Following is the text of a speech by Cllr Geoffrey Harper at a Cambridgeshire County Council Meeting when moving the motion below.
It is a personal opinion and does not purport to represent the views of the Society. Comments can be made through the contacts page.
“THIS COUNCIL VIEWS WITH CONCERN THE PROPOSED EXTENSION OF COMPULSORY POSTAL VOTING AT ELECTIONS, BELIEVING THAT A SECRET BALLOT IS THE HEART OF THE DEMOCRATIC PROCESS AND ALL-POSTAL ELECTIONS SERIOUSLY COMPROMISE THE SECURITY AND CONFIDENTIALITY OF THE VOTE.”
In 1856 a British solicitor called Henry Samuel Chapman designed a secret ballot system for the Victoria State elections in Australia.
This was a system that provided total secrecy for the elector to cast his vote. This guaranteed not only complete secrecy to the elector when casting his vote, but also provided for an audit trail should there be any suspicion of fraud.
That system was introduced into Britain in 1872 through the passing of Ballot Act and has been in use ever since.
It has stood the test of time, creating public faith in the incorruptibility of the voting system and therefore in the fairness and acceptability of all election results
The Ballot Act of 1872 had two basic principles
Voting in person – so the elector’s identity and his right to vote can be checked.
Voting in private – but putting a ballot paper into a sealed box only to be opened under public scrutiny at the count.
The recent imposition of postal voting in 4 regions of Britain covering some 14 million voters, breaches these two principles.
Once the ballot paper has left the returning officer, there is way of checking where it has been or who has used it.
There is no guarantee of secrecy or privacy when completing a postal vote. This means that anyone can influence an elector to vote in a particular way – and then watch him cast his vote to make sure he does so.
This means that the completion of the Postal Vote could be in a room full of people – family, workplace or even in the pub. Imagine the pressure that can be put on the individual voter in such circumstances.
The recent series of elections has thrown up innumerable cases of fraud and dodgy practices.
Delivery to old people’s homes to student accommodation where dozens – even hundreds – votes are left in pigeon holes for students who are not expecting them – and probably left last term. All this provides scope for unscrupulous collection of votes.
Each year turnover of voters on the register can be above 20% even higher in some areas because people have moved or died. Accordingly large numbers of postal votes are out there just waiting for potential abuse.
The period between the last date for the withdrawal of nomination and the date for the despatch of postal votes leaves little time for candidates to develop their case with the public. Indeed many people will vote early before the political debate and argument has been completed.
All this has come about through an obsession with turnout. What price turnout if the result of any an Election is unsafe because of fraud?
In May this year, turnout was up by 9% generally and by 13% in all-postal voting regions.
Not a ringing endorsement. Not a powerful argument for change.
Since 1997 we have been inundated by changes in election law, systems and practices. Before that, there was always all-party consultation on changes in election law through a Speaker’s Conference. Not on this occasion. Changes that eat away at our democratic system have been pushed through by the Government all in the name of modernisation.
I believe that the recent imposition of compulsory postal voting as in the four Northern Regions and the proposition to extend universal compulsory postal voting to all local government elections breaches several principles.
The Rights and Responsibilities of States
THE RIGHT TO VOTE UNIMPEDED WITHOUT FEAR OR INTIMIDATION.
Inter-Parliamentary Union (Criteria of Free Elections)
Section 2 Voting & Election Rights (1994)
“EVERY VOTER SHALL HAVE EQUAL AND EFFECTIVE ACCESS TO A POLLING STATION IN ORDER TO EXERCISE HIS OR HER RIGHT TO VOTE – THE RIGHT TO VOTE IN SECRET IS ABSOLUTE AND SHALL NOT BE RESTRICTED IN ANY MANOR WHATSOEVER”
Universal Human Rights Article 21 iii
“THE WILL OF THE PEOPLE EXPRESSED BY SECRET VOTE”
European Convention of Human Rights Section 1 Article iii
“STATES UNDERTAKE TO HOLD FREE ELECTIONS AT REASONABLE INTERVALS BY SECRET BALLOT UNDER CONDITIONS WHICH WILL ENSURE THE FREE EXPRESSION OF OPINIONS OF THE PEOPLE IN THE CHOICE OF THE LEGISLATOR
It is common knowledge that over the last 12 years I have spent time in numerous countries formerly behind the Iron Curtain explaining and encouraging democracy. From my personal observations I can assure this Council that we are playing with fire if we compromise the secrecy of the ballot.
I believe that universal postal voting is a massive backward step for a sophisticated democracy. Without a secret ballot it cannot be guaranteed
that the faith in the electoral system will not be undermined or the results accepted as true and safe.
I ask you to support this motion and send a message to the Electoral Commission and the Government that the maintenance of a safe & secure secret ballot is the primary function of elections to Parliament and Local Authorities.
The secrecy of the ballot must take precedence over all other matters or our democracy will become as trivial as the television programme ‘Big Brother’ that could lead to a more sinister ‘Big brother’ of George Orwell fame.