Geometric patterns with a polling station sign

The Integrity of UK Elections - REF 2021 Case Study

The Integrity of UK Elections: Electoral Malpractice and the State of the Electoral Registers

The Challenge

It is widely recognised that before this project there had effectively been no contemporary academic research on the incidence of electoral fraud in the UK.  This project led by Dr Stuart Wilks-Heeg includes:

  • a study on electoral malpractice (with funding from the Joseph Rowntree Reform Trust)
  • a study on on electoral registration (funded by an Economic and Social Research Council (ESRC) grant).

Research Action

The first study examined the ‘modernisation’ of UK electoral processes under the Labour government, including the introduction of postal voting on demand, and the subsequent impact on the following:

  • electoral integrity
  • electoral administration
  • voter turnout
  • public confidence in elections.

Stuart's research demonstrated that:

  • The actual incidence of electoral fraud was almost certainly greater than had previously been recognised
  • Actual convictions for electoral offences were at least double that reported in government estimates
  • There were widespread concerns about the vulnerability of UK elections to fraud, about the state of UK electoral registers, and about the intense pressures on electoral administrators.

Stuart's report entitled 'Purity of Elections in the UK: Causes for Concern' (pdf) can be downloaded from the Electoral Knowledge Network website.

Study on electoral registration

Pursuant to his work on electoral fraud, and in conjunction with the Electoral Commission where he undertook a Placement Fellowship, Stuart examined the state of the UK’s electoral register. His studies established that:

  • There had been a long-term decline nationally in the completeness and accuracy of the electoral registers
  • Local case studies found individual electoral registers to be 73% to 94% complete
  • Registration levels among young people, members of ethnic minority groups and private renters were particularly low.

Outputs and outcomes

The impact of this project has been manifested in:

  • the influence of the research on national political debate
  • campaigning by a leading democracy pressure group in the UK
  • the work of the Electoral Commission and, ultimately,
  • its contribution to bringing about legislative change.

A 'Stamp Out Voting Fraud' campaign launched by the pressure group Unlock Democracy highlighted the concerns about electoral fraud raised in the project. This was accompanied by extensive media coverage, including The Times and Newsnight, and discussion of the findings in Parliament. An Early Day Motion signed by 96 MPs urged the government to take action and Stuart was invited to present his findings to MPs and Peers.

Based on Stuart's electoral registration research, the Electoral Commission lead a successful campaign in 2010 to promote electoral registration among under-registered groups.

Findings of both studies were discussed and cited in Parliament on numerous occasions, in select committee reports and by government ministers during the passage of the Electoral Registration and Administration Act through parliament in 2011-13.

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