How to fiddle an election

The Guardian, November 2 1994

It was an almost invisible event. Far away from the high-profile politics of Westminster, in the pebble-dash suburbs of north London, in a cramped and over-heated room on the first floor of Barnet magistrates court, Mr Miles Parker, aged 29, was convicted last month of two criminal offences. The case was barely reported. Yet it deserved a little more attention.

Mr Miles Parker was, until recently, on the pay roll of the Conservative Party. He was one of their most senior political agents, the former chairman of the Greater London Conservative Agents Association, the veteran of two general elections, two European elections and 22 local campaigns, an executive member of the Greater London arm of the party’s national union. And last month, in that almost invisible case, he was convicted of forging votes.

Mr Parker is not alone. From around the country – from Cornwall to Newcastle-upon-Tyne, from East Sussex to Lancashire – come other reports of a similar spectre. Sometimes they are merely grumbles of suspicion. Other times, they are full-blown allegations. Always, they point to the same essential complaint – that somebody appears to have been stealing votes, usually for the benefit of the Conservative Party.

The whole truth remains invisible, because none of these other allegations has ever been proved. Most have been sniffed and rejected by the police and by the Crown Prosecution Service who have declined to take them further. One has come to court and failed. Another is on its way to court now. Mr Parker’s case emerged into the faint limelight of Barnet magistrates court only through mere chance and sheer determination on the part of its prosecutor.

The story of Mr Parker’s downfall began one August morning in 1992, when a Conservative canvasser knocked on the door of a terraced house in Enfield, north London and asked Mrs Elaine Penketh whether he could rely on her vote in the council by-election which was due to place in the ward in a few weeks’ time. Mrs Penketh said he certainly could, although the truth was that she always said that to all the canvassers just to get them off the doorstep. Then she added that, as it happened, she and her husband would probably be away on holiday on polling day.

Now, this by-election was on a knife edge. The seat had always been marginal, the turn-out was likely to be low, and the outcome would probably turn on less than a hundred votes. The Conservative canvasser did not want to lose what he imagined to be a valuable Tory vote and so he told her he would bring round a form for her to fill in so that she could vote by post. This form is known to electoral bureaucrats as an RPF9 and if there is widespread vote-farming going on in this country, it is this form which is the seed.

On its front there are spaces for voters to record their name and address and the reason why they cannot vote in person. On the back, there are two sections – one where voters can apply to vote by post and the other where they can choose, instead, to vote by proxy, allowing someone else to cast their vote for them in their absence. Mrs Penketh and her husband filled in the section asking to vote by post and handed it over to a Conservative worker who was so keen to retrieve it that he called at the house three times to make sure they had filled it in.

Back at local Conservative headquarters, the form found its way into the hands of Miles Parker, who was running the campaign and who then did a very strange thing. He put his pen through Mr and Mrs Penketh’s application for postal votes, substituted a request for proxy votes, summoned a 76-year-old Conservative lady named Barbara Wood to the office and arranged for her to cast the Penkeths’ votes for them. And so she did, early on polling day – for the Conservative candidate.

That might well have been the end of the story and no-one would ever have been the wiser, but, as luck would have it, the Penkeths changed their minds and decided not to go on holiday after all. They had no idea why they had never received the paperwork for the postal votes which they had requested but they decided to make the effort to go to the polling station themselves. So, at about eleven o’clock, they turned up with their ballot cards in their hands and were extremely confused and angry when they were informed that they had already voted.

They complained. The fact that Mr Penketh is a serving police officer gave extra credibility to their insistence that they had never asked nor intended to ask for a proxy vote and that they had never even heard of the elderly Mrs Wood. Enfield Council called the local police, who called in Special Branch from Scotland Yard, who are responsible for election crime, and they duly charged Miles Parker under the 1985 Representation of the People Act . However, when his case reached court in May 1993, the Barnet magistrates threw it out.

They did this on the grounds that they wanted to hear the case at ten o’clock in the morning even though the prosecution had been told that it would not start until two o’clock in the afternoon. The prosecution pleaded that they had no witnesses ready for a morning hearing. The magistrates insisted that they would not wait until two o’clock and, in the absence of any available prosecution evidence, they found Mr Parker not guilty. It was only because the prosecutor, James Lewis, refused to accept this and went to the High Court to complain, that Mr Parker ever faced trial at all.

He denied the charges. Even when the magistrates declared at the end of the day that they were finding him guilty, his lawyer submitted that if he had broken the law he had done so accidentally. “There was no moral turpitude,” the lawyer said, “no deliberate intention to be dishonest”. On that basis, the lawyer asked the magistrates to grant Mr Parker an absolute discharge. The magistrates replied by ordering him to pay £750 of fines and a further £750 of costs.

