for a range of election offences.

In the ensuing row, former communities secretary Sir Eric Pickles wrote a government report on election fraud which advocated requiring voters to show identification at polling stations.

The government agreed a pilot and opposition parties cried foul, not because they intended mass personations but as a result of fears some would be deterred from voting.

Just before this year’s elections, Cat Smith, shadow minister for voter engagement and youth affairs said: “These proposals are disproportionate: a sledgehammer to crack a nut.

“Last year there were 28 allegations of impersonation…out of 45 million votes cast. Of these 28 allegations, one case resulted in a conviction.”

Mark Pack, a blogger influential in Liberal Democrat circles, wrote: “It’s only sensible to introduce ID checks if there’s a really good reason to do so. The paucity of evidence about fraud which such checks would stop suggests there isn’t such a good reason.

“So why are the Conservatives so keen…it’ll hardly be unreasonable for people to assume a cynical answer.”

The Electoral Reform Society, normally a body devoted to staid promotions of proportional representation, made the lurid claim that “thousands of people were told they could not vote because of draconian ID requirements”, in the five pilot areas, estimating 3,981 people were affected, equivalent to 1.67% of turnout.

Its chief executive Darren Hughes said this revealedthe shocking scale of the problem”, with voters barred from “these ill-thought-out trials”.

Returning officers in the pilot areas have told LGC people were not deterred from voting and the Association of Electoral Administrators said the process had gone smoothly.

Swindon and Watford BCs, where voters were asked to bring polling cards, both witnessed increased voter turnout, though in the former a closely fought battle between Conservatives and Labour may have helped to engage interest.

In Bromley LBC and Gosport and Woking BCs, where identification was required, there were falls in turnout of 1.0, 0.5 and 0.9 percentage points respectively on 2014’s figures.

So, what have we learnt from these pilots?

Only, it seems, asking for ID is one among many factors that affect turnout. And that given the recent silence on the matter, personation is nowadays rare, even in Tower Hamlets.

Mark Smulian, reporter, LGC

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