Community news and investigative journalism for Wapping E1W and Tower Hamlets London

Secret ballot still far from reality in Tower Hamlets elections

An independent report by electoral observer group Democracy Volunteers concludes that voter intimidation and ‘family voting’ were still evident during the recent local and mayoral elections in Tower Hamlets.

The elections on 3rd May were almost certainly the most heavily policed in the UK’s electoral history.

The 600 police officers on duty at polling stations across Tower Hamlets had been specifically trained for their role and had to strike a careful balance between protecting the voting process and not being seen to affect the voting process.

In addition to the huge police presence needed to allow democracy to function in the East End of London civilian observers from Democracy Volunteers were also quietly at work.

All the Democracy Volunteers were Electoral Commission accredited. Two observers attended the opening of postal votes and on polling day a team of five visited 39 polling stations out of a possible 109 or 36%.

You can download the Democracy Volunteers full report here [PDF] and we have some key extracts below (emphasis  ours).

Democracy Volunteers report

Intimidation outside Polling Stations

“All polling stations in Tower Hamlets were required to have an exclusion zone around the entrance, clearly marked with black and yellow incident tape, where campaign activities and party representatives were not allowed.

This was well observed. Only one polling station did not have a taped-off area.

But they varied wildly in size and effectiveness. Some were well placed, and neatly, even artistically demarcated. Others were small or oddly placed and would still have allowed party activists to cluster round the entrance. Some, like one which comprised a series of tape bows tied round the railings of a flight of steps, were distinctly random.

All polling stations were also required to have a police presence, and all the stations we visited had either a police officer, or a police community support officer on duty. They were friendly, and helpful to the voters, but we didn’t see them take any action to prevent groups of men gathering in the street outside.

We visited three polling stations with a significant number of party activists in the vicinity. In one case it was around half a dozen women, PATH supporters, who were standing outside the polling station and holding up posters showing how to mark the ballot paper for PATH. They were cheerful and not intimidating.

During the evening, on the Isle of Dogs, we found a number of groups of people clustered outside a pair of polling stations. A group of elderly gentlemen were standing opposite the entrance. Were they there for any party? No, they said, they were just watching.

There was also a group of younger men, not wearing party badges. Plus people just standing around and chatting. Party tellers were present, but were standing some distance away. I didn’t find the atmosphere intimidating, but without knowing the political dynamics of the Bengali-speaking community, it is hard to say whether any voters would find the audience off-putting.

The most problematic polling station was in Poplar, just off Poplar High Street, which we visited during the afternoon.

There, a group of around fifteen men, not wearing any party identification, had gathered on the pavement opposite the school entrance. When asked whether they were there for any party, they said they were, but were clearly unhappy to have been asked the question.

They made us feel uncomfortable.

The policeman on duty stayed inside the school playground, watching them. Again, official party tellers were present, but stood at the end of the street, well away from the unidentified group.

All the official party tellers we met were behaving correctly. They were alone, or with one or two colleagues.”

‘Family voting an unacceptable practice’

In 58% of polling stations our observer teams identified so-called ‘family voting’. OSCE/ODIHR [Organisation for Security and Co-operation in Europe / Office for Democratic Institutions and Human Rights] describes ‘family voting’ as an ‘unacceptable practice’.

It occurs where, generally, husband and wife vote together. It can be normalised and women, especially, are unable to choose for themselves who they wish to cast their votes for and/or this is actually done by another individual entirely. It is a breach of the secret ballot.

We identified this in 58% of polling stations (74 separate occasions). As family voting, by definition, includes more than one person this means that we observed this 74 times in the 764 voters we observed.

This means that over 19% of all the voters who we observed were either engaged in, or affected by, this practice.

We would, however, like to add that on the vast majority of cases of this were prevented, or attempts were made to prevent it.

We believe that this constitutes an unacceptably high level of family voting in an advanced democracy and further steps should be taken to discourage and prevent it.

However, this activity is generally not the fault of polling staff, in fact we commend the staff for being so active in their attempts to prevent it.

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  1. Unclear here – ‘We would, however, like to add that on the vast majority of cases of this were prevented, or attempts were made to prevent it’. Does this mean there were occasions (not quantified) where more than one person actually completed a ballot paper?

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