Mr Parker’s case contains the essential ingredient which is common to unproven allegations around the country – the abuse of postal and proxy votes. Like many professional fouls, it is a trick which is well known to insiders. George Smith, who has spent 15 years training more than a thousand election officers, says it is now a significant worry for his profession. Charles Lasham, former chairman of the Association of Election Administrators, says: “The best way to win a local election in a marginal seat is to falsify proxy votes. It is so easy.” Yet, in recent times, Miles Parker’s conviction stands alone.

New rules which permitted more electors to vote by post or proxy were first introduced in 1987 and there was a handful of prosecutions after the May 1990 local elections: a Labour councillor in Chorley who forged a proxy vote for an elector who said he would be away on holiday; a Conservative councillor in West Lancashire who forged proxy votes for three people who had died in a local nursing home; and a Liberal agent who logged eight bogus postal votes in Sheffield. Since then, however, allegations of abuse have generally failed to come near the courts.

In Brighton, for example, at the county council elections in May 1993, Labour party workers were surprised to notice 50 new electors applying for postal and proxy votes in a marginal ward where victory had previously turned on only 30 votes. When they investigated, they found a series of strange stories. A married couple who had been life-long supporters and who even had Labour Party posters displayed in their window had apparently applied for a Conservative party worker to cast their vote for them. So, too, had an elderly man with Alzheimers, a blind woman and a woman in her 90s. On closer examination, it transpired that they believed that they had applied to vote by post and disclaimed all knowledge of their Tory proxies.

Others appeared to be ‘ghosts’ – names which had been registered to vote at local addresses but who appeared to have left no sign of their existence other than an application for a local Conservative supporter to cast their vote for them. Labour workers managed to trace a total of seven individual voters who insisted that they had never asked for the proxy votes with which they had been provided by Conservative canvassers. They believed that there were many others. On polling day, they found two examples of Tory councillors turning up to cast proxy votes on behalf of people who had already voted for themselves, apparently unaware that anyone else had a claim on their vote. Brighton Council passed the complaints to the police who concluded that there was insufficient evidence on which to prosecute anyone.

It was the same in St Ives, where in the summer of 1992, Labour and Liberal workers uncovered some 70 complaints from electors who said that their votes had been assigned without their knowledge or consent to Conservative party supporters who had used them in the general election in April and then again in a local election in May.

In one old people’s home, Pine Trees, seventeen elderly electors had been visited by a Conservative supporter who helped them to apply for postal votes because it would be easier than travelling to the polling station. However, someone then deliberately tippexed over their applications and substituted 17 requests for named Tory workers to cast their votes for them. Other elderly voters said that when Conservative canvassers visited them, they signed blank RPF9 forms without realising what they were. A few insisted that they had never signed the form at all, a complaint which was reinforced in the case of one elderly man who apparently had forgotten how to spell his own surname. Some of those who lost their vote were clear that they would have voted against the Tories. Four of them were dead by the time their votes were cast by their self-appointed Tory proxies. In the local election – for a seat which they had held for 13 years – the Labour party lost by a margin of only nine votes.

By the time that all this had emerged, it was too late for the Labour Party go to the High Court to ask for the election to result to be declared void – more than 21 days had passed. So, the entire affair was handed over to the police who filed a report with the Crown Prosecution Service who concluded that there was insufficient evidence on which to prosecute anyone. Determined to see justice, the local Labour party then launched a private prosecution on behalf of five of their supporters who had been deprived of a vote. West Cornwall magistrates threw out the case on the grounds that the case was ‘out of time’ because more than a year had passed since the allegedly phony forms had been filed.

The St Ives affair exemplified the most common single complaint about ballot rigging by proxy, the alleged deceipt of elderly people – ‘granny farming’ as it is unkindly known in the election business. Conservative workers have consistently denied dishonesty. They say that they have been trying simply to ensure that their elderly supporters are given a chance to vote but that the RPF9 forms are too complicated for those who are easily confused. However, it is precisely this tendency to become confused which encourages others to believe that the elderly have been deliberately targeted for deceit.

In Tynemouth, an ambulance driver named Dennis Wood called at an old people’s home during the 1992 general election and was appalled to discover that residents were being systematically persuaded to sign up for postal votes even though they suffered from dementia and, according to the care assistants he spoke to, had no idea of what they were doing. Mr Wood was particularly alarmed because he understood that the home was owned by a Conservative supporter and he had previously suspected that the same thing was happening in another home which he visited. Although his own family has strong local ties with the Conservatives, he tipped off the Labour Party, who complained to the returning officer, Mr Eric Nixon, who decided that there was insufficient evidence to justify calling in the police.

