References to the Queen noticing faults in the US elections of 2020 or of the need to reform US election procedures are misplaced. The Queen’s Speech announces the legislation programme the Government of the day sets out at the State Opening of Parliament. This is part of the colorful tradition of the opening of each new session of Parliament or the opening of the new Parliament after a general election. Neither the Queen nor her advisers write the speech or contribute any of the contents. That is entirely the responsibility of the Government of the day led by the Prime Minister and his or her Cabinet. No doubt the Queen sometimes reads the speech and does not agree with any or even all its contents.
This time, the Queen’s Speech included the Election Integrity Bill. This has in fact been the subject of considerable discussion following proposals from the Electoral Commission, an entirely independent and non-partisan commission, set up in 2001. It acts as an independent agency regulating party and election finance and sets the standards for the way in which elections should be run. It is also the enforcement agency for breaches of the law and electoral fraud. It conducts research and makes recommendations for changes in electoral law.
The Law Commission, another statutory independent body that keeps the laws of England and Wales under review, has also proposed changes to UK electoral law. All these proposals have been open to public consultation and scrutinized by parliamentary committees, as well as the Government, and will not become law without parliamentary approval.
The American media and the Guardian in the UK are critical of the proposals for voter ID. But the Electoral Commission conducted two pilot projects and found that over 90% of voters could produce photo ID without any problems. Unlike Continental Europe, carrying photo ID is not a legal requirement in the UK, so a variety of IDs can be used, such as driving licenses, passports, and travel passes (in some areas such as London, these provide senior citizens with free travel). The Commission recommended that local authorities should provide free photo IDs for their residents (although, as the Bill is still unpublished, we can only hope it will be in the Bill). It is also a proposal that states can easily incorporate into electoral reform.
America could learn more from the way in which elections are conducted in the UK. As an outsider looking at American elections, I am surprised to learn that registration on polling day is allowed. In the UK, there are set dates for registration, which gives time for checks to be made; for example, by April 20 for the May 6 election this year. Similar rules govern applying for mail-in ballots, which must be in about two weeks before polling day. The ballot papers must be in by 10 pm of polling day. Polling stations are open from 7 am to 10 pm. There’s no nonsense about postal votes being received after polling day, provided that according to the postmark (if you can read it!), the ballot was posted before polling day.
Paper ballots are used throughout and postal votes are placed in sealed boxes, which can only be opened by the “Returning Officer” who oversees the count. That takes place very shortly after the polls have closed, allowing time for the ballot boxes to be driven to the central count, and for the candidates, their agents, and designated party members, all of whom scrutinize the counting agents and the ballot papers. The Returning Officer unseals the boxes and shows all the candidates and their agents that they are empty.
No one has ever been thrown out of the count to the best of my knowledge and I fought six Parliamentary elections and, win or lose, I had no reason whatsoever to doubt the result. At the end of the count, the Returning Officer explains the result to all the candidates and their agents. It is possible to ask for a recount then and there. Unless there is some obvious reason for refusing a recount (e.g if the winning candidate clearly has most of the votes), the recount begins then and there.
The Returning Officer alone has the authority to announce the result. It is the Officer’s moment of glory in front of the TV cameras, and then only if the count has been completed and the result agreed by all the candidates and their agents. No one else — especially not the media — can announce the formal result. That should be the practice in the USA, especially given the time differences, when voting may not have been completed in some parts of the country.
A long hard look at the role of the electoral registration officer and the guidelines laid down by the UK Electoral Commission would be well worthwhile. The details are available on their website, but here are a few significant points: The Electoral Registration Officer (ERO) is a senior local government official charged with keeping the electoral register up-to-date on a monthly basis, as well as conducting an annual canvass for voter registration; that is, house to house inquiries throughout the year.
People can register online with their National Insurance numbers (the equivalent of US social security numbers) and can check if they are on the register on receipt of the household notification letter, sent to each household leading up to the next scheduled polls. If they are not registered, they are encouraged to register online.
The ERO’s role is by no means a sinecure but is a demanding, full-time role, paid at a senior local government level. In the USA, that responsibility should probably be carried out at county level. All of this work helps to ensure that the registers are up-to-date, so that, for example, those who have died during the year are removed from the register. An organization is not required to sue, as was the case with the Public Interest Legal Foundation, which finally reached an “agreement” with the Pennsylvania Department of State to remove deceased voters from the State’s voter rolls.
At least 21,000 dead voters were still on the rolls a month before the election in 2020. The successful lawsuit removed 9,212 voters who had been dead for at least five years, 1,900 for ten years or more. and 197 dead for twenty years or more. Though dead, these determined voters voted in the 2016 and/or 2018 elections. The case depended on the comparison of voter registration database with the Cumulative Social Security Death index. It led to a voluntary agreement to remove them from the register.
I have two comments on this: What!? A voluntary agreement! Given the two-party system, the Republicans should contest every seat. Failure to do so, amongst other problems, helps to bring about extreme carelessness at best in the conduct of the election. If there is only ever one party’s candidate to vote for, why bother to keep the register up-to-date? That is not the practice of any major political party in the UK. There are fewer obstacles to running for office in the UK, of course, but that is another story.
Dr Oonagh McDonald CBE is a former British Member of Parliament.
IMAGE: Queen Elizabeth at the Opening of Parliament. YouTube screengrab.
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