Election rigging Western style

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In his regular column for Kenya’s Sunday Nation newspaper DiA’s Nic Cheeseman reflects on recent election scandals in the UK, and asks what the West can learn from Africa about electoral manipulation.


GIVEN THE way that the global media focuses on stories of rigged elections in places like Cote d’Ivoire and Zimbabwe, it is easy to see why some people get the impression that electoral manipulation is largely an “African problem”. However, a number of recent stories have highlighted the fact that in reality this continues to be an issue in a number of established democracies around the world.

In the United Kingdom, the Conservative Party has just received the highest fine ever imposed for breaking campaign finance rules. This follows hot on the heels of a previous scandal about the manipulation of the postal vote system.

In the United States of America, a number of southern states controlled by the Republican Party have recently introduced new voting requirements that, on the face of it, are designed to reduce voter fraud. However, in reality the new rules are driven by a more cynical logic, namely that they effectively disenfranchise certain groups who tend to vote Democrat, such as poor, Hispanic, and black Americans who are less likely to have the necessary documents.

The lesson of these recent episodes is clear: electoral manipulation is a global problem, and tends to takes place wherever political leaders think that they can get away with it.

How to rig a British election

At the last general election, the Conservative Party led by David Cameron won an unexpected outright victory. Instead of the need for a coalition government, which many commentators had predicted, the Tories secured a small majority of just 12 seats.

At the time, explanations for the surprise result typically focussed on public distrust of the main opposition, the Labour Party, under the leadership Ed Miliband. Some analysts also pointed to the fact that Labour has a history of performing a bit better in opinion polls than at the ballot box, presumably because there are some voters who want to pay less tax but are embarrassed to admit it to a stranger on the phone.

More recently, it has emerged that the Conservative Party’s victory may also have a more sinister explanation, namely that the government committed electoral fraud, breaking campaign finance regulations to spend more than they were allowed to in key areas.

Fudging the figures

An investigation by Channel 4 News has found that the Conservative Party’s spending return – which it must submit to the Electoral Commission – did not disclose payments worth at least £104,765. At the same time, it discovered that the party had failed to report, or incorrectly reported, a further £118,124 worth of payments. As a result, the Party was fined £70,000 – a UK record – and its Treasurer, Simon Day, has been reported to the police.

What appears to have happened is that the government did not include the cost of hosting senior political figures that were sent to key constituencies in order to boost the campaign of the Conservative candidate in its list of expenses for those places. Although the sums involved might seem very small in the context of a national election campaign, they are significant in terms of battles for individual seats, because each party is only allowed to spend around £15,000 per constituency. By breaching this limit, the Conservative Party gained an unfair advantage over other parties who kept to the rules.

To make matters worse, the Conservative Party also failed to fully cooperate once allegations of malpractice surfaced. According to the CEO of the Electoral Commission, Claire Bassett, the official investigation into the offences took much longer than necessary because of “some difficulties” in getting essential information out of the government.

Sadly, although the spotlight is currently on the Conservatives, this is not a problem that is confined to one party. In 2016, the Labour Party was fined £20,000 for undeclared election spending totalling around £150,000. The same year, the Liberal Democrats were fined the same amount for leaving around £180,000 of expenditure off their spending return.

One reason that parties keep committing offences is that the fines imposed are so small that they do not act as a sufficient deterrent. As the Chair of the Electoral Commission, Sir John Holmes, recently put it “This is the third investigation we have recently concluded where the largest political parties have failed to report up to six figure sums following major elections, and have been fined as a result. There is a risk that some political parties might come to view the payment of these fines as a cost of doing business.”

The weakness of the UK electoral system

Given the focus on election technology ahead of the August 2017 general elections, Kenyan readers might be amused to hear that the UK electoral system has remarkably few checks against malpractice. There is, for example, no use of digital election technology at any stage of the process. Moreover, the capacity of the Electoral Commission to detect and punish fraud is limited. Due to a quirk of the rules, while the Commission is allowed to make rulings related to the expenditure of political parties at the national level, cases involved Members of Parliament themselves are the preserve of the police.

The problem with this arrangement is that the police are only likely to take cases forwards if they think that there is sufficient evidence to secure a conviction for fraud, which means that it must be possible to demonstrate malpractice “beyond reasonable doubt”. This is a very high burden of proof – higher than most electoral petitions can manage. As a result, it is likely that at least some of those currently under investigation for breaking campaign finance rules will get away with it.

Given that the UK has no direct election for the executive, and that the government is determined by which party manages to elect the most MPs, the fact that the remit of the Electoral Commission is limited to the national level undermines its capacity to protect the integrity of the electoral system. Indeed, it is exactly the kind of failing that international donors would be likely to criticize if they came across it in an African country.

Remarkably, this is not the only example of this kind of failing. Instead, many elements of international best practice are simply lacking in the UK. Most obviously, there are no effective checks in place to make sure that voters are who they say they are, and that they only vote once. In other words, the British system effectively runs on trust. When that trust is abused, the limitations of the process become clear.

Going postal

The UK’s system of postal votes, through which people can receive ballot papers at their home and post them back, is a classic example of weaknesses of the broader electoral system. This form of voting is particularly open to abuse, as it is hard to detect whether the postal vote was actually filled out by the person concerned, or were faked. As Electoral Commissioner Richard Mawrey put it in 2015, postal voting fraud in the UK has been “easy” due to “extremely lax rules”.

Unsurprisingly, unscrupulous leaders have sought to take advantage of this state of affairs. In 2009, a Conservative councillor was jailed for using “ghost voters” to win a local council election. Despite this, little was done to close the loophole, and just five years later a similar investigation found that the Mayor of Tower Hamlets, Lutfur Rahman, was guilty of corrupt and illegal practices during his election campaign. More recently, some of the UK’s smaller parties have demanded that the system be tightened up, alleging that they have been disadvantaged by “widespread fraud”.

What can the West learn from Africa?

Many countries in Africa are leading the way when it comes to the adoption of new mechanisms to prevent electoral fraud. From biometric voter registration to parallel vote tabulations, the last ten years has been a remarkable period of innovation. While not every experiment has been successful, and some have not been worth the cost, there is much that Western states such as the UK can learn from the recent experience of countries like Ghana and Nigeria.

One important lesson is that small fines will never be enough to deter electoral malpractice. When the benefits that come with power are so valuable, the only effective deterrent is to take power away. In other words, if you want to stop fraud, you must make sure that those who commit it lose their seats. Another lesson is that the price of free and fair elections is eternal vigilance, which in turn requires a range of groups including political parties and civil society organizations to be constantly engaged in the process. In Britain, as in a number of other Western states, these lessons have long been forgotten. Perhaps it is time for Ghanaian, Kenyan and Nigerian delegations to be sent to observe the next UK elections.


Nic Cheeseman (@fromagehomme) is the Professor of Democracy at the University of Birmingham

This column first appeared in the Sunday Nation



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