Voter Suppression and poll failures – the latest government election efforts

Two significant bits of news as regards elections in the UK have emerged in the last few days:

Voter ID requirement would be suppression effort

First, the government has said that it wants to press ahead with plans to require voters to take photo identity documents to the polling station. This measure, although a common requirement in countries with ID cards, has been dubbed an attempt at voter suppression in the UK where the most likely to be hit would be young people, the elderly and people from minority communities.

Two rounds of pilots have taken place in local council elections where voters were required to bring either photo ID or poll cards in order to be allowed to vote. In the most recent trial in five local authorities, more than 750 people were turned away and did not return with the correct documents although many others did so after initially being refused. In contrast, during the 2015 elections (which included a general election) there 665 complaints of electoral fraud but most related to nominations or postal voting. There were 26 cases reported of ‘personation’ at a polling station, but none resulted in convictions. A total of around 51.4 million ballots cast.

But if most other countries require ID, why shouldn’t the UK? 

First, because we don’t have a national identity card system. (That’s a whole separate civil liberties argument). So we have to rely on forms of identity that we do have – passports and driving licences. But only about 78% of the adult population have passports and only about 80% have driving licenses. These raw statistics would suggest that 96% of the population would have one or the other, but actually if you don’t have a passport then you are much less likely to have a driving licence. So the real figure is about 11% – one in nine of the population. And these people are statistically more likely to be much younger, not in work or from minority populations – in other words, statiustically less likely to be Conservative voters.

In order to get around the ‘No-ID’ problem, the government would have to issue a special form of voting ID card. With a potential 5.6 million to issue, this would be an expensive and complex business (it would have to be free to the applicant) and very difficult to promote to the audiences who need to see and understand the message.

All this begins to look very similar to efforts in the United States to suppress the likely support for opposition parties. 

I used to work for the Electoral Reform Society. As part of that work I highlighted the much more real danger of electoral fraud connected with postal votes and this work resulted in significant changes to the law to try to stamp this out. Even with those changes I would still regard postal voting as a much greater risk of fraud than in-person voting. In response to the new government proposals, the ERS have said:

“Ministers should focus on combating the real threats to our democracy – dark ads, disinformation and dodgy donations – rather than suppressing voters’ rights.”

Electoral Commission criticises government over Euro-poll failures

Second, the Electoral Commission has blamed the government for the failures of the European Parliamentary elections when thousands of eligible voters were denied the chance to cast their ballot. The Commission has blamed “outdated laws” and “the failure by the government to act on recommendations made four years ago”.

The Commission also said voter confidence in the election was lower than in any other recent polls, denting the democratic contract with the public.

Thousands of EU citizens who were on the electoral roll were turned away as they had not been informed they also had to fill in a form confirming they would be exercising their vote in the UK rather than in their country of origin. There were a number of reports of councils giving misleading information to voters who made enquiries and of authorities who failed to process returned forms properly.

Many UK citizens living overseas complained that they did not receive their ballot papers in time to have their vote count.

Reading List – 10th October 2019

The Kyiv Post reports that President Zelensky has given the go ahead to local elections in the conflict areas of Donbas but said that Russian and other combatants must withdraw first. Under the plan, the OSCE and domestic observers, media and political groups would have access to see the polls.


Roland Paris in the Toronto Globe and Mail suggests that Canada needs to hold a comprehensive foreign affairs review


Reading List – 9th October 2019

Orysia Lutsevych of Chatham House’s Ukraine Forum looks at the country’s continued problem with judicial reform and the mixed signals President Zelensky has sent on the issue.


A pretty hefty report from the Foreign Policy Centre on the problems of human rights abuses in areas affected by frozen conflicts, including Transnistria, the Donbass and Abkhazia.


Portugal’s Socialist Party wins re-election

5319The Socialist Party under António Costa has retained power in Portugal following yesterday’s general election. Results available at the time of writing suggest that the party has increased its share of seats and may seek to renew its agreement with the Left Bloc and Communist parties.

