The sloppy administration of the general election – long queues at polling stations, voters locked out, not enough ballot papers – has rightly caused outrage among those affected and may yet cause legal or other problems. But it shouldn’t come as a surprise. I used to assume that the system in the UK was relatively clean and efficient. Of course, no one is perfect, and every election is followed by police investigations into dirty work of one kind or another. Before election day this time I counted six press reports of police investigations, most but not all concerned with postal votes, once described by a judge as ‘an invitation to fraud’. But I began to look at our system more sceptically after being an official observer at five elections in states of the former Soviet Union. I was part of a team run by the Organisation for Security and Co-Operation in Europe, the members of which agreed in 1990 that it would be a good idea to observe each other’s elections.
It was quite a kick, spotting the acts of wrongdoing. In Georgia I caught someone rubbing out pencilled figures on the result report form and putting in different ones in ink. He took it calmly. ‘They call it balancing the figures,’ he said. ‘That’s not what I call it, but it’s what they call it.’ I enjoyed asking an obvious secret policeman who he was and what he was doing in a polling station, and watching him make himself scarce. During the count at the end of the day in another Georgian polling station my partner and I spotted a wodge of fraudulent ballot papers, all made out to the sitting president, Eduard Shevardnadze. The committee accepted that they were fraudulent and dithered for a long time what to do about them. In the end they counted them as votes for the opposition candidate. Something similar happened in Azerbaijan, near the Armenian border. It was clear that the chairman of the local committee had slipped the extra ballot papers into the heap on instructions from higher up. He didn’t relish what he was doing, and was relieved to be caught out.
If an official wanted to do something similar in a British election, the absence of observers would make it pretty easy. Surely, you may say, it wouldn’t happen here. Well, you wouldn’t trust a bank clerk with a blank cheque, so why should you trust a polling clerk with a blank ballot? It used to be forbidden by British law for observers to enter polling stations. After fifteen years’ hard work in the Circumlocution Office that law was recently changed, but practice hasn’t. I asked the official in charge of the polling station where I voted on Thursday whether he was expecting any observers. He clearly didn’t know what I was talking about.
At least two teams of international observers have been in action, one from the OSCE and the other from the Royal Commonwealth Society. The observation teams in which I took part consisted of several hundred people; these two numbered 10 and 11 respectively. Moreover, alongside the international observers in the countries of the former Soviet Union there were always local observers from NGOs, the equivalent of the British Electoral Reform Society, and sometimes also from political parties. So far as I am aware no such internal observers have been operating in Britain.
Does it matter? The answer is clearly yes. I will give two concrete examples. The briefing we were given laid down first that ballot papers should be delivered to polling stations at least three days before election day and should be counted in the presence of observers, and second that when the time arrived to close the polling station voters waiting in the queue at that moment should be allowed to vote. More generally, observers were instructed to check whether polling stations were fit for purpose. That of course included looking at their ability to cope with the numbers of voters expected. So the glitches which marred our election probably wouldn’t have happened in Azerbaijan.
In January, in advance of our general election, an OSCE mission published a ‘Needs Assessment’ report, which found that
The legal framework for elections is very complex. The electoral process is regulated by a large number of legal acts and regulations, which could benefit from consolidation and simplification. Although the Electoral Commission (EC) has addressed the current government with a consolidation request, the process has yet to start.
As a retired diplomat I know diplomatic euphemism when I see it. In plain language, they are telling us that our system is a mess. In the various countries where I worked, an interim report was produced the day after the election, usually pretty critical. We are spared that. The final report is due about two months from now. I hope it is not too diplomatic.