Vote-rigging is easy

The Guardian, May 9 2001

The whole world threw up its hands in horror at the electoral malpractice which was revealed in Florida in the long harsh climax to last November’s presidential election. As though election-rigging were new. As though election-rigging were some kind of American disease, which couldn’t happen here.

In truth, it still isn’t 100% certain that there was any deliberate rigging in Florida (at least, not before the re-counts began). There were polling stations which were closed without warning or simply moved without notice, and they happened to be in predominantly black areas; some voters were discouraged by a police vehicle-check, which happened to be in a black precinct; some precincts used unreliable old punch-card machines, and these tended to be in poorer areas with the result that up to ten percent of the votes in black precincts were discarded as spoiled while less than three per cent were discarded in white precincts; some disabled people lost their vote because there were no wheelchair ramps at polling stations. But perhaps this was all simply bungling – which just happened to tend to penalise Democrat voters.

In this country, however, there is no such doubt. Vote-rigging is well established and it is crafted with rat-like cunning. Just about nobody in politics complains about it – because just about everybody in politics knows that their own party has been implicated. It’s the dirty little secret which they all share: they vote early and they vote often.

Now, in a move which looks at best over-confident and at worst like an invitation to corruption, the electoral rules have been changed with the effect of increasing the potential for abuse. And, despite a steady trickle of alarming revelations, almost nothing has been done, to make it more difficult: every borough is now potentially rotten.

The best and simplest way to procure false votes is to invent false voters – ‘ghosts’ as they are known in the trade. In the 1993 local council elections in Brighton, for example, Labour party workers discovered a cluster of individuals who 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.

In the 1998 Hackney council elections, which ended with the jailing of two councillors this April, Lib Dem and Tory riggers registered one of their relatives in two different locations; logged eight fictional voters at the address of a derelict property; and registered more than 80 other ghosts by hijacking the names of students at a residential college, knowing that the students were unlikely to find out since they were foreign and/or too young to vote.

The real joy of raising electoral ghosts is that there are no ghost-busters: there is no system for checking the accuracy of the electoral register. Riggers can find a derelict building, or add a couple of extra houses to a street, or use the address of a hostel or anywhere else with a transitory population and simply bung in names. If they are unlucky or particularly clumsy and happen to catch the eye of an electoral registration officer, the police may be called. But, under normal circumstances, the paperwork is routinely processed straight on to the register with no attempt at checking.

George Smith, chairman of the Association of Election Adminstrators, says riggers run a risk of being spotted by opposition workers who really know the area but “if a registration was false, you wouldn’t know. If a form comes in, you treat it at face value, and that’s all you can do.” When Labour MP George Howarth chaired a working party on electoral rules in 1999, he reported that the electoral register of 44.2 million voters was afflicted by between four and five million omissions and inaccuracies of one kind of another – ie an error rate of about 10%.

But riggers are at their most inventive when they steal the votes of real people. They do this primarily by abusing the system for postal votes, which allow you to vote at a distance; and also proxy votes, which allow you to nominate somebody else to vote on your behalf. The most popular manoeuvure here is the Tippex Trick: collect applications for postal votes and simply re-write them as applications for proxy votes, so that party workers can cast the votes themselves. This is Rigger Heaven.

One of the great unsolved mysteries of modern British politics is the role of the Tippex Trick in John Major’s narrow victory over Neil Kinnock in the 1992 general election. The Tory triumph was almost entirely unpredicted: opinion pollsters were forced to eat their figures, the BBC was mauled for the ‘anti-Tory bias’ of its exit polls. At the time, the surprise result was hurriedly explained by the power of John Major’s soapbox and by the false triumphalism of Kinnock’s closing rally in Sheffield. There is no doubt, however, that the riggers were at work.

The clearest evidence emerged from St Ives in Cornwall . In an old people’s home called Pine Trees, for example, a Conservative supporter helped 17 elderly electors to fill in a form to apply for a postal vote, and then collected all the forms to take them to the council. Which was fine. But someone somewhere intercepted the forms and went to work with some Tippex so that, without their knowledge, the 17 elderly voters ended up applying for proxy votes, naming various people who were to vote on their behalf – all of whom turned out to be Conservative party workers.

This use of old people to pull off the Tippex Trick is known among riggers as ‘granny farming’. More than 70 electors in St Ives in 1992 complained that Conservative supporters had used their votes by proxy without their consent. Some old people said they had signed blank forms without knowing what they were. Some said they had signed nothing, including one man who was supposed to have signed a request for a proxy vote without being able to spell his own name. Four of them were dead by the time they voted.

