Apparently there are some people out there who believe that the recent referendum on Scottish independence was rigged - presumably in favour of the ‘no’ vote. This is a serious allegation, and I’d like to explain why electoral fraud (impersonation, fake ballot papers, collusion etc.) is extremely difficult on a small scale, and pretty much impossible to achieve on a scale large enough to change the result. We’ll start off by looking at the voting process for in-person and postal votes, and then examine the places where someone could tamper with ballot papers.
In-person voting process
When a person arrives at a polling station, they will be asked for their name and address by an official, who will check these details against a printed list of people who are eligible and registered to vote. There are three possibilities here:
- The person’s name is on the list and has not been marked as having voted. The person is given a ballot paper and goes into a booth to vote.
- The person’s name is on the list but has been marked as having voted. This means that either the person who originally voted or the person standing at the desk is an imposter. Such a situation can easily be resolved by asking the person for some form of photographic identification.
- If they cannot do this, they are not issued with a ballot paper and no fraud has occurred. The officials may also report a suspected attempt of electoral fraud.
- If the person can prove that they are the voter, then the earlier person must have been an imposter. Since every ballot paper is marked with a serial number and this number is recorded next to the voter’s name when the paper is issued, the fraudulent vote can be removed from the ballot box. The fraud has been detected and dealt with so the overall results are not affected.
- The person’s name is not on the list. This means that the person has either gone to the wrong polling station or is an imposter. In either case a ballot paper will not be issued and no fraud has occurred.
Assuming that officials stick to the rule of only issuing one ballot paper per registered elector, it is extremely unlikely that any fraud - or indeed genuine mistakes - will occur. It is possible that someone could impersonate an elector who never turns up to vote - and therefore the detection by checking against the list will never be triggered - but they have no way of guaranteeing this will be the case.
It’s also extremely difficult for a fraudster to impersonate multiple electors at the same polling station, as officials are likely to notice the same person coming in multiple times claiming to be different electors, especially if there is only a short time period between each attempt. The more electors the fraudster tries to impersonate, the greater the likelihood that they will hit someone who has already voted, at which point the game is up.
Postal voting process
An elector must apply for a postal vote several weeks in advance of the polls.1 Part of this application requires the voter to supply information such as their date of birth, address and signature. The date of birth and address can be checked against the electoral roll - if these differ then the application will be rejected. Furthermore, an elector must give a reason if they wish the ballot paper to be sent to an address other than their registered address, and a large number of applications for postal votes to be sent to a single address is likely to be investigated.
In order for someone to commit electoral fraud by post, they would have to attempt one of the following methods:
- Apply for a postal vote in someone else’s name. This requires them to know the person’s name, date of birth and address, and have access to their post to intercept the ballot paper - highly unlikely and certainly not applicable on a large scale.
- Intercept the ballot paper for other people living at the same address as the fraudster. This is sometimes a concern in households dominated by a single authoritarian figure, but even in these cases it is unlikely to affect the overall result, as only half a dozen votes are likely to be compromised. The returned papers can also be checked and if five papers from the same address all appear to have been completed in the same handwriting then further enquiries can be made.
- Post a fake ballot paper. Since all papers are checked for the serial number (the electoral unit knows which papers have been issued to which individuals), the date of birth and the signature, and all must match for a vote to be recorded, it is unlikely that the fraudster will have much success with this method. Multiple fake papers for the same individual will also be rejected.
Despite isolated allegations of fraud in previous elections, postal votes are probably more secure than in-person votes, due to the additional security checks.
Broadly speaking, there are three places where vote tampering could occur on a wide scale (ignoring postal votes as only a handful at most will go to any one address).
- The polling station: There are several officials at each polling station, and any collusion would require all of them to participate. Anything recorded at the polling station (e.g. number of ballot papers issued) is double-checked at the count.
- Transportation: In theory the ballot box could be tampered with or substituted en-route from the polling station to the central count. However, tampering would be difficult as the ballot box is sealed before transportation and the seals are checked when the box arrives at the count. Substitution is even more difficult as the number of ballot papers recorded at the polling station is checked against the number arriving at the count - anyone wishing to substitute a whole ballot box would have to know the exact number of papers in advance. Any tampering or substitution would also require collusion amongst the driver and all of the passengers, and there is only a short time period in which to commit fraud - questions are likely to be asked if a ballot box from a few miles away takes several hours to arrive.
- The count: This is the only place where large numbers of ballot papers are handled and therefore it might be possible to tamper with sufficient votes to affect the result. However, the sheer number of officials at the count makes it extremely hard for tampering to go undetected. As well as officials, most parties will send representatives to oversee the counting process, and it is extremely unlikely that they would collude with one another - for example, SNP representatives would not help Conservatives to change ‘yes’ votes to ‘no’. Security is also tight at counting locations - even at local election counts there will usually be police officers present. and no one is allowed in unless they are an official, a candidate or have written permission from the returning officer.
Overall, it is extremely difficult to commit electoral fraud in the UK, especially on a large enough scale to change the result. It is even harder to commit fraud when turnout is high2 as impersonators are more likely to be detected when the real elector turns up to vote. To commit fraud on such a scale as to affect the result would be almost impossible given the numbers involved. In the independence referendum, the margin of victory for the ‘no’ vote was nearly 400,000. If a group of people had conspired to change the result from ‘yes’ to ‘no’, they would have to either alter 200,000 votes (changing them from ‘yes’ to ‘no’), inject 400,000 fraudulent ‘no’ votes into the system or remove 400,000 genuine ‘yes’ votes. To do so would require either concentrated fraud at a small number of polling stations - which would be detected at the count - or widespread fraud across the majority of polling stations, requiring collusion amongst thousands of officials who would all have to work undetected and all want the same outcome.
Finally, in case you were wondering about how seriously the police and the Crown Prosecution Service take electoral fraud, there are strict procedures in place for reporting, investigating and bringing prosecutions. Every police force has a designated Single Point of Contact Officer who provides specialist advice on electoral fraud.3 In England and Wales, the Director of Public Prosecutions has a legal duty to act on any information given that relates to election offences,4 and all such cases have to be referred to the Special Crime and Counter-Terrorism Division.5 Similar procedures exist for Scotland and Northern Ireland.
Although it used to be the case that only certain people could vote by post, this rule was abolished some time ago and there is no longer any need to give a reason when applying for a postal vote. ↩
At nearly 85%, turnout in the referendum was higher than any general election held since World War II. ↩