Individual electoral registration is not the answer to electoral fraud

Ros Baston explains why the coalition government’s Individual Electoral Registration plans are not the answer to electoral fraud.

In Tower Hamlets, it’s often easier to just turn people’s homes into polling stations

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Ros Baston runs Baston Legal, an independent political and election law practice; she was formerly a lead adviser at the Electoral Commission

One of the boldest government claims for its Queen’s Speech programme is that the magic wand of individual electoral registration (IER) will banish the spectre of electoral fraud. This will generally be seen as a good thing given the recent allegations of non-existent voters in Tower Hamlets at the Banglatown and Spitalfields by-election.

Ballot-boxIt’s a nice theory – if everyone on the register has had their identity checked through their date of birth and National Insurance Number, the ‘ghost voters’ will be exorcised and all will be well.

But will it only result in real voters becoming the ghosts?

The first issue is that there is no evidence this type of electoral fraud is a real problem.

Most allegations of registration fraud centre on particular wards in particular areas at particular times. Tower Hamlets, for example has been dogged by problems for years, and this reflects wider political tensions in the area.

There is nothing to suggest there is a widespread nationwide problem, or that it is the work of anything other than very localised rogue elements with a direct interest in the outcome that year.

In fact, only 13 cases of registration fraud in the 2011 elections were still being investigated in March 2012 – two of which were in Northern Ireland which already has IER. And none of the concluded cases resulted in so much as a caution, let alone a conviction. Further, the Electoral Commission has stated no election results would have been affected.

Policy and legislation should be evidence led. The evidence in this case is that IER could mean hundreds of thousands of real voters vanishing from the register (see my previous article), and that existing efforts by electoral officers to identify irregular registrations have paid off in recent years – even in Tower Hamlets.


See also:

The grey ghosts of election ’92 could return unless voter registration is stepped up 15 Apr 2012

Clegg under fire over voter registration, party funding and youth unemployment 15 Nov 2011

The coalition are conspiring to lock the left out of the electoral process 23 Oct 2011

Harman: Lib Dems “colluding” with Tories to deny millions the vote 29 Sep 2011

Clegg plans to make voter registration “compulsory” by 2015 8 Jun 2010


The second problem with the government’s position is that it relies on the identity verification process working smoothly.

However, the results from the initial data matching pilots were dismal.

Matches with the DWP database hit 82.4% at best, with a less than precise definition of a ‘match’ and no checks on National Insurance Numbers (NINOs). This is partly because the electoral officer’s information may be more up to date than the DWP’s – but the effect is that the officer would then have to ask for and obtain additional information from thousands of voters within a short timescale.

Without meaningful data pilots and adequate resources for officers, this could result in a register comprised mainly of those with stable addresses and employment with the young and mobile even more grossly under-represented than at present.

The third problem is that ‘ghost voters’ are only part of the electoral fraud issue. Potentially, the problem of postal vote ‘harvesting’ is more disruptive and harder to identify as witnesses rarely agree to make formal statements for use in criminal proceedings.

‘Harvesting’ happens when people collect others’ postal ballot papers and complete them, and it features heavily in the recent Tower Hamlets allegations. The requirements for signatures, NINOs and dates of birth for postal votes have made it significantly harder, with fewer reports of mass operations such as those in Birmingham in 2004.

But, with the help of a well-organised spreadsheet or a little more pressure on the victims, it is still workable.

As with most criminals, electoral fraudsters adapt to new circumstances. So it seems logical that efforts to create ghost voters, such as they are, will be diverted into harvesting – even harder to spot and to prove in court.

So, while IER may help with a few isolated fraud cases, it is misguided to think it will make enough difference to make up for the damage to the electoral register. A more effective way to deal with fraud is to build on electoral officers’ current work in identifying it, and to develop better strategies to deal with harvesting, or alternative, more secure ways of voting.

This will take effort, and a lot of sensitivity, but it could achieve results that IER never will.

IER does, of course, have its place. It is ridiculous that we rely on a ‘head of household’ signing off on everything, and modernisation is overdue. But it must be carefully implemented, with proper attention to keeping vulnerable groups on the register and without being distorted by an illusory aim it will not achieve.