Diputados_por_distrito_(elecciones_a_la_Asamblea_de_la_República,_2015).svgPortugal elects its 230 seat Assembly via closed party lists based on 18 mainland regions, two self-governing island regions (Azores and Madeira) and separate lists for Potuguese living in Europe and elsewhere in the world. Each list elects between two and 47 MPs.

Provisional Results

(based on Interior Ministry statistics and before final overseas region reported) which include a thumbnail political compass indicator for each group:

  • Socialist Party (centre left) 36.7% (+4.4%) 106 seats (+20)
  • Social Democrats (centre right) 27.9% (a) 77 seats (-12)
  • Left Bloc (far left) 9.7% (-0.5%) 19 seats (no change)
  • Unitary Democratic Coalition* 6.5% (-1.8%) 12 seats (-5)
  • CDS-People’s Party (right wing) 4.3% (a) 5 seats (-13)
  • People Animals Nature (green) 3.3% (+1.9%) 4 seats (+3)
  • Chega (populist right) 1.3% (new party) 1 seat
  • Liberal Initiative (liberal) 1.3% (new party) 1 seat
  • Livre (eco-socialist) 1.1% (+0.5%) 1 seat (+1)

* UDC is an electoral alliance between the Communist Party and Ecological Party

(a) The Social Democrats and CDS-PP contested the previous election as a joint alliance known as Portugal Ahead and won 38.6% of the vote and 107 MPs.

Turnout was just 54.5% – the lowest since the revolution which restored democracy in 1975 and 1.3% down on the last election in 2015.

The Guardian suggests that this positive result for the left bucks the trend of recent elections in Europe. But whilst parties of the right and centre right have certainly won a good deal of recent contests across Europe, I would suggest that there is no general right-ward or left-ward shift in Europe as much as a move towards success for mainstream parties at the expense of the populist right and far left.

With at least 106 seats in the new Parliament, Mr Costa is in a stronger position with his former allies in the Left Bloc and UDC alliance but has indicated a willingness to continue the partnership with one or both groups. The People Animals Nature party now has four seats and may also enter coalition discussions. Portuguese law does not require the government to have an overall majority in the Parliament but requires the opposition to gather an absolute majority (ie at least 116 MPs) in order to defeat the government in a confidence motion or to block the government’s programme.

Reading List – 7th October 2019

– Democrats must act now to deter foreign interference in the 2020 election

Thomas Wright argues that President Trump is likely to allow or even solicit foreign interference in the next US election, but that Democrat candidates can head it off with well thought through deterrence. He believes that a threat that has a 40% chance of being implemented is enough to see off Russia or other states who might wish to interfere.

– State-building myths in Central Asia

Francisco Olmos looks at how the leaders of the new central asian republics turned to history to create a raison d’être. Several chose to hark back to historic conquerors and tribal leaders, real or mythological. But one centred its narrative on its first post-Soviet leader and another initially sought to avoid history in order to avoid threatening its Russian majority.

– Boosting the Role of National Parliaments in EU Democracy

Agata Gostyńska-Jakubowska of the Center for European Reform suggests that the EU should give greater powers to national parliaments in order to boost public understanding and support. But with many national legislatures less popular than the EU, will this help in those states? And with 28 (or 27) member states, is there any way for suggestions to be made that is not horribly complex and messy?


Rory Stewart makes things ten times more complicated for voters in London Mayor ballot

Rory Stewart is running for London Mayor as an independent. That makes voters’ choices ten times harder and could result in carnage in the election next May.

That Stewart would be forced to abandon his current seat of Penrith and the Border in Cumbria was pretty clear. He had been deprived of the Conservative whip by Boris Johnson (although he remained a member of the party) and so would not be able to re-stand as a Conservative in the seat he has represented for ten years. The seat had previously been represented by David Maclean and Willie Whitelaw and is unlikely to be anything other than Tory after the next election. Some suggested he might seek revenge by standing against Boris Johnson, but Stewart has chosen instead to throw his hat into the ring for the London mayoralty, a position formerly held by the PM.

So why does this make things especially difficult?

The problem is that the London mayor is elected by a voting system known as the Supplementary Vote (SV), often described as the worst of all worlds.

