Cllr Peter Golds is a councillor in Tower Hamlets. He has served as a London councillor for almost 21 years and is a Board Member of the Conservative Councillors Association.
The heading of this article is surely a statement of the obvious. The pseudo elections that took place under Communism were notorious in that those who chose to vote in secret became targets of suspicion and persecution by the authorities.
In 1872, one hundred and forty nine years ago, the Ballot Act was passed to secure the secret ballot. This Act has never been repealed but has been amended. The Act is often known as the Secret Ballot Act. It was introduced to ensure electors could vote without fear of retribution from their employers, landlords, or indeed their families.
Section 2 of the Act is headed “poll at Elections” and describes the process of voting. It states:
“..the voter having secretly marked his vote on the paper, and folded it so as to conceal his vote, shall place it in a closed boxed in the presence of the officer presiding at the polling station.”
This is exactly the process which is expected to be followed today. Note the word secretly.
Section 4 of the Act is headed “Infringement of Secrecy” and commences “Every officer, clerk and agent in attendance at a polling station shall maintain and aid in maintaining the secrecy of voting in such station.” The section provides guidance as to how secrecy should be maintained and concludes with the following criminal sanction. “Every person who acts in contravention of this section shall be liable, on summary conviction before two justices of the peace, to imprisonment for any term not exceeding six months, with or without hard labour.”
This is absolutely explicit and forms, or should form, the bedrock of voting in a democracy.
In recent years, there has been the growth of what is now described as “family voting” in polling stations. It too often involves males supervising women voters in the polling booth. I have previously referred to a report by Democracy Volunteers who are registered with the electoral commission and monitored polling stations in Tower Hamlets during the 2018 local elections. The report is here. It can be seen, under D in Question 9, that the observers record that they witnessed “family voting” in 58 per cent of polling stations that they had attended which came to 19 per cent of these they witnessed voting.
This is not new. It is a matter that has caused numerous complaints to the authorities and, to be fair, local electoral staff do their best to prevent in. This sometimes resulting in threats and intimidation to themselves.
In May of this year, a Tower Hamlets resident complained to both the police and the local returning officer that whilst waiting to vote in his local polling station at approximately 12.05pm “I noticed on two separate occasions two people were in polling booths together with the male “influencing” the female’s vote.” He goes on to record that the first incident was uninterrupted but when he observed the second incident staff “reminded the couple of voting arrangements.”
The police response, dated 19th August, over three months after the recorded incident, came from the Operational Head of the Special Enquiry Team responsible for “assessing allegations of crime relating to electoral fraud and malpractice and other offences under the Representation of the People Act 1983.”
One would have hoped that the Operational Head of a team of police officers tasked to investigate electoral fraud and malpractice would be briefed on the full range of election law.
I mention this because here is the final sentence of the letter to the elector:
“In relation to the concerns you raised, enquiries carried out cannot substantiate any allegation that any influence was being exerted within the polling station nor any other electoral law being broken.”
I immediately turned to the 1983 Act and looked at Section 66 “Requirement of Secrecy.”
“Every Returning Officer and every Presiding Officer or clerk attending a polling station;
1(d)shall maintain and aid in maintaining the secrecy of voting.
3. No person shall –
(a) Interfere with or attempt to interfere with a voter when recording his vote.
(d) Directly or indirectly induce a voter to display his ballot paper after he has voted so as to make it known to any person the name of the candidate for whom he has or has not voted.”
In fact, in the 111 years between 1872 and 1983 the wording was scarcely changed. It remains the same with regard to the penalties for infringement apart from replacing the option of “hard labour” with a fine.
There is no need to describe the secret ballot because, as I have pointed out, voting in secret is unchanged since 1872. I received a similar letter from the same police officer and on 1st September responded quoting the provisions of both the 1872 and 1983 Acts. I concluded that the original complainant had seen the law broken on two occasions when he saw two people in a single booth, one of whom was voting. This was reported to the presiding officer at the polling station and subsequently the police.
The senior officer responsible for election law in the Metropolitan Police Service says no law has been broken. I have asked him two questions. Have I misunderstood the Law as quoted from the 1872 and 1983 Acts or, despite the elector approaching officials at the polling station, is there an absence of evidence? As so often in dealing with the Metropolitan Police on election matters, there has been no answer.
It would appear that the Metropolitan Police Service have now decided that some electors will not have the right to vote in secret and even when there is legislation to ensure they have that right. The expectation for anybody to vote in secret is a fundamental of democracy. The Metropolitan Police, should be defending and enforcing the Law and if not, give a reason why they are not defending this fundamental. Other residents have had a similar brush off from this officer when complaining about crowding and intimidation at polling stations on May 6th..
In August, a by-election took place in the Weavers Ward of the borough. There were numerous reports and complaints of “family voting.” In one polling station in Shipton Street, Bethnal Green, the police were called twice, once at mid-day and once just after 9pm to dispel groups of aggressive men surrounding women as they attempted to enter to vote. All polling stations were subject to these groups through most of the day, although they were at their most threatening in Shipton Street.
We are now just seven months away from the Mayoral and council elections in this borough. There is little evidence that the police have learned anything from previous elections.