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Spoiled ballot: Interview with Electoral Commission chair

8 min read

As Britain braces for a host of polls in the coming year, the elections watchdog John Pullinger tells Tali Fraser the system that underpins our democracy is under huge pressure – and ministers aren’t rushing to help

“It is archaic. Period.” The chairman of the Electoral Commission has a crisp assessment of the state of the 4 legislative framework that is supposed to guarantee the integrity of the foundation of our democratic system. 

John Pullinger, 64, says: “There’s never been a ‘root and branch’ going back to the fundamentals and thinking ‘What is the right canon of law for us in 2023?’” 

Quite the opposite has happened, in fact, with “a lot of complication” emerging from each incoming government wanting to push forward their own unique reforms. 

Unless action is taken soon to clarify electoral law to make running elections easier – with the next parliament “realising we need to do this now” – the Electoral Commission chair argues “the risk of something bad happening is going to be significantly greater”. 

What is something bad in this scenario? Pullinger is plain: “Something bad would be an election failed.” 

It is difficult to say how likely that would be, he adds. Pullinger, formerly the United Kingdom’s national statistician and Commons librarian, asked that question to 200 local authority chief executives at an event he hosted recently. 

“How worried should we be coming up to the next general election? A lot of them are under very serious financial and staffing pressures but they all have a personal responsibility as the returning officer for the locality to deliver this and they will pull out all the stops to do it.” 

But, he warns, at what cost? “They will have to pull things away from other services,” Pullinger says. 

“You just see something being stretched and stretched and stretched and I think we need collectively to worry about that. We are very fortunate in the UK that the public has very high levels of confidence in elections but if something doesn’t go quite right, it risks damaging that confidence. Everybody involved is determined that doesn’t happen but it’s the implications of trying to rise to that challenge when it’s getting harder and harder.” 

It sounds like the current process works for very few people. 

The many different rules to comply with if you are a political party or campaigner are “now so complicated”, he argues, “you risk inadvertently stepping over a line and getting into trouble”. 

While if you are an electoral administrator, a role held by local authorities, the process is “horrendously complicated” and comes at a time of “huge financial pressure”. 

Pullinger says the case for simplification is obvious: “You dramatically mitigate those risks.” 

The introduction of voter ID from May this year has not exactly been a simplification. 

Its first rollout in the latest set of local elections saw 14,000 people turned away from the polling booths and not returning with the correct ID, while four per cent of people cite the reason they did not vote as voter ID. “Concerningly,” those statistics were “substantially higher” among disabled or unemployed communities. 

“One person turned away is one person too many,” Pullinger says – and there is plenty of room for improvement. 

“When I saw, for example, a nurse come up with her NHS card that wasn’t accepted, I couldn’t see her coming back because she would have to go to work. We must do better and help with that.” 

You just see something being stretched and stretched and stretched and I think we need collectively to worry about that

He is calling “quite strongly” for the government to widen the range of ID accepted at voting stations but, citing security reasons, the government is not budging: “There’s a real question of whether they’ve got the balance right. The NHS card, for example, why wouldn’t you? I know a number of members of the police forces; a warrant card, surely, but it’s not on the list… I think it is a pity.” 

Another change Pullinger is hoping the government will look at is around protecting elections from foreign interference through donations to political parties. He wants to see parties and campaigners only allowed to accept donations from companies that have made enough money in the UK to fund their donation. 

“It seems straightforward to us. But it has not seemed straightforward to the government.” 

Pullinger believes that political parties should also be subject to stronger scrutiny and go through the same due diligence anti-money laundering legislation that business, charities and government departments are required to. 

“We have had dramatically plunging levels of public confidence in the financing of political parties and I think this would go a significant way to allay those concerns,” Pullinger says. 

“Political parties have argued they’re mainly small volunteer organisations and they don’t have the infrastructure to do this. But I’ve observed that charities do it quite successfully and charities are often much smaller and the regime is proportional to the scale of the money you’re bringing in and the complexity of your organisation. I have no doubt that we could do something like that.” 

The chair of the Electoral Commission wrote to security minister Tom Tugendhat asking for just that but was left waiting, for more than six months: “I was frustrated. I wasn’t getting any response at one stage.” Eventually he received a response from another minister, but rejecting his proposals. 

A key tenet of Britain’s electoral regulator is its independence, which now appears at risk with the Elections Act legislating for the UK government to produce a regular strategy and policy statement outlining its electoral priorities, which the Electoral Commission will be bound by law to follow. 

“The idea of a strategy and policy statement that’s designed to guide our work is inconsistent with the idea of an independent body,” Pullinger says. 

“We’re still trying to urge the government not to proceed with it, because it will make the government look as though it’s trying to interfere with us.” 

He adds: “For as long as I’m chairing this commission and it has got the commissioners it’s got, we will be independent, and we will act independently. We will do our best to demonstrate to everyone we’re independent. This just makes it harder.” 

Is the intervention on the Electoral Commission’s independence a threat to democracy in itself? 

“If it takes hold, it could be,” Pullinger says, “but we will just redouble our determination to show that our job is to oversee elections and we will do that impartially and independently.” 

The chair of the Electoral Commission has been carefully watching other countries’ recent elections play out to learn from some of the emerging issues, like artificial intelligence-generated deepfakes. 

A strategy and policy statement designed to guide our work is inconsistent with the idea of an independent body

He was buoyed that when a deepfake audio of Labour leader Keir Starmer swearing at staffers emerged on social media during Labour party conference, it was “immediately seen for what it was” – though it still gathered over a million views on X – but stresses the need to be “especially vigilant” of deepfakes being used against candidates “in a very corrosive and personal way”. 

Deepfake pornography is something that especially concerns Pullinger and he has already been working with the police on tackling it, though he adds: “It is getting nastier and more difficult to combat. 

“Protecting public-spirited candidates who are standing for election from this kind of nastiness because of AI is a real priority for us and the commission.” 

The Electoral Commission’s handling of technology is something Pullinger recognises could do with a refresh, especially following the cyber-attack against the regulator which saw data on more than 40 million voters accessed by hackers – and went undetected for over a year. 

“The cyber-attack that we were the victim of last year has really made us think that we are part of the UK’s critical national infrastructure. We should be careful with money but we should make sure we build the means to be successful here and make the case... we need to invest in good cyber infrastructure.” 

But the latest revelation for the Electoral Commission chair has come in the form of changing voting attitudes. 

“Increasingly we’re seeing, particularly amongst younger people, the attitude of ‘what’s the point in voting?’,” Pullinger says. 

“I think there’s just not the learning that might have taken place 20 or 30 years ago either in the home or in school.” 

The Electoral Commission is “redoubling [its] efforts on education” because of it – and would like to see learning about the benefits of voting and electoral process “embedded in schools”. 

MPs and anyone working in Parliament, he adds, have a role to play: “A key thing for us and all of those in the House is that we need to be doing everything we can do to support the education of the next generation of people who are going to be voting in future elections.”

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