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Spectre of electoral fraud

20 March 2008

Jon Bright (London, OK): As a fistful of polling cards are stuffed through my front door, containing the full names and register numbers of all the 10 or so people that live in my small block of flats, I am reminded of this Times story which I saw yesterday (via Political Betting). Mr Eshaq Khan, a Conservative councillor in Slough, was found guilty of rigging his election using loose postal vote rules, and stripped of his seat. In last year's local elections he won his seat by 119 votes - many of which now turn out to have been fabricated. Labour MP for Slough Fiona MacTaggart said "I am very pleased that we have seen our democracy work," apparently without a trace of irony.

Two things jump out about this story. The first point, as Mike Smithson makes on Political Betting, is that it's so easy to fix postal voting because the barrier to getting a postal vote is low in order to encourage turnout - but a system that is easy to fix is much worse than a system which is hard to participate in. Smithson thinks that Labour is the main beneficiary of raising turnout, and is therefore reluctant to change the rules - a further demonstration of how difficult it is for a system like ours to change itself.

The second thing was this paragraph from the Times:

Eshaq Khan was stripped of his council seat in Slough, Berkshire, and banned from holding office for five years after being found guilty of corrupt practices

This follows a case in 2005 when several Labour councillors were caught rigging postal votes in Birmingham - they were likewise prevented from standing at the next election, though I don't think they were ever charged with a criminal offence.

Am I missing something? Why are these punishments so lenient? The fact that voting fraud does not result in a prison sentence seems to beggar belief - but itself looks small fry compared to the fact that fraudsters are only banned from the next election, rather than all subsequent ones. Think of all the Labour and Lib Dem MPs standing in marginal seats at the next election, facing a Tory swing. Is there any point them not having a go at vote rigging? If they don't - they lose their seat. If they do - they may hang on to it. If they get caught - they lose the seat, which they would have done anyway (albeit in a rather more catastrophic fashion).

As it stands, therefore, we have a system that is easy to abuse and a small punishment for being caught. Small wonder that there have been some cases of fraud - and I am left wondering whether those we know about are just the tip of the iceberg.

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