Thursday, 7 May 2015

Polling day problems and trust in UK elections  
Pippa Norris
Harvard and Sydney Universities

Election day on May 7th 2015 in the UK general election has generated allegations of several relatively minor problems. Technical glitches were reported in Hackney and Dorset following problems with the electoral roll and distribution of cards for the incorrect polling station, which were blamed by officials on information technology and printing errors. Bournemouth council apologized after 100 people were unable to cast their vote in the local elections because an administrative blunder had led to the wrong ballot papers being issued. Earlier 250,000 ballot papers went missing after a printer’s van was stolen in Eastbourne and Hastings. 

The Electoral Commission is also looking into complaints that some overseas voters had not received their voting packs in time. The Guardian reports that Metropolitan police received 18 allegations of electoral fraud in the run up to polling day. Officers are investigating two claims of false registration information and false postal voting applications, one claim of false statements, which is expected to result in no further action, and 15 claims of misleading campaign material. In Tower Hamlets, the High Court suspended the Mayor, Lutfur Rahman, after he was found guilty of falsifying postal votes and putting undue pressure on voters at polling stations during the 2014 local and European elections. In Darlington, the BBC reports that the UKIP candidate’s name was missing on ballot papers. Finally, the Telegraph reported that the Scottish Tory party leader tweeted of voter intimidation in Dumfriesshire, Clydesdale and Tweeddale, with the allegations investigated by local police.

If subsequent investigations by the police and Electoral Commission substantiate cases of illegal malpractices or maladministration, and if any problems are widely reported, then these issues may undermine citizen’s trust and confidence in the British electoral process. On the other hand, a deeper reservoir of trust in the basic conduct of elections may not be affected by a few specific administrative glitches which can occur in any large-scale contest.

One way to understand this is to observe how ordinary people normally feel about British elections – and whether they generally trust the process. Trust in elections is an important characteristic which previous studies have found to be associated with confidence in political parties, parliament and government, as well as patterns of civic participation, voter turnout, and political protest (Birch 2012, Norris 2014).

To gather evidence, during the campaign, in Spring 2014 the British Election Study asked citizens: “How confident are you that the general election will be conducted fairly or unfairly?” with recoded responses on a five point scale from unfairly (1) to fairly (5).

The results in Table 1 show that most British citizens usually have considerable faith in the way that general elections are run. The majority of people expected the election to be conducted fairly, while by contrast only a small minority (18%) thought that it would be unfairly conducted.

Table 1: Trust in the fairness of the conduct of British elections

Source: British Election Campaign Survey (Spring 2014)

Moreover the degree of electoral trust varied in the electorate, with supporters of the Conservative, Labour and Liberal Democratic parties generally expressing slightly more confidence than those who had voted for the minor parties in the previous general election, as well as those who hadn’t voted and were undecided.  This could reflect a broader skepticism towards electoral authorities among those sympathetic towards the smaller parties, or it could mean that people were responding in the light of the perceived fairness of the unequal distribution of parliamentary seats, rather than the electoral process per se. By contrast, when tested by regression models, several standard demographic factors failed to prove significant predictors of trust, including by sex, age, education and household income.

Table 2: Trust in the fairness of British elections by party support

Note: Mean results on a five-point scale where a higher score reflects greater trust.
Source: British Election Campaign Survey (Spring 2014)

It remains to be seen whether the reported problems of electoral administration will have an impact on public opinion and thus how far most people continue to express confidence in the fairness of the May 2015 British general election. This issue can be tested in the post-election British Election Survey as well as an expert survey conducted after polling day by the Electoral Integrity Project.

Pippa Norris is the McGuire Lecturer in Comparative Politics at Harvard University, Professor of Government and International Relations at the University of Sydney, and Director of the Electoral Integrity Project. For more details, see

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