An account of day touring Birmingham’s polling booths – uncovering widespread irregularities – including rescuing a hapless Lib Dem – finding campaign literature inside polling booths – voters locked out of stations – people being ‘helped’ to vote – Do we need independent election monitors?
Back in 2004 the integrity of Birmingham’s democracy was famously questioned by a Judge who found electoral conduct which would, in his exact words, “disgrace a banana republic.”* Fast forward to the 2010 General Election and I found myself as the Agent for the Conservative Parliamentary candidate for Ladywood. This is the same area that worried the judge six years earlier. So, have things improved? Well, – yes and no… they’ve started to solve the problem with postal votes, but things are getting worse at the polling stations.
So, let’s start with the polling stations. I went to a sample of a dozen or so. I was left wide-eyed with disbelief. At every station which had ‘tellers’ (party activists) present there was a total disregard for the rules. There is not supposed to be any campaign material within 100 meters of the entrance to a polling station. This allows people to enter without fear or pressure. In all the polling stations I saw there were activists aggressively handing out leaflets at the gates. There was also campaign material (banners etc.) tied to the railings of the gates as people entered. At the first polling station I went to there was a van with a full Labour logo on parked directly opposite the station entrance with a loud-speaker system on its roof. It was literally broadcasting campaign messages into the polling station. Any voter who wanted to get to the station could not enter without having literature hoist on them and verbal encouragement for particular candidates. The leaflets were ‘helpful’ guides on how to vote – semi-official looking instructions to place an x in a particular box (with worked examples showing the candidates name and party logo). Shockingly in two polling stations I found these leaflets had been left on the writing surface of the polling booths. I’ll say that again – there was party campaign literature actually on display in the polling booths themselves.
I did speak with the Station Presiding Officers and they had all spoken with the activists at the entrances but had been ignored. The police had been notified and attended but the activists had simply gone away when the police arrived and returned when they went. In an earlier pre-election briefing the council had told me that the Police would have a dedicated single-point-of-contact to deal with any issues. I decided ring them since the activists had such contempt for the Presiding Officer and I. Not being a 999 matter I rang the police station directly. I was on hold for over fifteen minutes without answer before I hung up. I then tried the elections office at the council to report it – again I spent ten minutes on hold before I gave up waiting. The activist army outside the polling station stayed put harassing arriving voters.
At the next station we found another gaggle of Labour activists handing out their material at the gates – cars were again parked opposite the entrance all with large Labour placards covering their windscreens on prominent display. We went inside and found a Lib Dem activist actually handing out leaflets within the premises! When challenged she broke down in tears. According to her she had tried to position herself at the gates but had suffered such verbal abuse from the Labour activists that ‘she only felt safe inside the station’. We offered her a lift to a ‘safe’ polling station. ‘Rescuing’ an activist from another party was certainly the most surreal moment of the day.
Whilst driving the Lib Dem to ‘safety’ we finally found a Police Officer. The PC had pulled over campaigners for an independent local council candidate who the Lib Dem referred to as ‘The Somalian’. They were in a car with a tannoy set-up and had been broadcasting ‘Please-Vote’ messages at volume whilst driving around the area. The crazy thing here is that having finally found the police they were tackling the only activists who I had seen campaigning legally! To be fair to the constable the driver didn’t have insurance – but the irony still shouldn’t be lost. After a quick chat with the officer she contacted her control room to find out who the police single-point-of-contact for the election was. Nobody in the control room knew. She agreed she would pop round to the polling station herself, but didn’t seem to have had any briefing whatever about what is or is not acceptable (or legal) by activists so I’m unsure what good she would be able to do.
Now, in case you think “so long as activists are outside the gates then anything goes” you need to know that there are defined rules about what people are allowed to do in the vicinity of a polling station. A ‘teller’ is allowed to stand near to the entrance and ask voters their polling card number only. This allows the more organised parties who have canvassed to check if the people that said they would support them have actually voted. Towards the end of the day a Party with a decent teller operation can then chase up all its supporters who haven’t yet voted and if necessary offer them lifts to the polling booths. The Electoral Commission has brought all the rules about tellers together in Appendix E of this document here. It is several thousand words, so to pull out just the salient bits:
“3.3 Tellers should not display or distribute election material (e.g. billboards, posters, placards or pamphlets) on walls or around the polling place. […]
3.5 Tellers must not attempt to induce, influence or persuade an elector how or whether to vote. Tellers cannot promote particular candidates or political parties. Their conduct must not give rise to allegations of undue influence, e.g. discussing voting intentions, party affiliations, a candidate’s history or party campaigns, or undertaking any other activity particularly associated with one particular party or candidate.”
Every time I showed activists these rules on May 6th they looked at me like I was from another planet.
My afternoon tour brought more of the same across the constituency. The day’s most serious incident was when I left a polling station in north Ladywood. I’d had a chat with the activists at the gate and politely made them aware of the rules – prompting the charade of a temporary withdrawal until I was out of sight. As I got back into my car a young women tapped on my window. “Are you something to do with the election?” She explained she had seen me having a word with the others, and assumed I was someone ‘official’. She wanted me to know that the polling agents in the station had insisted that when her mother, who spoke only little English, went into the polling station they escorted her to the booth and filled the mothers ballot paper for her. I’ll not name the party accused as this is anecdotal. She was livid; “It’s just not right. Some of them are my family, man – but they stole my mother’s vote and it aint right.” When I retold that tale to people who lived in the area they were unsurprised and told me the practice was widespread. If true, one has to wonder the level of training given to Station Presiding Officers to allow this – I suppose I shouldn’t be surprised – on the evidence of everything I had seen with my own eyes that day it is clear that very few of the people running our polling stations have even basic knowledge of what is and isn’t allowed.
