Protection against electoral fraud

United Kingdom

Bent bananas and rotten apples

The day before the May general election was announced, a Commissioner giving judgment on two election petitions from the 2004 local elections in Birmingham spoke of “...electoral fraud that would disgrace a banana republic”.

The fraud in question concerned postal votes cast in favour of Labour candidates in the Aston and Bordesley Green wards. Two petitions were brought to challenge the election result, along strict party lines: by the Liberal Democrats in Aston and the People’s Justice Party in Bordesley Green.

Birmingham City Council’s Returning Officer was named as a party to both Petitions. It was alleged that she had breached various rules and regulations in her conduct of the elections. We acted on her behalf in a successful defence of these serious allegations.

By contrast, all six Labour candidates were found to have committed corrupt and illegal practices. They were disenfranchised and not allowed to stand for office for 5 years. All six appealed. To date, the appeal of one of the Aston Labour candidates has been successful.

The Commissioner was scathing in his criticism of the postal voting system and ordered new elections to be held in both wards. Although the potential for abuse within the postal voting system was widely reported in the run-up to the general election, more voters chose to vote by post than in previous general elections.

The Government promised action. A Bill was introduced into the House of Commons on 11 October 2005. The Department of Constitutional Affairs advises that the Bill will be passed by 16 June 2006… at the earliest. It may not be in force in time for the local elections next year.

Even if it is, it remains to be seen whether the measures in the Bill will be effective. It is clear from the Birmingham cases that tensions can run high at local elections and the results in a particular ward can be critical. Winning margins may be small and therefore more open to abuse than at parliamentary elections.

Returning Officers should have insurance cover for the costs of defending election petitions as well as for the costs of re-running elections. From an insurer’s point of view, the new Bill must be effective in preventing electoral fraud now that the Birmingham cases have shown the rest of the country what is possible.

This article first appeared in our Litigation Annual Review January 2006. To view this publication, please click here to open a new window.