The really eye-catching fact about the 1992 election is that the entire national result was decided by only 1,241 votes distributed through eleven key marginals. Without those votes in those eleven seats, the Conservatives would have lost the general election. And, in at least three of them – Bolton North East, Stirling and Tynemouth – party workers reported signs of abuse, particularly Granny Farming.

Granny farming is just one variant on the Tippex Trick. Essentially, it relies on canvassers who legitimately can knock on doors and record all those who for one reason or another, will not vote – and who, therefore, will not notice if somebody else votes for them. Reports of the abuse of absentee votes have bubbled through the system ever since Mrs Thatcher first introduced new rules to encourage overseas voters to cast their ballot by mail. The 1990 local elections saw a Labour councillor in Chorley, a Conservative councillor in West Lancashire and a Liberal agent in Sheffield all separately convicted for forging absentee votes.
Since then, the theft of absentee votes by ones means or another has been reported in Brent, Burnley and Brighton, where one Tory canvasser was said to have scored a false proxy by conning a signature out of a blind voter. And it has led to convictions in Enfield, where one of the most senior Tory agents in London, Miles Parker, was fined £750 for forging proxy votes in a local election in 1992; and in Hackney where the riggers conned old people into signing a proxy form by telling them that it was a petition for rubbish collection.

Yet now the government has done something very strange. When Mrs Thatcher’s boost for postal voting produced this outbreak of abuse, a Home Office working party considered the future of absentee voting and reported, in February 1994, that: “Voting in person at the local polling station in general provides the least opportunity for personation or electoral fraud.” They considered suggestions that absentee votes should be given not simply to those with a specific need but to anyone who asked. However, they concluded: “A move to absent voting on demand might increase the opportunity for fraudulent applications to be made without the knowledge of the elector. On balance, we consider that the risk of increased fraud outweighs the potential advantage for the electorate of making absent voting available to all.”

In February, however, the government set aside this warning and went ahead and made absentee voting available to all. Across the country, there has been a surge in applications for postal votes. In areas where the council has advertised the new rules, the surge is huge. In Cardiff, for example, where 2,000 voters were entitled to a postal vote at the last election, 28,000 had applied for a postal vote within five weeks of the new rules being advertised, and new applications were pouring in at the rate of some 500 a day.

After Devon and Cornwall police investigated the St Ives scandal, they recommended that a postal vote should be valid for only a year. But the new postal votes are available for life. The Home Office working party in 1994 recommended that postal votes be confirmed, like a passport application, by an ‘attestor’ such as a doctor who could vouch for the application. But the new votes are available without attestation; applicants simply sign a declaration of their identity and include one other signature without any form of verification.

There are huge loopholes for the riggers. The new rules allow, for example, for a businessman who is based away from home to apply for his postal vote form to be sent to his work address. But by allowing secondary addresses, the system lets in the rigger: the canvasser identifies an elector who will not vote; the rigger applies for a postal vote in that elector’s name and asks for it to be sent, for example, to an address at a block of flats, where it can be collected at the front door; the voter knows nothing, the rigger has his vote. There is no mechanism for detecting the fraud.

The only check on the validity of the hundreds of thousands of new postal voters is that each applicant’s name must be on the electoral register. Which is no problem for riggers who steal the votes of real people. And for those who want to raise ghost votes, registration itself has been made much easier, with the introduction of rolling registration, allowing names to be added to the register at any time and also via the Internet.

The Electoral Reform Society are worried. They want more postal votes to encourage turnout, but they want more safeguards. To make the Tippex trick more difficult, they want different forms for applying for postal and proxy votes. Ideally, to stop postal applications being converted into proxy forms, they want proxies to be available only for those living outside the UK. They want local authorities to have instructions and resources to randomly investigate registrations. “As it is, if you create a ghost voter, you will almost certainly get away with it,” a spokesman said.

The government’s new rules are based on the inquiry chaired by George Howarth. He wrote his report while police in Hackney were investigating complaints that riggers had created hundreds of ghost voters and granny-farmed hundreds of false proxies. Nevertheless, Mr Howarth accepted the conclusion of a Home Affairs Select Committee that there was no reason to be seriously concerned about the fairness of British elections. “Public scrutiny of registration remains the single most significant control against abuse,” he reported. Which is what they used to say in Florida.