Elections in a time of crisis: Is postal voting the answer?

DISCLAIMER: All opinions in this column reflect the views of the author(s), not of EURACTIV Media network.

A voter drops his election ballot at one of many ballot drop boxes in the Arvada suburb of Denver, Colorado 4 November, 2014. Colorado is one of several states that mails ballots to registered voters to be returned by mail or drop box. [Bob Pearson/EPA.EFE]

The COVID-19 pandemic has highlighted the challenge of holding elections in a time of crisis.  Only the European Parliament has the expertise to advise if postal voting would be a good idea, writes Dick Roche.

Dick Roche is a former Irish Minister for the environment, heritage & local government, the department that is responsible for elections in Ireland.

In the United States with a presidential election due in November the issue has become a political brawl focused on the issue of all-mail elections. To avoid a similar controversy in Europe, it would be prudent to examine how the challenge can be met and whether mail-in elections are the answer.

The European Parliament whose members have the experience of a vast array of electoral systems seems ideally placed to undertake such an examination.

At the end of March the Speaker of the House of Representatives, Nancy Pelosi suggested that mail-in voting was necessary to “protect the integrity of the election system” She proposed earmarking billions of dollars to fund a full vote-by-mail election in November.

In the United States, the practice of absentee voting by post goes back to the US civil war.  In five States, Colorado, Hawaii, Oregon, Washington and Utah, operate vote by mail elections where votes are posted to every voter whether requested or not.

Voters also have the option to cast their votes in person in a limited number of States. In two-thirds of the other States, any qualified voter may request an absentee ballot’ without offering an explanation. All US States provide ‘absentee ballot’ to designated voters who request one.

The US debate came to a head in the run-up to the Wisconsin Primaries. An effort by the State Governor, a Democrat, to change the election from an in-person to an all postal vote was rejected by the Republican-led Wisconsin Legislature, and was litigated before the US Supreme Court which rejected the proposal.

A chaotic in-person election went ahead on 7 April.

On 9 May, the Governor of California, Gavin Newsome, a Democrat, issued an executive order allowing all registered voters to receive mail-in ballots for November’s elections.

The decision to mail out ballot papers to all of California’s 20 million-plus voters brought a swift and angry reaction from the President, a persistent critic of the vote by mail elections.

He posted tweets describing the system as “substantially fraudulent” and characterised the Governor of California’s plan as “sending ballots to millions of people, anyone living in the State, no matter who they are or how they got there”.  Twitter added a link “get the facts about mail-in ballots” to the posts.

Since the president’s intervention, the US debate on vote-by-mail elections has become an echo chamber where participants listen only to views that bolster those they already hold and where ‘inconvenient truths’ are dismissed by both sides.

Those who support in-mail elections in the US claim they are more convenient and, especially during a pandemic, safer for voters, boost turnout, claim that they can be cheaper than in-person voting and suggest that instances of fraud are “vanishingly rare”.

On the other side opponents argue they are open to fraud, more costly, encourage corrupt ‘vote harvesting’ practices by political operatives, and that flaws in the electoral rolls, the ‘mailing lists’, for vote-by-post elections create major opportunities for ‘phantom voting’.  They argue these flaws undermine confidence in the electoral process.

In the United Kingdom, the experience in mail voting has produced a calmer debate, some serious incidences of fraud but also raised some ‘red flags’.

In-person voting was the norm in the UK until 2000. Postal votes were available only in specific circumstances. That changed after 2001 when on-demand postal voting was introduced for England, Scotland & Wales – but not for Northern Ireland.  The new arrangements were piloted in 2004.  Reports of ballot fraud and court cases followed quickly.

In 2005 a group of councillors from Birmingham were judged guilty of “massive, systematic and organised” postal voting fraud in the June 2004 elections.  The UK Electoral Commissioner, Richard Mawrey, ruled that 3,000 of the votes cast were fraudulent and suggested the evidence would “disgrace a banana republic.”

In another 2005 case, a former Labour party member of Blackburn Council was jailed for stealing postal votes in a 2002 election. The judge said there was no precedent for election fraud on such a scale in Britain for 100.

In September 2006, six men in the east of England town of Peterborough, including the former Mayor, were charged with electoral fraud involving false postal votes, found guilty and given custodial sentences.

The following month the Assistant Commissioner of London’s Metropolitan police said that it was the view of the police that ‘widespread use of postal votes has opened up a whole new area to be exploited by the fraudster and the opportunity has been taken”.

In 2008 a Conservative party councillor in the town of Slough was found guilty of registering hundreds of ‘ghost voters’ and using their on-demand postal ballots to get elected. The councillor had beaten the town’s former mayor by 119 votes.

The Chairman of the UK Committee on Standards in Public life said the type of fraud highlighted in the Slough case “left unchecked — will eventually undermine trust and confidence in the democratic process and by implication the electorate’s consent to the outcome of elections.”

In 2010 five men including two former Councillors were jailed for a failed postal vote scheme in the marginal seat of Bradford West during the 2005 General Election.

There are more examples. The UK change to on-demand postal voting has also drawn criticism in a number of reports.  As an example, the report from Commonwealth Election Observers following the 2010 General Election found that “while the (UK) system is not corrupted it is certainly corruptible”.

Advocates for in mail elections argue the incidence of electoral fraud is ‘vanishingly small’. The statement is not invalid, however, elections are often decided by margins that are themselves ‘vanishingly small’.

In the 2000 US Presidential elections, more than 105 million Americans voted. The initial vote count in Florida, which brought George W. Bush to the White House, showed him beating Al Gore by 1,784 votes. A later machine count put the margin at 327 votes.

At a particularly charged time, it is interesting to speculate what would happen were the US 2020 Presidential election decided by a similarly narrow margin against the background of a charged and partisan debate about the electoral system.

Wherever elections are held, it is critical that confidence in the voting system is protected.  Governments draw their legitimacy from the electoral system. The COVID-19 pandemic spotlights the challenge of running an election in a time of crisis.

The EU is in the exceptional position of having a Parliament that is elected from 27 member states with a range of national electoral systems.  The Parliament and its members is a unique repository of electoral experience.

It could be very interesting if the Parliament were to bring its vast experience to focus on what steps could be taken in times of crisis to protect electoral systems and the citizens that use them.

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