As communities secretary, Sir Eric Pickles’ name was regularly taken in vain by council officers. They might do so again if they struggle to manage polling stations where voters must prove their identity.
Sir Eric was commissioned by the government last year to probe election fraud prevention following the scandal which resulted in the ousting of Tower Hamlets LBC’s elected mayor Lutfur Rahman (Tower Hamlets First).
Election fraud is rare – as rare as air crashes, according to one expert – but when it happens it undermines public trust in democracy and embarrasses the councils involved.
Birmingham City Council, for example, was damagingly described by a judge as “a banana republic” after voting fraud in 2004.
Last month Sir Eric proposed 50 reforms, including voter identification, and Cabinet Office minister Chris Skidmore has made positive noises about almost all.
But Mr Skidmore last week ruled out introducing primary legislation to reform election processes – citing a lack of parliamentary time as a result of Brexit. He has, however, mentioned amending existing legislation – and on no specific timetable – to clarify proxy vote offences, increase maximum sentences for postal voting, personation and registration fraud and, less certainly, make legal challenges to election results easier.
Voter identification is to be piloted in 2018. Recommendations around intimidation and ending postal vote ‘harvesting’ – where people collect other voters’ postal ballot papers and complete them on their behalf – were also received well by government, but Mr Skidmore’s official response indicated these proposals might have to wait.
Fraud really is infrequent. It’s like plane crashes; when there is one it dominates the headlines because it’s so rare
Association of Electoral Administrators (AEA) chief executive John Turner fears slow progress with fundamental reform. He told LGC: “I feel the government is unlikely to do anything that needs new legislation because so much parliamentary time will be taken up with Brexit so I think they will stick to the things that can be done by secondary legislation or issuing guidance.”
Voluminous election management reforms recommended last year by the UK law commissions have “run into the sidings for the same reason, even for things that are not politically contentious”, said Mr Turner.
He would particularly like it made easier to bring legal challenges to results, recalling that four individuals had to risk their own money to oust Mr Rahman.
The Cabinet Office said the government was “minded to bring forward legislation to make these changes” although being ‘minded to’ is less than definite.
All these factors limit the reforms likely by 2020 when a general election, local elections, polls for police and crime commissioners, the London mayor and assembly, and at least four combined authority mayors are due to fall on the same day.
The AEA has warned this mass of polls is a “recipe for disaster for administrators, candidates, campaigners and the voting public”.
How much greater the disaster if Sir Eric’s key recommendation to require voter identification at polling stations is implemented is a matter for conjecture, but it can hardly simplify electoral administration.
The idea has been borrowed from Northern Ireland where voters must show polling clerks one of a range of prescribed documents or apply for a photo-ID voter’s card.
This would require more council staff on hand to check documents to avoid a re-run of the embarrassment of queues locked out of polling stations in the 2010 general election.
Voter identification pilots will be drawn from the 18 areas the Electoral Commission identified in 2015 as at risk of electoral fraud (see box) and from others for comparison purposes.
Despite the work involved, Mr Turner said: “You can always find pilots and there is never a shortage of volunteers. There is a question of resources and the government should meet what is required.”
Toby James, senior politics lecturer at the University of East Anglia, has studied activity in polling stations and concluded “it was very rare indeed that there is any attempted fraud”.
He added: “Fraud really is infrequent. It’s like plane crashes; when there is one it dominates the headlines but that is because it is so rare.
“It’s such a small problem that there is a danger that [voter identification] is a sledgehammer to crack a nut and it might deter voters because either they do not have the ID, or they forget it, or they find a long queue while IDs are checked and give up.
“There are resource issues for local authorities as more polling staff would be needed, and electoral administration tends to be a Cinderella department.”
Anthony Zacharzewski, founder of the Democratic Society, which promotes public participation in decision making, is worried about voter identification.
“We think it will depress turnout and the amount of fraud that involves personation at polling stations is very small - you would have to organise personation on a huge scale to affect a result.” he said. “We would rather have open voting and easier legal challenge after than voter ID that deters people from going to polling stations.”
The timing of the pilots will leave ministers with an extremely tight timetable were they to decide to legislate for and roll out a national voter identification scheme by 2020.
With Brexit set to monopolise parliamentary time, local administrators can expect only piecemeal reforms complicating already complex legislation rather than any sweeping change.
Councils deemed by the Electoral Commission to be at risk of voting fraud
Birmingham City Council
Blackburn with Darwen BC
City of Bradford MDC
Bristol City Council
Coventry City Council
Derby City Council
Peterborough City Council
Tower Hamlets LBC