A matter of trust
Right now, elections come down in large part to trust. We’re all comfortable with the idea that when we vote for someone, we are expressing our trust in them to deliver. But I think we understand less well that the conduct of elections relies on trust as well.
We don’t ask voters to prove that they are who they say they are, we trust them. We trust the Royal Mail to deliver our postal votes. Most of us don’t get to observe a count but we trust the parties or the campaigns to look out for our interests by helping to ensuring the count is run properly. I’ve acted as returning officer for nine elections and two referendums and I was surprised both before and after the [independence] referendum to see the level of distrust there was in the system.
Before the vote people were talking about using a pen to vote so that their vote could not be changed, and on polling day we had a number of cases of campaigners demanding to leave pens at polling stations. A number of drivers working for me to move ballot boxes from polling stations to the count centre reported campaigners telling them they were going to tail them to ensure they didn’t pick up new boxes. And we’re all familiar with the claims which have been made in the days since 18 September about people at count centres putting ballots on the wrong pile.
In Glasgow we found a number of cases where people attempting to vote appeared to have already voted. This suggests that someone may have impersonated them, although there are other possible explanations. We immediately reported these to the police and they are being investigated. However, on the night of the count, we had 702 accredited counting agents from both campaigns and over a hundred elected politicians from all the associated political parties. None of them reported any concerns about the conduct of the count to me on the night and none have done so since.
So we can have a high degree of confidence that there was not widespread fraud, in Glasgow or anywhere else. We can have confidence that our system, based on trust but with proportionate checks and balances, is and was effective. The result declared by the Chief Counting Officer at half past seven on Friday morning was indeed an accurate reflection of the votes cast by the electorate.
So how do we explain the levels of distrust and what should we do about it?
I confess I don’t know where this level of distrust has come from. Certainly, a willingness to believe in conspiracy theories seems to be a growing feature of our society but that can’t be everything. It may be that the huge number of people who were engaged, having never campaigned or even voted before offers an explanation.
The majority of us do vote. And when we vote for the first time we vote alongside people we trust – our parents or our friends – who have voted before and we just accept that the system is the way it is.
Looking through some of the social media commentary over the last few days I see people who are incredulous that you don’t need to prove who you are in order to register to vote, that you don’t need to provide ID to cast that vote. Perhaps the injection of hundreds of thousands of new voters into the system, who are looking at the system and expressing distrust, should prompt us to think again about how we run this system.
Perhaps we should add more security. Perhaps we should be asking people to bring their passport or driving licence to vote. Perhaps we should insist that people register to vote in person with two pieces of ID and renew that registration annually in person. Perhaps we should go back to proxy and postal votes only for cases where people can prove they can’t vote in person, not just for their convenience.
However if we did, we could disenfranchise a huge number of people.
One of the great things about the referendum was the huge level of engagement. Levels of registration have never been so high and turnout has never been so high. We are all agreed that this is A Good Thing.
I don’t think though that there is any argument that if we make it harder to register, fewer people will do so. Similarly if we make it harder to vote. Not everyone has a passport. And if you only have an hour to spare and you’re voting on your way to work, forgetting your passport means not voting.
For me, the best answer is to re-establish trust in the system.
We need to explain to people how the system works. We need to ensure that people who voted for the first time in September vote in the next council by election. If there is any reasonable suspicion of fraud it must be fully investigated by Police Scotland. And most importantly, everyone in the system from Returning Officers to counting agents to party Leaders must say clearly and unambiguously that they have faith in the results.
The idea of widespread or organised fraud is abhorrent, but a widespread lack of faith in the integrity of our voting system is nearly as bad. It’s a short step from not having faith in our voting system to not having faith in the people we elect. And if that were to happen our whole democratic system would be under threat.
Holyrood provides comprehensive coverage of Scottish politics, offering award-winning reporting and analysis: Subscribe