We are facing a potent threat to democracy

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Election results are being be disconnected from the number of votes cast, argues Dave Wilson

Threats to democracy don’t only come from foreign terrorists, domestic extremists or Russian webbots. As this week’s US elections warn us, the conscience free antics of a supposedly mainstream political party equally have the potential to erode the democratic basis of a system of government.

Could the same be happening here?

If we look at last week’s senate, gubernatorial and senate elections they may seem to have no immediate relevance to the UK. But we can see that our national parties tend to look to the US for tips and hints on campaigning, and what those demonstrate is a continuing trend in which the Republican Party receives far fewer votes than its rival, the Democrats, yet still wins a disproportionate number of actual seats, especially in the Senate, where they increased their seats despite losing the popular vote 57/43.

This has been described as a movement towards a permanent minority rule as both the Presidency and the Senate are controlled by a party which consistently receives fewer votes than its rivals.

Because that, in turn, allows the Republicans to pack the US supreme court with its nominees, that begins to give them a lock on all three strands of government, something they are keen to exploit.

How they got to that position, and how they intend to keep it, is through tactics which are, in part at least, being adopted by the Conservatives in the UK.

Of course there was first a point at which the Republicans won elections fair and square. However, once in power, especially at state governor level, they have systematically and deliberately taken a series of steps to prevent the Democrats ever winning again. Two of those actions are explicitly called for or used by the Tories here.

Firstly, there is what is euphemistically called “redistricting”. The Republicans, where they control state government, have embarked on something they call Project RedMap (red being the party colour), which is an abbreviation for Redistricting Majority Project. And by redrawing electoral boundaries, often into the most bizarre shapes, it has succeeded in creating an artificial balance in elections by which Republican votes have a greater effect than Democrat ones.

Now think about our city and county wards and divisions, which have both been redrawn since 2014, and the results those gave: in the city, the Tories got 79% of the seats with only 39% of the vote.

And, as I noted here in September, Cllr Neil Baker, the council’s communities chairman, was very happy indeed that the new boundaries meant that the Tories had been able to “stick all opposition votes in one seat, let them have it, win the rest”.

If you look at some of the city and county electoral boundaries now, they look more like the result of childish doodling rather than independent analysis. And that is because, like their Republican mentors, the Tories have managed to render the supposedly independent Boundary Commission wholly ineffectual, to the point where the city council leader in effect decided the ward boundaries for the city in 2014.

That looks to me like evidence of both intent and the results that flow from it.

Now, pursuing the same agenda and methods as their transatlantic fellow-travellers, the Tories want to bring in a requirement for voters to provide some form of ID when they vote.

This is one of a number of techniques used in the US which fall under the broad umbrella of of voter suppression, and it is rife in some states. Take Georgia, for example, where the Republican candidate for the Governorship, who just happened to be the person responsible for managing voter registration, contrived not only to stall over 50,000 applications to register to vote, from predominantly Democrat-leaning areas of the State, but introduced a
series of demands including, among others, dual ID to be produce on which the name of the 
voter had to exactly match.

Now, since most of the documents used to verify ID are those produced by corporations or other government agencies – just as they are here – the potential for errors and anomalies to be present is huge.

And of course getting those corrected is time consuming and difficult. The result: more people excluded from voting,
often at the polling stations.

More overt manipulation to suppress the vote includes moving or closing polling stations, having extremely short hours for registration offices, and having too few staff on hand.

Then they also managed to produce ballot papers which are hard to understand, use voting methods that consistently break down, and generally do as much obstructive stuff as possible. Hence the long queues routinely seen at polling stations on US TV news.

Now, thankfully we’re nowhere near that extreme. But don’t believe it’s not being thought of somewhere.

All this matters more than just who wins any given election. Because the consequence of deliberately disconnecting the result from the votes cast, and of disenfranchising people in the longer term, is to delegitimise any resulting administration.

