Yesterday, Sir Alistair Graham, chair of the Committee on Standards in Public Life, called for the 2007 electoral pilots in the UK to be halted, in a speech to the Association of Electoral Administrators conference. Sir Alistair's committee has recently published a report on the Electoral Commission calling for major reform of both the commission and our electoral system, particularly with regard to fraud.
Sir Alistair is proving to be a strong, independent new voice in the debate concerning our electoral system. His speech today made every point we would like to make and then some. Even though electoral fraud undermines voter confidence, is the DCA's and the Electoral Commission's focus on increasing participation causing them to turn a blind eye to fraud? Given existing problems with fraud and unsatisfactory systems for combating fraud, is it appropriate to rush ahead with pilot schemes?
Sir Alistair also argued that the government had been entirely misleading in their use of statistics from Northern Ireland, which has a much stricter electoral regime than the rest of the UK. Sir Alistair argued that in the long term new measures in Northern Ireland had not been damaging to participation as the DCA had argued, and that we should be replicating those measures across the rest of the UK.
The debate continued on BBC Radio 4's The World at One where Sir Alistair argued that the DCA's priorities were wrong, saying that "we should be concentrating on safeguarding the integrity of the current voting system rather than experimenting in remote systems which are bound to carry a high risk".
In an absurd argument, David Monks, Chief Executive and returning officer for Huntingdonshire, stated that if we don't pilot new voting technologies the fraudsters will have won by preventing changes which benefit society and meet our new modern lifestyles.
Finally, DCA minister Bridget Prentice MP replied to Sir Alistair by saying that he was "just plain wrong". She didn't accept any of his arguments whatsoever. She also ignored the implications of this week's visit by a Council of Europe delegation assessing whether the UK's electoral system needs to be monitored for fraud, along with many former Soviet republics.
We briefly met the Council of Europe delegation on Monday, giving them copies of the ORG e-voting briefing pack. They seemed to be deeply concerned by the level of worry about fraud in the UK. Indeed, my analysis of 2006 opinion research for the Electoral Commission shows that the public clearly want secret and secure votes ahead of anything else like convenience. Furthermore, political issues were shown to be the main barriers to turnout and not ease of voting.
As Sir Alistair puts it, "deep-seated voter disengagement will not be solved by tinkering with the mechanics of the electoral system".