‘To vote’ or ‘register to vote’ – what’s our civic duty?

I get the feeling that the new Electoral Registration and Administration Act 2013 - given Royal Assent this week - is the poll tax of the enfranchised. Householders will no longer be responsible for registering voters who dwell within their four walls; instead, it is the voter who will take individual responsibility for ensuring their name is placed upon the electoral register.

The government believes that it is our 'civic duty' to register to vote, and to support registration officers in their duties (and no doubt their accompanying pensions) a small civil penalty, akin to a parking fine, is being introduced which could only be applied to those who refuse repeated invitations to register.

But the new Act is less concerned about voting rights than with combating electoral fraud. You can see that the Government has been clever with its words and focus on voting registration rather than the act of voting.

Chloe Smith, Minister for Political and Constitutional Reform, said:

Monitoring and Scrutiny

Chloe Smith MP

"I want Britain to be a fairer, stronger, more democratic society. Making it easier to register to vote is crucial to a free and fair society. We have to get it right, and we have to make it as difficult as possible for people to commit fraud.

The Electoral Registration and Administration Act provides the legal framework for a fair, robust and efficient electoral system, fit to face the challenges of the 21st century. The government, the Electoral Commission and local electoral services teams all still have a great deal of work to do, but I am delighted that we are still firmly on target to introduce Individual Electoral Registration in the summer of 2014."

Fraud statistics

I have mixed feelings over electoral reform. We know that Labour's massive expansion of postal voting opened the door to electoral fraud which now needs dealing with. And I'm at a loss as to why the Electoral Commission has surprisingly few statistics on the issue when I looked on its website this morning - a lack of transparency already exploited by some unsavoury players in British democracy.

Use of Public Sector Information

But, mandatory personal information in the public domain can also be exploited for commercial use. This is not in itself a bad thing - we can all benefit from commercial services based upon the reuse of public sector information (PSI) so long as appropriate check and balances are put in place to obtain subject consent. I challenged my local council recently on the wording of their voter registration form which confused me over whether my name would be added to the 'commercial' voting register (it is named something more subtle) which I didn't want. The electoral officer responded that the words were written in a not-so-crystal-clear-way so that the Council could maximise its PSI income!

If this is the consequence of my civic duty, no thanks!

Summary of electoral offences

Bribery

The offence of bribery includes where someone directly or indirectly gives any money or procures any office to or for any voter, in order to induce any voter to vote or not vote.

Treating

A person is guilty of treating if either before, during or after an election they directly or indirectly give or provide any food, drink, entertainment or provision to corruptly influence any voter to vote or refrain from voting. Treating requires a corrupt intent – it does not apply to ordinary hospitality.

Undue influence

A person is guilty of undue influence if they directly or indirectly make use of or threaten to make use of force, violence or restraint, or inflict or threaten to inflict injury, damage or harm in order to induce or compel that person to vote or
refrain from voting.

A person may also be guilty of undue influence if they impede or prevent any voter from freely exercising their right to vote – even where the attempt is unsuccessful.

Undue influence doesn’t exclusively relate to physical access to the polling station. For example, a leaflet that threatens to make use of force in order to induce a voter to vote in a particular way could also be undue influence.

Personation

Personation is where an individual votes as someone else either by post or in person at a polling station, as an elector or as a proxy. This offence applies if the person that is being personated is living, dead or fictitious.

It is an offence for any individual to vote as someone else (whether that person is living or dead or is a fictitious person), either by post or in person at a polling station, as an elector or as a proxy.

Aiding, abetting, counselling or procuring the offence of personation is also an offence.

False statements

About a candidate's personal character or conduct

It is an illegal practice to make or publish a false statement of fact about the personal character or conduct of a candidate in order to affect the return of a candidate at an election.

False statements that are not about another candidate’s personal character or conduct are not illegal under electoral law, but could be considered as libel or slander.

It is also an illegal practice to make a false statement of a candidate’s withdrawal.

In nomination papers

It is an offence to knowingly provide a false statement on a nomination paper. For example, if you know you are disqualified from election you must not sign the consent to nomination.

False registration information and false postal/proxy voting application

It is an offence to supply false information on a registration, postal vote or proxy vote application form. False information includes a false signature.

False application to vote by post or by proxy

A person is guilty of an offence if they apply to vote by post or proxy to gain a vote to which they are not entitled or to deprive someone else of their vote.

Multiple voting and proxy voting offences

There are various offences regarding multiple voting and proxy voting, including voting by post as an elector or proxy when subject to a legal incapacity to vote and inducing or procuring another to commit the offence.

Breaches of the secrecy of the ballot

Everyone involved in the election process or attending certain proceedings must maintain the secrecy of the ballot. The Returning Officer will give a copy of the official secrecy requirements to everyone who attends the opening of postal
votes or the counting of ballot papers, and to polling agents.

Campaign publicity material

Certain offences relate specifically to election campaign publicity material. Election campaign publicity material must contain an imprint, not resemble a poll card and not contain a false statement as to the personal character or conduct of another candidate.

Racial hatred

Under the Public Order Act 1986, it is an offence to publish or distribute threatening, abusive or insulting material that is intended to stir up racial hatred or which is likely to stir up racial hatred.

Police officers as canvassers

Members of a police force are not allowed to canvass and would be committing an offence if they did. Members of a police force may not persuade any person to vote or dissuade them from voting.