Are we declining into an armchair democracy?

 

Are we declining into an armchair democracy? With postal votes now available virtually on demand, the letter box may well be more attractive if the polling station is just that little bit further away. The day may even come when we can vote by computer without even leaving the house.

More to the point, does convenience voting open the door to fraud? Unquestionably it does – as is clear from the 1998 "granny farming" incident at Hackney where, in a local election, pensioners signing proxy forms were led to believe they were supporting a petition about refuse collection.

Desperate to discourage voter apathy, the Government apparently believes the risk of "a little" fraud is worth taking. With the lowest turnout since 1918 (59 per cent), one wonders just how much more fraud a disappointed administration is prepared to tolerate.

It is said that some two million postal votes were cast last week. The opportunity is certainly there. Not merely was there a surge in postal-vote applications across the UK ahead of the election, but it is quite lawful to be registered as a voter in more than one constituency if you "reside" there.

Obviously, whether you vote in person, by post or by proxy, you may only do so in one constituency. But those who vote in two run little risk of detection, since post-election procedures require ballot papers to be kept only for a year by the High Court, after which they are destroyed.

For journalists, the task of proving double voting, or a comparable election offence, will be well-nigh impossible, unless convincing evidence from some enthusiastic and credible whistle-blower comes to hand. The maintenance of ballot secrecy would hardly justify a journalist’s application to inspect recorded votes and counterfoils, and they would only be produced by a court order on clear evidence that this was necessary. To publish accusations such as double voting, vote rigging or impersonation on the basis of individuals’ uncorroborated assertions – without some fair idea of what the ballot papers record – carries a libel risk which could probably only be defended on the basis of qualified privilege under the stringent criteria laid down by Lord Nichols in the Reynolds case.

Making it easier to vote is a bad idea, because couch potatoes only get lazier (and probably fatter and more fraudulent). If postal voting fails to galvanise the electorate into exercising its rights, it should be drastically curtailed to produce a healthier, more honest and more politically aware population which takes its franchise seriously.

Antony Whitaker is a legal consultant at Theodore Goddard

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