Since 2001, it has been possible to obtain a postal vote on demand for British elections, the voter no longer having to state a reason for applying as they did for elections before 2001. This has created an understandable increase in the numbers of postal votes at elections in the 21st century. The amount of postal votes has risen from around three-quarters of a million before the change to nearly 6 million by the end of the last decade.
In 2017, the total number of postal votes issued for the general election was 8.4 million, which represented 18.0% of all electors. This compares with 16.4% in 2015 and 15.3% in 2010.
Data revealed by Lord Ashcroft Polls place the 2019 postal vote at 38%, the number seemingly having more than doubled in two years.
Writing for Politics Home on December 20, Steve Baker MP, the Conservative Member of Parliament for Wycombe and Chairman of the European Research Group (ERG) stated that “the overwhelming majority of my constituents would be shocked if they knew the extent of corrupt election practices and voter fraud which happen each time there is an election”.
“There is widespread abuse of postal votes. In one case, private data held by a third party for legitimate purposes was used to apply for postal votes, and then intercepted before electors had a chance to complete them. The victims would not make a formal complaint as they feared retribution.”Steve Baker MP
Baker stated that his agent “reported to the Police evidence of the harvesting of postal votes” and that “votes are being cast which ought not to be cast. Votes which ought to be cast are being cast by those who ought not to cast them. Votes are being cast in particular ways as a result of inducement and intimidation.”
The allegations from Baker add yet further weight to long-standing claims of electoral fraud surrounding the misuse and abuse of postal voting.
It was back in 2004 that another Conservative MP, Alan Duncan, told the House that postal voting left “massive scope for fraud and undue influence”, adding: “It is, at every turn, open to fiddles”.
Even the Conservative’s then anti-corruption tsar Eric Pickles said in 2015 that Whitehall is in a state of denial about the true extent of electoral fraud and rotten boroughs in Britain.
“I would argue that state officialdom is in denial over the real state of electoral fraud in 21st-century Britain.”Eric Pickles, 2015
Speaking to John Humphrys in 2014, Richard Mawrey QC stated that postal voting allows fraud to be carried out on an “industrial scale” and that the current system makes election rigging “a possibility” and, in some areas, “a probability”. The senior judge made similar claims in 2005 when he stated that the postal voting system was being used for fraud which would disgrace a “banana republic”.
Also in 2014, there was widespread outrage across Scotland at claims of electoral fraud during the Scottish independence referendum.
Tens of thousands signed petitions at 38degrees.org.uk and change.org to demand a re-vote after “countless evidence of fraud” were documented during the September vote. Research by the Electoral Commission following the result showed that 42 per cent of Yes voters believed that vote-rigging had taken place.
Indeed, the Scottish Independence referendum has startling similarities to the 2019 general election.
Like the staggering number of postal votes (38%) at the general election, there were equally alarming figures coming from the independence referendum, with postal vote turnouts of nearly 90% in Edinburgh and even over 96% in some areas. For a comparison, Electoral Commission data from the 2017 general election showed that 85.1% of postal electors used their postal vote.
On September 14, 2014, John McTernan, former Director of Operations for Tony Blair and advisor to Gordon Brown, indicated that he knew the way postal voting was heading, stating that “the postal votes are running very strongly towards no”. The referendum was held on the 18th.
It was during the same referendum that Scottish Conservative leader Ruth Davidson stated that pro-union supporters at sample openings of ballot boxes took tallies of postal votes before the count.
The comments by McTernan and Davidson have echoes of similar comments made by Dominic Raab and BBC News political editor Laura Kuenssberg days before the general election, with Raab suggesting to an interviewer that he should “look at the postal votes”, seemingly having drawn personal confidence from trends he was privy to.
Kuenssberg seemed to confirm that senior figures had information on the vote before the election, telling BBC’s Politics Live live on air that the voting trend was “grim” for Labour.
“The postal votes, of course, have already arrived. The parties – they’re not meant to look at it – but they do kind of get a hint. And on both sides people are telling me that the postal votes that are in are looking pretty grim for Labour in a lot of parts of the country.”Laura Kuenssberg, Politics Live, December 11, 2019
Under electoral law, the ballots must remain face down and secret until counting on election night, with the returning officer only checking them for identification purposes. It is legal for a candidate to watch the ballots being opened, but it is expressly forbidden for tallies to be recorded for candidates or to communicate information on trends to those candidates.