After all, electoral integrity is not just about fraud – it’s about making sure as many people as possible can take part.


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  • Anonymous

    The first issue is that there is no evidence this type of electoral fraud is a real problem.


    Of course there is. Lots of Labour councilors have been convicted of doing this.

    The judge who once compared Birmingham to a “banana republic” has warned that voting fraud is still rife – and accused politicians of failing to tackle the problem.

    Deputy High Court judge Richard Mawrey said almost nothing had changed since his landmark ruling in 2005.

    In that case, he found there had been a Birmingham-wide campaign by parts of the local Labour Party to use bogus postal votes to counter the adverse impact of the Iraq war on the party’s support.

    Postmen were intimidated into handing over sacks full of postal votes, ballot papers were changed once votes had been cast, using correction fluid, and police discovered six men in a warehouse with 274 unsealed postal votes.

    Read More


  • Harry Barnes Email

    We need a pro-active electoral registration system in which electoral registration officers ensure that all of those who are entitled to the vote appear on the registers for their current sole or main place of residence. Returning Officers need the resources to pursue publicity, canvassing and the searching out of information to determine what are eligable voters’ sole or main places of residence – especially for election times themselves. There are over 3 million people missing from registers; without even taking into account errors, fraud and people being on the wrong registers due to their mobility. Those missing from registers are concentrated amongst the young, ethic minorities, the poor, those moving home and the generally rootless. The maldistribution of those missing from registers, means that boundary reviews (such as those currently taking place) disort the size and shapes of constituencies. We have had a corrupted electoral registration for years, it was given a boost by the operation of the Poll Tax; but things continued to worsen afterwards. Individual registration does nothing to tackle the problem. It will only worsens the situation adding to the missing numbers. The current and the proposed set-ups are a democratic disgrace and the necessary reforms should be pressed for during the passage of the new Bill.

  • Anonymous

    And those who have given up voting, as they have no real choice except three political parties for the middle class, for the first time I did not register to vote at the last election, and i doubt I will bother again, this is what happens when you get called a work shy scrounger all the time.

  • Harry Barnes Email

    Those who don’t register to vote because they don’t wish to vote, just get hidden from view. They make the absentions look like a smaller number than they are. If non-voting is to be a protest, then the protesters need to be registered.

  • Harry Barnes Email

    I underestimated my case. An Electoral Commission Report of December 2011 shows that no less than 8.5 million people are missing from electoral registers. This should be seen as a huge democratic deficit and the matter needs placing at the top of the political agenda.

  • Anonymous

    Far better to have people vote on issues rather than the next criminal in Westminster.

  • Anonymous

    The deficit is that once elected the don’t do as they promised. The do things they haven’t told you about. They lie about debts, and they trouser lots of cash for personal benefits.

    If you haven’t voted directly on the issue, you aren’t responsible for the mess.

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  • Ros Baston

    I think you’re missing my point – which was that postal vote harvesting is more of an issue than registration fraud. The phrase you quote from my article does refer to ‘this type’ of fraud – ie ghost voters. The Birmingham case was about harvesting, IER will not do anything to reduce this. It’s important not to lump all types of fraud into the same category as they require tackling in different ways.

  • Anonymous

    Of course he’s deliberately missing the point, he’s outright advocated ending democracy as long as the right are in power before.

  • Anonymous

    Then the voting register needs to be private.

  • Anonymous

    Yes, yes, politicians can’t take into account reality.

    And they lie far less than you about debts, and hide far less than you. You’re just smokescreening because you know fullwell that restrictive, time-consuming methods of registration favour your party.

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  • Anonymous

    Yes. yes, gotta buy those votes you can’t slip past Parliament.

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  • Blarg1987

    But where will you draw the line on issues? Different people consider different issues as important, some want higher defence spending, others want to pull out of iraq, others want trident, others want renationalisation, others want their local youth centre to stay open, others want shareholders to have a bigger say etc.

    As each issue comes up would people vote for them one by one? Or would they vote for the politican that would vote for each issue one by one as not all politicans will stand for all policies.

  • Blarg1987

    Thats why we need more people to vote on more issues so smaller parties come along and put the bigger parties to shame or force them to reform, that is the only real way changwe will happen.

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