British Pakistani and Bangladeshi communities are vulnerable to ballot-rigging and electoral fraud because of a lack of campaigning activity by mainstream political parties, the official watchdog has warned.
It found that social pressure on community members ranged from respect for the decisions of elders at its mildest to the exercise of “undue influence”, where women and young adults are denied access to individual ballots.
The commission said it was working closely with police and returning officers in areas with a history of ballot-rigging to put in place additional measures to prevent problems at the general election in May.
The move comes amid findings that “almost all” the cases of large-scale electoral fraud in England since 2000 have occurred in areas with large Pakistani or Bangladeshi communities.
Researchers from Liverpool and Manchester universities and from the NatCen research agency were commissioned to carry out a detailed survey of eight wards with high concentrations of Pakistani or Bangladeshi-origin voters – four where there had been problems in the past and four where there had not.
The report by the Liverpool and Manchester team found both communities shared “a wide range of vulnerabilities, which may make them susceptible to becoming victims of electoral fraud”.
Among the problems they encountered were language and knowledge barriers, community loyalties and pressures, discrimination in candidate selection, insufficient safeguards for voting procedures and economic deprivation.
However the main issues highlighted were the influence of the “kinship networks” combined with an absence of mainstream party political activity.
“Our analysis strongly indicates that the primary source of this influence of kinship networks in politics lies in the lack of mainstream political party activity in the areas of concentration of Pakistani and Bangladeshi voters,” it says.
“This political void is filled by the ethnic kinship networks, which perform a role of a mediator between the British electoral system and immigrant-origin communities.
“Mainstream political parties were deemed by our interviewees to be only too happy to accept this middle-man role of kinship networks.”
It found that women and young adults in such communities were increasingly raising concerns about the role played by the ethnic networks concerning their voting choices, with some complaining they were being “outright disenfranchised”.
“These networks tend to be reciprocal, and are hierarchical and patriarchal, which may undermine the principle of voters’ individual and free choice through a range of social pressures such as respect for the decision of the elders at its mildest extreme, through to undue influence where in some instances access to individual ballots of women and adult children can be refused by the elders,” it reported.
The report found some voters felt that postal voting was “intrinsically unsafe” and there were also concerns about the ease with which electoral “personation” could take place due an “informal approach” to proxy voting.
The commission said it would be monitoring the impact of postal voting during the general election and had not ruled out further statutory regulation, including making it an offence for candidates to handle postal voting materials.
Electoral Commission chairwoman Jenny Watston said the research confirmed that when fraud was committed, candidates and campaigners were the most likely offenders and voters the victims.
“Although clear plans are in place to prevent and detect fraud ahead of the elections, there is also a challenge to campaigners,” she said.
“They must ensure their behaviour builds trust with all voters, and all those involved in elections must make it a priority to communicate what is and what is not acceptable behaviour at election time.”