Using SV, voters are faced with a ballot paper which asks them to mark an X for their first choice in one column and a second X in a second column for their second choice. At the count, the first choice votes are added up and if a single candidate has more than 50% of the votes cast then they win. But if they don’t then the top two vote getters are put through to the second round and the second choice votes on the ballots cast for all the other candidates are examined and any votes for either of the top two are added to their total. The candidate with the most votes after this is done is declared the winner.

Here’s the problem. If you want to ensure that your vote counts then you need to know (or guess) which two candidates will make it through to the second round (there will surely be a second round in London). You can then pick which of those two candidates you prefer (or least hate). The good news is that you can safely cast your first preference for whoever you genuinely like on the full ballot list, even if you suspect they have no real chance of winning. The bad news is that everything after that is guesswork.

So who will make it through to the second round? At the moment I wouldn’t like to guess. Clearly the current mayor, Sadiq Khan, has a good shot. He is the Labour candidate in what is historically a Labour city. But remember that in the first London mayoral election the official Labour candidate, Frank Dobson, was not in the top two. So it can happen. And there are now three other strong candidates. Shaun Bailey is the Conservative candidate, Siobhan Benita is standing for the Lib Dems (who topped the poll in London in the European elections) and now Rory Stewart. Add in the Green Party and Brexit Party who have smaller but significant levels of support as well as countless fringe and independent voices and it all becomes very complicated.

Your first choice is not going to be a wasted vote but your second choice, and therefore your ballot as a whole, could well be.

Here’s how it works for my particular case:

I have a strong preference for the Lib Dems. Of the rest, I have some sympathy for the Green Party and I like Rory Stewart despite him being in favour of Brexit. I would prefer Sadiq Khan to Shaun Bailey. So I will cast my first preference for Siobhan Benita. If she does not come in the top two then I want my vote still to make a difference. If I cast my second preference for the Green candidate it will likely be wasted. I am willing to bet that Sadiq Khan will be in the top two but who will it be against. If it is Shaun Bailey then I would cast my second vote for Khan. If it is Stewart then he would get my choice rather than the Labour candidate.

Add in the fact that many parties will try to convince voters to just cast a first preference in the mistaken belief that anything else could damage them and you are in a right muddle.

There are two possible solutions to this mess.

The first would be to move to a proper two round system such as is used in France. After the first round, all but the top two are eliminated and a second vote is taken a week or two later with just the top two from the first round on the ballot paper. That way, voters can have a free choice without the risk that their vote will go to someone already eliminated.

Alternatively (pun intended), move to AV – the Alternative Vote. Here voters number all the candidates in order of preference – 1, 2, 3 etc until they cannot decide between the remainder. Candidates are excluded in turn from the lowest vote getting and their ballots distributed according to the voter’s next preference until one candidate has the support of more than half the voters. It may be that it is your fourth preference that is counted, but your vote will not be wasted. 

In my example I can safely vote:

  1. Lib Dem
  2. Green
  3. Stewart
  4. Labour
  5. Conservative

and know that if it comes down to a final round choice between Khan and Bailey then my choice will still matter.

Note: I am using the ballot preference above as an example. It aligns with my views at the moment, but things might change. Please don’t judge me too harshly if you have other opinions.

Reading List – 4th October 2019

A few articles I have seen which provide food for thought. Today’s list focuses on Russian politics:

Sam Greene examines the possibility that Putin might dump the tarnished brand of United Russia for Vladimir Zhirinovsky’s LDPR.

  • Or maybe the All Russian Popular Front?

Others, however, think that the All-Russian Popular Front (ONF) might be elevated to become the umbrella body for pro-Kremlin candidates in place of United Russia. Vedemosti reports that the body has a new, dynamic, leader (this article is in Russian and reports that Mikhail Kuznetsov, currently Vice-Governor of the Moscow Region, will take the position).

A survey by Denis Volkov and Andrey Kolesnikov finds that the main concern of the Russian establishment for the period from 2018 to 2024 is not the modernization of the country, but the smooth and safe transit of power for political, managerial and business elites. (At the time of posting only available in Russian, but Carnegie Moscow are usually pretty good at loading English versions quickly).