30 Jun 2017
June 30, 2017
I blogged about How the dead vote a few years ago. I’ve just Googled the subject and see that, for some reason, The Daily Telegraph paid a bloke to write essentially the same piece, quoting some professor or other, a few years later. In view of Stephen Gethin MP winning by 2 votes in North East Fife last week, I felt it was time to pointlessly wheel out this issue again on the basis that I’ve never heard Professor John Curtice mention it once.
Statistically (see note below), it’s almost certain that the number of postal votes cast by people who died before the end of the election period in North East Fife exceeded Stephen’s Gethin’s 2-vote margin of victory. And although the distribution of such votes may reasonably be assumed to have been similar to that of the electorate at large (adjusted for age), the simple fact is that we don’t need to guess.
In UK general elections, the state can identify who every voter voted for. So if Steve Grimond, Fife Council’s boss and Returning Officer, really wants to know if the vote of The Dead affected the North East Fife result, he can to apply to the High Court for the right to see the ballot papers submitted by postal voters who cast a vote then died before the close of poll (he can identify these people by simply cross-referencing the register of deaths and the marked voters register). If The Dead vote did indeed change the result, then Steve can annul the result and re-run the election.
The threshold test applied by judges for identifying voter’s choices in this way is likely to be challenging since ballot secrecy is obviously very important to democracy. But is it more important than knowing if a result of a parliamentary election was correct?
My guess is, yeah, probably. Still, you wonder why the information is kept at all if we’d never use it. Right?
Could, say, spooks get at the information in the event of a great perceived security threat? And if so, does that mean courts would rule a security threat a higher order priority than ensuring the validity of an parliamentary election result?
Well, someone at St Andrews University legal department could ask the Scottish and English legal authorities whether, if judges had indeed ever issued such an order, it would be secret. And, if it would not be secret, then they should ask when such orders had taken place. In the event that they were unhappy with the answers they got, they could of course lobby parliament to issue the information or change the law to make it available. Or something.
Anyway, that is all about the Dead Vote. For now.
Note: In 2015 and 2016, around 4000 adults died in Fife’s 4 parliamentary constituencies each year. That means on average around 40 potential voters died each fortnight in each of Fife’s 4 UK parliamentary constituencies. Postal ballots were sent out at least a fortnight in advance of the general election and could be cast right up until the close of polling. Most people in receipt of postal votes use them soon after they receive them and in 2015 the total UK figure for postal vote registration was 16.5% and 85% of people who received a postal vote actually cast their vote. Older people are far more likely to die and also more likely to register for a postal vote. They also far more likely to vote. And June’s a pretty average month in the death business. So while a strict statistical average might tell us that on average 5 people died in Fife having cast a postal vote, the likelihood is that the figure is almost certainly higher.