Again, the impact of that isn’t simply to cause a rolling of the eyes and a sigh: history tells us that governments which have no legitimacy get overthrown, usually forcibly.

So when you hear or see complaints from minority parties about electoral tampering, don’t get hung up on the details: look at the consequences, and think about whether allowing one party to tamper with long established independent systems of voting might have a rather worse effect than just enabling an idiotic government to be in power.

4 COMMENTS

  1. Well Dave, I think I smell the whiff of sour grapes here, after forty and more years in local government, and many years in the past in the Conservative Party I would say its almost impossible to manipulate the ward and constituency boundaries as you fear; its all about making the wards and Constituencies the same size. That is what the Electoral Commission aims to do.

    Now as a Labour supporter I can understand that you wouldn’t want constituencies the same size, as historically Labour ones are smaller than Conservative ones meaning that Labour get over-represented in Parliament. There’s plenty of ways that political parties try and swing things without altering the boundaries, where I used to be a Councillor the Labour Council built Council houses in the marginal seats, Westminster was accused of selling off Council flats privately; as to jerry-mandering the boundaries, its just too difficult to do it.

    I spent years as a Presiding Officer at election time at UKC and many students, especially European ones proffered their ID cards or Student Union Cards to prove their identity; I think young people are much more accepting of ID cards than us old buffers who grew up in the shadow of war, some of us still have our post war ID cards and Ration Cards. Given the vote rigging by some Labour candidates in London perhaps voter identification is not a bad idea but lets go for ID cards not just a bit of correspondence with your name and address on it.

  2. I think you need to go one step further here Dave. If Labour was truly committed to a fair and balanced voting system, then it should have come out in favour of some form of proportional representation (PR). And this should be at all levels of government.

    It’s interesting you reference the US election, as I believe we are two of the last democratic countries left to embrace PR. Can I look forward to seeing this committment on Labour’s local election manifesto perhaps?

    Some argue PR gives less stable governments. I give you our current state of affairs. Even at local council level where the Tories have a crushing majority they still manage to mess up the big ticket items (local plan, multi-story car park).

    So lets be done with tinkering round the edges. Sweeping change is required. And it will deliver a more balanced range of views to help make the best decisions for the people.

  3. Dave Wilson is right. Canterbury City Council ward boundaries were gerrymandering to produce Conservative pluralities.

    Take Chartham and Stone Street, for example – an unlikely straggle across country not so much as connected by a main road confected to produce a 2-member rural ward winnable only by Conservatives. This was done by dismembering the former Harbledown ward even though doing so breaches guidelines by leaving Harbledown parish straddling 2 wards (the other being the new, predominantly rural 3-member Blean Forest ward, also conveniently unwindable by anyone but a Conservative). And all, it is said, to get rid of a Lib Dem councillor who was a nuisance to the Conservative establishment.

    These multi-member wards are beyond stupid, unless we switch to proportional representation so that we get a balance of views on the City Council. As Dave says, it is outrageous that 79% of Councillors should be Conservative when Conservatives got only 39% of the vote. Solution: single-member wards or, better, slit the Council into no more than 4 multimember wards elected by proportional representation.

  4. Well chaps seventy years of proportional representation has produced consistently centrist Governments, the kick back against which we are seeing with the Front National in France the AFD in Germany and the Lega/Five Star coalition in Italy; whereas in our country we have never produced an extremist government because it is never going to last more than five years anyway.

    Or you could look at the state of Israel where no Government can never solve the Palestinian issue as they are always beholden to some smaller party like Likud with extremist views.

    First past the post works and doesn’t foster the bitter resentments we are seeing emerge on the continent, our parties are very good at absorbing and then neutralising extremists, although we wait to see if Jezza can do that. Can you imagine though if we had PR, Momentum would be a political party, perhaps at some point holding the balance of power, or if that would be to your taste imagine if it would be UKIP or even the English Defence League, not a savoury thought any of them.

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