“Vote early, vote often” is a familiar Irish saying. What in the UK some people might call voting fraud is just the way things are done and always have been in other places and even some parts of the UK.
When I was first a Conservative Party agent in 1981 running elections in the London Borough of Haringey I learned more lessons about bending and breaking the rules than I had ever heard of when in training. This was the consequence of four significant ethnic immigrant communities in the Hornsey constituency who had, so to speak, brought their traditions with them.
Voters from the Indian sub-continent considered it good practice to buy and sell their votes to the highest bidder. Turkish and Greek Cypriots had an interesting approach to voter registration which let’s say meant one could only imagine how they fitted all those voters into small homes. And the Irish were in a class of their own with their “vote early vote often” history.
Although this might sound like the application of national stereotypes, I can only say that this was the practice I witnessed.
In the South Hornsey ward, where one Jeremy Corbyn was a councillor in the Stroud Green and Finsbury Park areas there were always a remarkably large number of postal vote applications, which when we found time to check, often coincided with addresses where voters had died.
The Haringey Council, or Peoples Republic of Haringey as it was known by most, was in a class of its own for maintaining, or rather failing to maintain its Electoral Register. It was thought usually to be maybe 3-5 years out of date. Dead and moved voters were hardly ever removed and miraculously at election time many of them rose again.
The practices at the Election Counts were even more eye-opening, although it has to be said I saw similar practices in every area where I was an agent over 13 years and since. In the 2010 general Election I was pleased to “find” 1,000 Conservative marked ballot papers which had been “mislaid” among others at the Plymouth count. The Conservative candidate won by 1,149 votes.
These are a selection of common malpractices which Election Agents and Counting Agents appointed by the candidates in any election look out for at the Count:
- Verification discrepancy – when the candidates’ agents are asked to accept the verification figures – that is the comparison between numbers of ballot papers issued with those in the ballot boxes, there is usually a tolerance allowed for mistakes. Individually these may sound reasonable, but we watch out for it happening more than once of twice across boxes because when added up the allowable “lost” or “additional” papers might be significant.
- Bundling – Ballot papers once counted and separated for each candidate are usually bundled into 500s or 1,000s. It is common practice for a dishonest counter to make up a bundle with 499 votes for candidate A, add one paper for candidate B on top and bundle it as 500 for candidate B.
- Splicing – This is when a counter splices papers marked for one candidate into piles they are counting for another. The faster the counter, the harder this is to spot.
- Uncertain marks – The agents will be asked to agree whether uncertain papers, that is those without a clear mark for a single candidate or papers with an arguable identifiable marking, are “good” or “bad” for each candidate. This is not a precise process and requires a lot of subjective judgement. My favourite was a paper in a Haringey count when someone had written “BolloX” across the paper with the “X” clearly in one box for a candidate. The Returning Officer held it good for that candidate although arguably the voter’s intention was unclear!
- Lost or Additional papers during count after verification – Once the numbers issued/received have been agreed, it is the easier for someone to slip in extra papers or remove them. In the 1980s it was still common practice for counters to be allowed to bring in their handbags (they are not allowed to do this now). It is perhaps unsurprising that papers disappeared into or were lost into those bags.
- Postal Votes – Councillor Corbyn taught me this one when he was my opposite number as Labour agent. In one ballot box the discrepancy was large – there were too many papers. Jeremy commented that “somebody must have over done it with the postals”. I didn’t know what he meant at the time, but it turned out that a common practice was to collect un-used postal ballots from old people’s’ homes and then mark them and slip one or two into a ballot box when casting a legitimate paper. Apparently someone had got carried away and slipped too many into one box!
At the polling station the biggest challenge is always the offence of “Personation”, that is one person pretending to be another to get a ballot paper. In one parliamentary by-election I went into a polling station in the course of my duties, and noticed that lining up there seemed to be an extraordinary number of recognisable party activists all apparently voting in the same place at the same time when I was sure none of them lived locally.
The other offence of voting more than once, the “early and often” brigade has perhaps always been the most common malpractice, particularly involving students who can legally register to vote at their home and term time addresses.
There is a good reason for this. In local government elections where the home and term time addresses are in different council areas, the voter is entitled to vote in both. It is legal to be registered twice, if qualified twice. It is legal for two ballot papers for a general election to be issued. But it is illegal for the student to exercise both votes in a parliamentary election. They have to choose.
The “early and often” voters sometimes collect up these “extra” ballot papers if not used by students and personate them.
In that first Hornsey election I was touring the Irish drinking clubs in the constituency with my candidate Hugh Rossi, who was an Italian Catholic, and the drinkers would say – “Oh yes we’ll be voting for Mr Rossi in the morning and Mr O’Halloran in the afternoon.” Mr O’H was the SDP candidate in neighbouring Islington, but also another Catholic. Basically they went round voting for Catholics regardless of party colours!
None of these malpractices are new. They are amongst the things that properly trained and qualified Election Agents for the parties are there to watch out for.
What is new is social media. In this age of transparency things such as this which have been going on for donkeys years are suddenly discovered by a younger generation who talk about things which nobody ever used to talk about.
Before anybody starts saying that our old-fashioned voting system is at fault, I’d say from my experience around the world of working with both paper- based and electronic voting and counting systems – thy all have their challenges. I still prefer our paper system, imperfect though it is. At least I can try to spot the trips and tricks – in an electronic system they are almost impossible to detect.