But granny farming is not the only form of alleged ballot-rigging by proxy which has generated confusion about the truth. In Brent, north London, for example, the Labour Party presented what appeared at first sight to be solid evidence of malpractice in the run-up to this May’s council elections. The affair surfaced when a Labour supporter, Mrs Susan Horler, aged 47, called the council eight days after the election to complain that she had never received the postal vote for which she had applied. When she was told that her vote had been cast for her by one of the Conservative candidates, she was furious. “It’s not bloody right,” she said. “This is iniquitous”.

The Conservatives had won the election by 46 votes. The Labour Party went straight to the High Court with a petition for the Conservative’s narrow victory to be declared void. When they started looking for more evidence to support their case, it appeared, at first, that they had found it. Examining the RPF9 forms in the council archive, they found that 50 proxy votes had been cast by Conservative workers, many of them on forms which had been signed and left blank by electors and then filled in by Tory supporters.

Interviewing voters, they found many who had no complaint but they also found an Iraqi couple who said they had no idea that they had appointed the Conservative candidate’s mother to vote for them and that it was not true, as their RPF9 forms claimed, that they were on holiday on polling day. A Spanish woman similarly denied that she had been away in Spain when a Tory proxy voted for her. A Jamaican woman, Elaine McKenzie said that she did not know why her form claimed that she was ‘away in the UK’ when the truth was that she was simply attending college as usual. She said she had gone to vote and been turned away.

In court, the Labour lawyers concentrated on the original complainant, Susan Horler, and the Jamaican woman, Elaine McKenzie. Neither could be accused of being elderly or demented. However, when the case came before the Election Court last month, it was rejected. Conservative witnesses accused the two complaining voters of lying. They had been “got at” by the Labour Party, they said. It was ludicrous to imagine that any Conservative would risk such a scandal for the sake of one or two votes, they argued. And these same canvassers had recorded other postal votes about which no complaint was made, hardly the behaviour of ballot-riggers, they pointed out.

Judge David Hallchurch concluded that the two complainants were confused: Mrs Horler was desperately ill and distracted by her condition, he said, and her evidence that she had asked for a postal vote was ‘confused and sadly mistaken’; and Elaine McKenzie clearly had trouble understanding the language as well as the rules of elections. There was no evidence of any corrupt intent by the Tories, he concluded, and rejected the petition. The Crown Prosecution Service are reviewing the case.

An Election Court next month is due to decide on a similar petition from the Labour Party in Burnley, where the number of proxies for one council seat in May this year soared from half a dozen to 200. In the now familiar pattern, three voters complain that their votes were stolen by proxies of whom they had no knowledge and two others claim simply that other voters impersonated them at the poll. In this case, however, it is the Liberal Democrats who are accused.

As reports like these have filtered through to Whitehall, a Home Office working party has suggested several minor amendments to the RPF9 forms. However, Gerald Shamash, a specialist in electoral law who has been advising the Labour Party, says this is not enough: “From my own direct experience, I feel that the system is open to grave abuse and this has to be taken extremely seriously by the Home Office. Something urgently needs to be done to rectify the situation.”

It may be that many of these incidents reflect nothing more than the confusing character of the RPF9 forms. While it is possible that some allegations may be symptoms of a deliberate attempt to pervert the outcome of elections, they may equally reveal nothing more than simple misunderstanding. But the potential for damage – deliberate or accidental – turns out to be extraordinarily high.

It is clear that local elections are easily influenced because the turn-outs and the winning margins tend to be so low. It is becoming clear, however, that general elections are also vulnerable. Earlier this year, the BBC’s former economics correspondent, James Long, published a novel, Game Ten, in which he explored the fictional possibilities of several eye-catching statistics from the 1992 general election. His first point was that the Government’s majority of 21 seats would have been wiped out if they had lost eleven key marginals where the total number of votes on which their victories turned was a mere 1,241.

He speculated that if somebody had added phony Conservative votes in marginal seats, it would show up in two ways: the swing from Tory to Labour would be unusually low; and yet the turnout would be unusually high. His speculation was encouraged when having drawn up a shortlist of marginal seats where the Tories won with a low swing, it turned out that all of them also revealed an unusually high turnout – an average of 81.4%, compared to the national average of 77.7%.

Long’s own interest was in the possibility that ballot boxes had been physically stolen and stuffed with phony votes. It may be, however, that the answer lies in the proxies. One of the marginals on his list was Tynemouth, where rumours of granny-farming abound. The others were Ayr, Basildon, Batley and Spen, Bolton North East, Bury South, Corby, Coventry and Stirling. There, party workers say they have heard nothing. If it happened, it was invisible.