How would you feel if you cast your vote next week and afterwards discovered that the candidate you voted for wasn't actually standing? Or wasn’t standing for the party you thought they were standing for? On a scale of 1 to 10, how angry would you feel if you’d already sent in your postal vote and were then informed that your vote was meaningless and would effectively be chucked in the electoral bin?
Having spent the past six weeks monitoring every news outlet and reading every newspaper to make an informed choice – or, more likely, just sticking with the party you’d already chosen before the politically stage-managed media circus came to town - I'd bet you be feeling pretty cheesed off, possibly even hitting a six or seven on the anger scale, at having been cheated of your democratic right to feel you’ve contributed to the election result.
This is what is happening to voters in the constituency of South West Surrey – Jeremy Hunt’s constituency - because of the suspension of the Liberal Democrat candidate and because of illogical laws governing our electoral process.
Patrick Haveron was suspended this week by his own party, pending police investigations over his nomination papers. The Lib Dems quickly issued a statement saying he no longer represented them.
But technically he is still the Lib Dem candidate. The local returning officer has said that although Patrick Haveron has been suspended by the Liberal Democrats as their candidate, his name will still appear on the ballot papers and he will still be listed as the Liberal Democrat candidate. It transpires that Mr Haveron cannot be removed from the ballot paper for legal reasons and that postal votes already cast cannot be transferred to another candidate. Votes cast for Mr Haveron on May 7 will still count for him as if he were still standing for the Lib Dems. Except he’s not.
Anyone voting Lib Dem in South West Surrey may end up feeling they’ve been the victim of a serious con-trick perpetrated by electoral rules.
The official statement from Waverley Council announced:
- All candidates who were eligible to stand for election at the close of nominations (9 April 2015), will appear on the appropriate ballot papers with their party descriptions.
- Ballot papers have been printed and we have already started receiving completed postal votes.
- Candidates who put themselves forward for election can only withdraw from the process up until 4pm on 9 April 2015. As a consequence, Patrick Haveron will appear on the ballot papers as a Parliamentary, Borough and Town Council candidate for the Liberal Democrats.
What’s clear is that it is legally impossible to withdraw from an election after the expiry date - unless you actually expire.
And what’s more, the people running the election will do nothing to inform voters of the changed political circumstances. Frustratingly, local officials won't put up notices inside or outside polling stations, or have a quiet word with voters when they hand out the ballot papers, or put a black mark through the affected candidate's name. They rely on the media to reach the parts of the electorate they refuse to reach out to.
The Electoral Commission wash their hands of it too. They told me that legally they cannot get involved in the running of elections and have no remit to issue anything – although the person I spoke to agreed it was ‘not a satisfactory situation’ if voters were choosing a candidate who wasn’t actually representing the party they thought they were. I’m not sure ‘unsatisfactory’ quite covers it. How about - making a mockery of the democratic process?
We have electoral laws that require absolute adherence to the minutest details but are silent on an issue which seriously undermines the electoral and democratic processes. No one is able to take responsibility for a problem that isn’t even recognised as a problem.
So not only can you end up voting someone who is not a real candidate, thereby wasting your vote, but you are also denied the chance to consider the implications of your vote on the outcome of the election given the changed political landscape. As in South West Surrey.
For voters in Farnham, Godalming, Haslemere and all places within the constituency boundary, the unexpected removal of the party that came second in 2010 and the sudden release of seventeen thousand Lib Dem votes, could materially affect the outcome - and increase the possibility of Health Secretary Jeremy Hunt being ousted.
Putting aside my freely declared personal interests, I don’t think it’s unreasonable to suggest that the National Health Action Party’s Dr Louise Irvine, currently the bookies’ second favourite and already attracting considerable support from across the political spectrum, is likely to be the main recipient of untethered Lib Dem votes - assuming, that is, all voters are informed of the new circumstances.
But we certainly can’t assume that all voters will have heard this news. Hell, even some journalists I spoke to today hadn’t heard.
Aside from informing people, there is no action that can be taken before the election - so what about afterwards?
The local council have said: “If this materially affects the outcome of the election, the only response is to challenge the election legally, and petition for a re-run.”
So could there be a re-run? And how on earth do you prove an event has materially affected the outcome, without crawling inside the minds of voters?
The Electoral Commission said:
“The outcome of an election can be challenged on the grounds of some irregularity by the issue of an election petition.”
It doesn’t give more details of what ‘some irregularity’ means, but it does details about the costs of launching a petition: £485 payable on issue of an election petition and another £5000 as security against costs. And it helpfully says that “an example of an election petition can be found at the back of the Election Petition Rules 1960 and the European Election Petition Rule 1979 and Atkins Court Forms, volume 18(1).“ Since no one was answering the Election Petitions Office hotline when I tried, I decided to check out said legal volume.
But the £72575 cost of purchasing the tome seemed a bit excessive. Presumably HM Courts & tribunals will be hoping potential complainants would be similarly put off.
The Election Petitions Office eventually confirmed that a successful petition relied on proving the irregularity ‘materially affected the outcome of the election.’ Back to that old imponderable chestnut. Just counting up the number of votes the dormant Lib Dem candidate received doesn’t tell you about all the non-Lib Dem voters who might have voted differently if they knew other options now had a better chance than if the Lib Dems were still in the race. Confused? Imagine the court case.
So where does all this leave the good people of South West Surrey? Not in a good place. Voting for a candidate who isn’t candidate, feeling cheated out of a vote that wasn’t a vote, facing the possibility of a result that isn’t a fair result. And worse of all, facing the possibility of another election.
Candidates standing in South West Surrey:
Liberal Democrat (suspended) - Patrick Haveron
Conservative - Jeremy Hunt
National Health Action Party - Louise Irvine
Labour - Howard Kaye
Something New - Paul Robinson
Green - Susan Ryland
UKIP - Mark Webber