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Secret ballots and second home voters

Graham Smith | 20:37 UK time, Tuesday, 15 June 2010

Cornwall Council leader Alec Robertson told members today that one reason it was difficult for the Electoral Services department to investigate fully the issue of second home voters was because of secrecy rules.

The 1872 Ballot Act introduced the principle of secret voting and these days few would argue that it is vital to prevent intimidation and promote democracy. But ballot papers are numbered, and election officials match this number to a voter's registration number.

After an election, ballot papers are held in secure storage for a year - after that they can be destroyed. The reason they are kept is in case there are allegations of fraud which might prompt an investigation by an Election Court. No Parliamentary election has been questioned in this way since 1911 but challenges are more frequent in local council elections.

When vote tracing is needed, it is usually to find out if the "elector" was actually entitlted to vote, rather than identify which candidate they voted for.

According to the Electoral Commission:

"If vote tracing were to be prohibited, it would be necessary to try to identify alternative means of dealing with allegations of personation. One alternative would be to declare the result void and hold a fresh election. However, this would be time-consuming and costly, and difficult to justify solely on the basis of an allegation of personation.".

So it seems pretty clear - if you are planning a specific allegation, you need first of all sufficient evidence to persuade an Election Court to open the ballot papers, and you need to take action within 12 months of the election.

For anyone hoping to challenge the result of any Parliamentary elections in Cornwall, on the basis that some second home owners might have (illegally) voted in more than one part of the UK, this is a tough call. It would require simultaneous investigations in every constituency where the second home owners might have voted - an almost impossible task.

In local council elections, with much smaller turnouts, it is usually easier for well-organised political parties to stand outside polling stations and identify who has actually voted. There will also often be some "local intelligence" about which properties are second homes. However, this pursuit of the second home owner does not really go very far, for as the Electoral Commission reminds us, subject to the returning officer's judgement about "residency," local council elections are different:

"If an elector is registered to vote in two different electoral areas, they are eligible to vote in local elections for the two different local councils."

An electoral system based on property ownership? The returning officer's judgement about primary and equal residency will become increasingly important as the number of second homes in Cornwall increases.


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