Electoral Secrecy

I wrote a piece in yesterday’s Mail on Sunday about the secrecy and utter lack of accountability surrounding those public officials charged with overseeing UK elections.

Why election officials are a law unto themselves
Mail on Sunday, 9 May 2010

Anyone trying to find out what preparations were made for Thursday’s General Election would have encountered a wall of silence from the public officials in charge.

I know because I made these enquiries last year. I wanted to know how local councils were registering people to vote and whether the number was going up or down and why.
I wanted to know if there was any truth to a Data Sharing Review instigated by the Cabinet Office that stated voter registration was down due to worries that marketing companies would get voters’ names from the electoral role and send junk mail.

The review recommended scrapping the publicly available electoral roll so only state officials and some private companies could access it. The Government took up this recommendation and there is a consultation in place to abolish it.

This is of great concern. In a democracy it is essential that people can see who is registered to vote and where. Why? Well for a start, officials rarely expose voter fraud, it is normally ordinary people or the Press – it was a reporter who found there was only one occupant at a Tower Hamlets address where eight Bengalis were registered to vote.

If the public are going to be denied ready access to the public electoral roll then there ought to be very good reason. Instead I found the ‘evidence’ used in the report was non-existent. From my queries to local councils I discovered the recommendation to abolish the roll was based on fiction. Voter registration was not going down. This was made clear by the turnout at Thursday’s Election, up from 61.4 per cent in 2005 to 65.2 per cent.

But I discovered something more disturbing. The officials charged with compiling electoral registers and running elections were accountable to no one.
Local councils do not publish information about electoral preparations so it was only
by making Freedom of Information requests that I could get answers. I made requests to every council in the UK.
I received from them all a version of this response from the London Borough of Barnet: ‘The Electoral Registration Officers are not answerable to the Council in respect of their electoral responsibilities and duties, which are carried out in their own personal capacity. An example of this is that the Register of Electors is deemed to be the property of the Electoral Registration Officer, not the local authority.’

The councils also claimed any information held by the election officials relating to their duties was exempt from disclosure. This is clearly not acceptable. We should demand accountability from Electoral Registration Officers and Returning Officers.

Let’s look at the Electoral Commission, the so-called elections watchdog. Its chairwoman, Jenny Watson, says all the Commission can do is provide guidance to election officers; managing the elections is the responsibility of local election officers.

Guess who is responsible for monitoring the performance of these electoral officials? The Commission’s website states: ‘Electoral Registration Officers and Returning Officers are asked to assess themselves against the standards.’

There are supposedly sanctions against abuse. The law states that if an Electoral Registration Officer is found guilty of any act in breach of their official duty, they will be liable to a maximum fine of £5,000. But little if any monitoring is being done. But little if any proactive monitoring or investigation is being done and indeed the Commission told me that such investigations would be a matter for the police and Crown Prosecution Service not the Commission.

If the Electoral Commission is getting public money to ensure a competent election system it should have real powers to enforce standards and take action against those breaching those standards. It should do proactive investigation to ensure election officers are up to scratch. If it is doing none of these things then we have to ask what value for money are we getting from this toothless watchdog?

I’m not arguing for more bureaucracy or more state power. Quite the opposite. We don’t need another regulator as we can see just how ineffective they are when it comes to forcefully protecting the public interest. What we need is for election officers to come out of the shadows and be directly answerable to the people.

Any system where powerful public servants are unaccountable to the populous is a recipe for disaster. It is particularly galling that we should find this right at the very heart of our democracy.

An edited version of this article appears about half-way down on the MoS website.

3 Responses to “Electoral Secrecy”

  1. Heather,

    This is a difficult one, but it seems quite apparant that there were significant problems with the count in Barking.

    Of course, because the result was supported by all and sundry, getting the BNP out of their council seats, nobody is going to look at the results closely, but if you do it all looks a little dodgy. I have heard rumours of missing ballot boxes and so on from people who were not part of the BNP campaign team.

    It would be an interesting investigation, if not entirely popular. But surely, if we are to be a democracy, we must have equality in the law.


  2. Nigel Blumenthal says:

    Hi Heather:

    I’ve just discovered your site (following up a search for how to contact the congestion charging people in London – but that’s another story!) and I came across this thread. I was quite shocked, as I suspect most people would be, to read that electoral registration officers are responsible to no-one. So my next question is, who are these people? What is their daytime job? Who appoints them to do the job of an ERO? And, most importantly, can I apply to be one? All you’d need really would be a bunch of EROs who were committed to doing things in an open and above-the-line manner, and the system would be blown apart.


  3. noel says:

    Hi Heather,
    In May2007, we in scotland had both local and central govt. elections on same day. We had 140,000 votes discounted. SNP got in!

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