FIRST, a highly embarrassing confession: I lost over a thousand pounds backing Donald Trump to secure a second term as US President. Gamblers only like to share the details of their successes; failures are best forgotten and never mentioned. But everyone, especially me, needs to reflect on mistakes, learn from them and move on in life, slightly the wiser. Being able to declare ‘I screwed up’ is important. It’s an honest admission desperately rare in political leaders.
For the record, the average price of several bets was 2-1 and I stood to win around £3,000.
I imagine the reactions to my confession will fall into three categories. Most might well say: ‘Pillock! Whatever was he thinking?’ To which I would look you in the eye, raise my hands and say ‘It’s a fair cop. A pillock I am indeed.’
The second category might be slightly more analytical and forgiving. They consider that my bet was based on probabilities, not any kind of endorsement. From this perspective, 2-1 was an attractive price, given the close outcome. But I lost my money so it still feels as if a hat with ‘Pillock!’ on it would be a good fit for me.
A small number of readers might be even more forgiving, and over the past few weeks may have wondered whether there is any truth in Trump’s claims of election fraud. I have pondered long and hard about this, but apart from isolated incidents, such as dead people voting in Michigan, the battery of allegations now seems impossible to prove. And naturally the incoming Democratic administration have no interest in pursuing any investigations.
Trump registered his concerns well in advance, and a smarter man than I would have paid more attention. In April, he tweeted: ‘Republicans should fight very hard when it comes to state-wide mail-in voting. Democrats are clamouring for it. Tremendous potential for voter fraud.’
But the impact of Covid-19 and the associated fear factor also came into play. Contemptuous of any presidential reservations, eight states and Washington DC sent out tens of millions of mail-in ballot papers to every registered voter, and all but eight of the other states allowed any voter to request a mail-in ballot. Again, if I had found the sense to think through the implications, I would probably be better off today.
The federal nature of the United States was the final factor I should have thought more carefully about. Each state has a high degree of autonomy. For example, Kristi Noem, the popular Republican governor of South Dakota, rejected compulsory mask-wearing and a state-wide lockdown. Other states, notably California and New York, adopted much harsher policies. These disparities did not inhibit the Democrats and the mainstream media from routinely accusing Trump of mishandling the coronavirus outbreak, which by the day of the election had taken the lives, directly or not, of 230,000 Americans.
What have I learned from this experience? Firstly, do more research before risking a four-figure sum. Secondly, mass postal voting is a deeply troubling concept for any democratic system. All citizens, especially those who voted for a losing candidate or party, need to have absolute trust in the integrity of the election process.
My personal introduction to postal voting came during the early part of this century when my elderly mother’s mobility declined due to emphysema. She felt that voting was a civic duty and asked me to explore the possibility of a postal vote. I filled out the form as best I could, searching in vain for a section where I could explain the reason for her request and perhaps provide the contact details of her GP.
But as you may know, no justification is necessary. In 2001 the Blair administration quietly passed a law enabling anyone on the electoral register in Great Britain to secure a (permanent) postal vote without providing any reason. This was quite shocking to me and I have never heard a reason to change my view.
‘If you can walk to the shops, you can walk to a polling station.’ How can anyone disagree with this basic principle? Presumably not Richard Mawrey QC, a deputy High Court judge who specialises in trying cases of electoral fraud, and in 2014 stated that postal voting in the UK is open to fraud ‘on an industrial scale’.
Many of Mr Mawrey’s cases, including that of former Tower Hamlets mayor Lutfur Rahman, involved allegations rooted in British Asian communities. A subsequent report by the Electoral Commission accused both the main political parties of exploiting networks within the Pakistani and Bangladeshi communities to ‘harvest’ postal votes. No substantive action was taken.
In 2019, after Labour defeated the surging Brexit Party by just 683 votes in a Peterborough by-election, Nigel Farage claimed that the town was a ‘rotten borough’. Of 33,998 ballots cast, 9,898 (29 per cent) were postal votes, and one of the prominent Labour campaigners was Tariq Mahmood, a convicted election fraudster, jailed in 2008. Cambridgeshire Police subsequently confirmed that they were investigating five allegations of electoral irregularities, three of which were related to postal votes. They concluded that no criminal activity had taken place. Big surprise.
If I had a postal vote and decided to sell it, how could the police or anyone in authority find out? A similar argument would apply to a scenario in which an authoritarian Asian father demanded that all the adult females in his family sign and then hand over their ballot papers. Or indeed any father. Such malign influence could not be applied directly within the sanctity of the polling booth. However election experts from Democracy Volunteers said they had seen multiple voters taking photos of their ballot papers at Peterborough polling stations. John Ault, the Democracy Volunteers director, said: ‘One can only speculate as to why some voters feel the need to do this, although this can, in some cases, point to a contract being fulfilled or an inducement having been given.’ https://democracyvolunteers.org/2019/06/06/preliminary-statement-peterborough-parliamentary-by-election-06-06-19/
Even unsigned ballot papers falling into the wrong hands would be a problem once submitted. The officials responsible for processing postal votes are highly unlikely to reject a vote just because the signature does not appear to be a good match with historic records. Rejecting a vote has grave legal implications. It would be so much easier just to let the vote count.
This is not a complex issue to resolve. All the Government has to do is revert to the policy of common sense that existed before Blair’s cynical touch. Postal votes to be reserved only for those with a definite physical disability, certified by a GP. Easy enough to enact, but given the track record of this Government’s insatiable appetite in terms of extending rather than repealing regulations, I am not holding my breath.