The answer to all the polling station issues is to stop trying to police our elections on the cheap. If our democracy matters – and I hope it does – then we should properly train the station presiding officers to run tighter ships within the station and have the Police available at the polling stations to quickly clamp down on any unacceptable behaviour outside. I hope that the specific problems I saw were down to over-enthusiasm and ignorance by party activists rather than centrally co-ordinated misintent. Regardless of whether it is cock-up or conspiracy being unable to guarantee our electorate can reach the ballot box without interference or pressure begins to chip away at the notion that our elections are ‘free and fair’. The disregard for the rules must stop and only the Police have the clout to enforce them. Even if putting a copper at every single polling station is unrealistic, we could still go a long way by prioritising the stations that have a history of issues – yes that means Ladywood would get far more Police attention – but if that is where the problem is, then this is where the solution is needed.
Let’s get onto postal votes. This was where it went so wrong in 2004. The good news here is that giant strides in the right direction have been made. I was present at the electoral office when I saw a chap come in and try to register himself as a proxy for 16 postal votes – I’m pleased to report that he was politely but firmly told he could be proxy for no more than two unless they were immediate family.
At the postal count in Birmingham (which gets underway a week before polling day) there’s spawned a whole temporary industry checking every single ballot paper received to ensure that the envelope numbers and ballot paper numbers match – all envelopes are passed through a scanner to check individual signatures and dates-of-birth against those held in the database. Any which the computer software says may be suspect are removed for human adjudication. I watched the adjudication and agreed with the call the official made every time. This is a step forward – the old fraud where cheats would get themselves a copy of the ‘marked electoral register’ from the council to see who never votes and then send in false postal ballot papers from these apathetic voters is stopped by this system. What the system will not stop is people from bullying or intimidating their family members or friends by demanding to inspect their postal ballot before they send it to ensure that “they have filled it in correctly”. That is the downside of the postal voting – it needs to be balanced with the large number of people who work away from home in the week and for whom the availability of a postal vote stops them being disenfranchised. The system isn’t perfect, but it now requires much greater effort and more willing co-conspirators if you wanted to pull off a major fraud. I await the council to publish official figures but I would estimate from what I saw that about 10% of the postal votes received were rejected for various reasons. It is sad to see how many people who went to the trouble of filling in the ballot paper then forget to sign the envelope and so waste their vote.
Back to the polling booths – One thing I did not observe myself, but is suggested to be widespread in the constituency is ‘personation’. This is where someone simply claims to be someone else and votes on their behalf. There is very, very little we can do about this as under current rules there is no power for the polling officials to demand any form of identification. Obviously, an individual would be foolish to try and vote at the same station twice – but with scores of polling stations in each constituency, anyone who has seen the marked electoral register will know the names of people who usually do not vote. It would not require great wit to do a tour of polling booths and vote scores of times. An organised team could quickly wrack up hundreds of votes this way. I make no claim that this happened in Ladywood in this election – I simply say that the lack of any system to prevent it allows rumours that it occurs to persist.
There is the well known saying that “opportunity creates the thief”. So much of our electoral procedures are based on a very quaint British notion of trust. British MPs showed in last year’s expenses debacle that even the supposedly honourable can be quick to take advantage of trust based systems. Should we assume that there are no elements of the population who would take the opportunity to cheat if they could in the elections? Of course not. It is naive to assume it doesn’t go on. Individual ballot boxes from certain stations in Ladywood apparently had turnout 20-30% higher than would have been expected. This may be because a party had been incredibly successful in mustering the vote and a credit to them – or it may be that after the vote had closed an insider simply ticked off the remaining names on the register, filled in a whole load of ballot papers and stuffed the box. We hope the former but we have too much trust and too few checks and balances to be certain. Fraud could happen.
If all that wasn’t enough we also had one polling station at St Pauls Square which was so understaffed that around 100 people were denied the chance to vote at all despite having arrived in what should have been ample time, before the station closed at 10pm. This was particularly irritating for our Party as it is one of the stations where we do well. At least this incident has already attracted national media attention which prompted this report by the electoral commission here.
When you put everything together you do begin to imagine how an outside observer would view the proceedings. As it happens there were some Observers present from Commonwealth countries across the UK. The Kenyans were shocked that they see our ballot security as a lower standard than their own. Well, they were looking at the orderly parts of the country – one wonders how much stronger their words would have been had they been in Ladywood. Perhaps that is what is needed to raise our game? It would be embarrassing to be lectured by Afghans or Iraqi’s on running a free and fair ballot – but if they observed what I observed they couldn’t objectively report faith in the result.
One thing I would stress is that for all the irregularities and potential for irregularities that I saw Shabana Mahmood’s majority is such that there is no doubt whatever in my mind that she was the rightful winner. I’m confident she knew nothing of, and had no direct part in any dodgy activities by her activists. Likewise her Lib Dem opponent. I would also make no claim that there is any particular party worse than another in polling fraud or conduct. Indeed I note that just up the road from me in Walsall three Tories have been charged with regards this election.
I would also not want to cast blame on Birmingham Council’s elections office. They were courteous, professional and helpful throughout – they are constrained in scope by their minimal statutory powers and their available budget.
I have to say though that because of what I saw on May 6th if the result had been anywhere near close I would not feel confident it could be trusted. That can’t be right. This is the United Kingdom in 2010. If we value our democracy we have to tighten up procedures and we have to better police our polling booths and the security of the ballot boxes from end-to-end of the process – I understand that there would be a cost involved – but when you think of those who have died for our democracy then protecting their legacy has to be worth it.
* You can read the background to the ‘banana republic quote from this report in the Times Newspaper here.