Andy Anderson, the Democratic Socialist Federation Education officer and an agent for Labour for Independence, wrote an extensive report on “how the postal ballot was rigged” during the Scottish referendum. These allegations, the so-called “McTernan Plan”, suggest that once the ballots were initially opened the identification data would have been inputted into computer systems. By cross-referencing this data with held data on who had applied for a postal vote, a list of those who had not returned their ballots could be created, leading to the possibility of producing thousands of fake “genuine” votes.
The theory would lend credence to reports that some voters were told they had “already voted” when arriving to cast their ballot.
While many have dismissed the theory by Anderson as fanciful, the Scot fingering MI5 for playing a role in the misuse of the data, many of the same individuals were quick enough to allege that Russia had the capability of interfering with electoral computer systems during the last U.S. Presidential election.
Despite the dismissals of SNP voters concerns, the vulnerability of election software and machines has been prominently discussed in the United States since the election of Donald Trump, all evidence and testing suggesting that U.S. systems are hugely exposed to hacking and interference from external state actors and internal security services alike.
Speaking to Scientific American in 2018, computer scientist J. Alex Halderman, the director of the University of Michigan Center for Computing and Society, says that hackers are “going after the machinery of elections, the infrastructure, polling places, voter registration systems, etcetera.”
“While I was in grad school at Princeton in 2006… there was quite a dispute between researchers who hypothesised there would be vulnerabilities in polling place equipment and the manufacturers that insisted everything was fine… One possibility is that attackers could infiltrate what are called election-management systems.”J. Alex Halderman
The private companies behind British elections are Civica, Democracy Counts and Idox, Idox having bought competitor Halarose for £5 million in 2017. All three major companies provide “electoral solutions” to local authorities, including registration and election management solution software.
Idox count over 90% of UK local authorities as customers, providing a software database of all requested postal votes, training and providing staff to deal with the system. The company boasts control of the majority of elections across the UK and was given contracts across Scotland for the 2014 Scottish independence referendum. Former Tory cabinet member Peter Lilly was a senior non-executive director at Idox until retiring in April 2018. They have interests across the private sector including engineering, gas, oil and pharmaceuticals.
“The Postal Vote Checking software.. [enables] Returning Officers to compare 100% of signatures and dates of birth on returned Postal Vote Statements with stored application forms… the software allows users to run their opening sessions at remote locations, even outside the council’s network infrastructure for ultimate flexibility”Idox
The use of remote-access software was a notable factor in the alleged hacking of VR Systems, a Florida election software company that the U.S. Department of Homeland Security may believe was targeted by hackers in 2016.
“Election security experts widely condemn remote connections to election-related computer systems — not only because they can open a door for intruders but because they can also give attackers access to an entire network, depending on how they’re configured.”Politico
Events in the U.S. state of Georgia show exactly how vulnerable election databases are when the voter registration database was left exposed to the internet before the 2018 mid-term elections.
Malicious manipulation of the database could have a serious effect on the accuracy of votes. Richard DeMillo, director of Georgia Tech’s Center for 21st Century Universities, told SecurityWeek, “If I were a hacker trying to affect an election in this state, that’s where I would start.” With no suggestion of a connection, it is noticeable that early voters by 18 October (in person or by mail) were up 230% on the number of early voters at the same time in 2014 (figures from the BBC). At the same time, many of the postal votes are being rejected. Figures sent to SecurityWeek by the Coalition for Good Governance suggest that in one Georgia county 11.1% of African-American postal votes, 15.3% of Asian-American postal votes, and 3.8% of Caucasian postal votes had been rejected by election officials by October 18.SecurityWeek
In October of 2018, it was revealed that 35 million U.S. voter records were for sale on a popular hacking forum, the data covering 19 separate states.
“Given the illicit vendor claims of weekly updates of voter records and their high reputation on the hacker forum, we assess with moderate confidence that he or she may have persistent database access and/or contact with government officials from each state. These types of unauthorized information disclosures increasing the threat of possible disruptive attacks against the U.S. electoral process such as voter identity fraud and voter suppression.”Anomali
While there is no evidence of either foreign or internal interference in the postal voting system, the vulnerability of private companies databases and systems to attack is one that must be addressed, as must political candidates being privy to details of postal voting trends and the astonishing rise in the number of postal votes cast at this election.
The security of our electoral system, dismissed as a “conspiracy theory” after the Scottish referendum, is not to be taken lightly and valid questions have been raised which once again need to be answered.