This is the third contested leadership elections in two years, and the second in which I have been appointed as returning officer. The election is again being run by an outside agency, Electoral Reform Services Ltd (“ERS”).
I regard ERS highly. They are a respected, independent professional agency, widely regarded as the country’s leading election specialists. Much of their work is with building societies, local authorities and trades unions. The following is from their website:
ERS has the largest in-house resource of any electoral or ballot services provider in the UK. Our experienced PRINCE2 trained advisers manage over 2,000 ballots every year, with all services delivered under one roof. This means we can guarantee a secure and well-coordinated service from start to finish, with no reliance on third parties.
I preface my piece with these observations because attempts have been made to undermine this election. UKIP’s involvement in the process is restricted to identifying from our own database the names of those entitled to vote. This means that we send a list of voters to ERS. Only those on the list are sent ballot papers.
Paragraph 7.8 of the party constitution reads:
“Those eligible to vote shall be members “in good standing” of the party on the date when the election is called”.
The election was called on 23rd June 2017. If a person joined the party on 24th June or after, he or she will not receive a ballot paper.
We also have to apply the three months “grace period”. Rule I.9 of the party’s Rules of Procedure (which were approved by the NEC in 2012) reads:
“Any member who fails to maintain their subscriptions may have their membership revoked immediately, although a three months grace period may also be offered by the Party on a discretionary basis.”
This offer, of three months grace, is now routinely extended to all members, as has been the practice since I have been in UKIP. Otherwise there would be complaints from members that they did not know their card had expired or that they had not been warned because they have changed address or simply were not contacted by head office. And each time they would have to fill in a new application. The three month period allows a person to keep his membership unbroken from his first date of joining.
In this election, Rule I.9 means that anyone whose membership expired on 1st April, 1st May or 1st June (memberships always expire on the first of the month) is still entitled to vote, because the three month grace period extends their membership to the end of June, July or August respectively. And so under paragraph 7.8 of the constitution they would still be members on the date the election was called.
I have received several complaints that ex-members have received ballot papers. Those claims are false. One mischievous ex-member has been circulating on social media a photograph of a completed ballot paper to prove his false claim. I know from checking the list we gave to ERS that he was not sent a ballot paper. I also know (as each ballot has a unique identifying number) that the ballot paper in question was sent to a valid member who has shared the image with the person making the mischievous complaint.
Other complaints refer to members whose membership cards elapsed but who, under the three month grace period, were sent ballots as I intended they should be. And further claims have been made on or behalf of people who say they resigned, although did so without telling head office.
I have also been asked to explain how this can be a secret ballot if there are identifying numbers on the ballot papers. The answer is simple. ERS issue the numbered ballots which are numbered as an important security precaution. Unnumbered ballot papers may be photocopied and submitted. ERS alone has the data to show which ballot was sent to which member. No UKIP employee or member has access to this information, and ERS (for the sake of their own reputation) is determined to keep it that way. But they can identify any copied ballots. For instance, in the case of the mischievous ex-member mentioned above, ERS were asked whose ballot paper it was. They would not tell us, other than to confirm that it was genuine and had been sent to a member in the north of England.
The conspiracy theorists should consider this: with a long established business and some two thousands ballots conducted every year, it is impossible to suppose that ERS would compromise their otherwise unblemished reputation for running secret ballots by supplying us with information. Our influence over them is minimal in that we have used them on four occasions only in the past two years (i.e.: in terms of ballots, we have given them some 0.007% of their business).
The ballot numbers also allow ERS to issue fresh ballots in special circumstances when approved by the returning officer. This may happen where a person claims not to have received a ballot (perhaps because he has moved address) or because he has applied for a proxy vote (perhaps because he is away on holiday).
The count will be held on the 29th of September. I am inviting all candidates to (if they wish) send along an observer of their choosing. They will see the count and see any decisions that are taken by the returning officer: the completion of proxy votes, of faxed votes from overseas, and decisions over any ambiguously completed ballot papers. And they will see the votes stack up (just as in a parliamentary election in a town hall), and they will be the first to know the result.
[Ed: Please do hand this letter around on social media! Piers Wauchope clarifies several issues and makes the process transparent – something we all wish for in this important election!]