CCHQ’s two-stage ballot system is a risk worth taking to let members make the right choice
How exercised should we be about CCHQ’s decision to allow Conservative Party members to vote for the new leader both by post and electronically, only counting the latter?
Liz Truss’s supporters, but their outrage must be taken with a substantial measure of salt because their motivation is so obviously self-serving.
Having entered the second round with a strong polling lead amongst party members, the Foreign Secretary has much to gain from people voting early and locking in that advantage. If people can resubmit their ballot, it gives Rishi Sunak a better chance at winning them round.
This is not, in itself, a good reason to oppose the move – especially given the rightful fuss Tories often make about the growth of postal voting and how it undermines the purpose of election campaigns.
But there are two other grounds for complaint: on the technical challenges, and the principle.
On our latest Tory Leadership Election Podcast, I suggested that the two-vote plan was a “recipe for chaos”. It’s one thing to receive and count 160,000 ballots; it’s quite another to cross-reference these with however many tens of thousands of ballots come in under the alternative system to avoid duplication.
It’s true that CCHQ does apparently have some experience with this issue – apparently in previous contests some activists who are members of two associations received two ballots. But they were surely marginal cases; there will likely be many more instances of dual-voting here.
The other technical concern, raised by (Truss supporter) Iain Duncan Smith, is the security angle. He is quoted by the Daily Telegraph saying: “It is easy enough to hack into computers, you could cause mayhem.”
CCHQ does seem to have taken a risk by moving onto a more complex, and part-digital, format. Given the stakes, anything which seems to undermine the integrity of the process – be that systemic technical problems or outside interference – risks seriously undermining the Party’s reputation at the very least.
But if we give them the benefit of the doubt and assume that adequate safeguards are in place, is the new system wrong in principle? That is not so clear-cut.
First, we should emphasise that it is not actually a ‘two-vote’ system, inasmuch as every member will only get one ballot towards the final outcome, even if they do submit two.
The chance of two ballots is a problem inherent to running two parallel voting systems (paper and online). Of course, critics decry the decision to do this, arguing that an all-paper ballot should be sufficient.
But whilst this might be the case, CCHQ sources aren’t wrong to point out that the contest is being conducted both over summer (when people are more likely to be away) and, more importantly, in the shadow of a postal strike. How would those worried about the risk of external influence over an online ballot feel about the suggestion of the result being put in doubt by the Communication Workers Union?
Of course, consistency could be maintained by running an online-only ballot… but none of the people attacking the two-platform model seem to have mentioned this as an alternative.
There is one area, however, where CCHQ do seem to have made a deliberate choice which is not necessitated by technical considerations and has the potential to substantially shape the contest: the decision to count the second ballot received, not the first.
It could quite easily have been otherwise. The Party could have explained that it would have a system in place for addressing duplications but it was the first vote cast, by whichever means, which counted. There is nothing unjust in such a setup, if made clear in advance.
However, one can see the toxic potential in disregarding people’s second votes. If sufficient ballots were affected as to decide the outcome, the new leader would start from day one burdened by the fact that the membership had changed its mind about them before the campaign was even over.
One might also argue that the current system is an attempt to split the difference between a broad submission window, to maximise participation, and an attempt to encourage late voting and thus thorough scrutiny of the candidates.
That last point is perhaps the most important. By outsourcing the final decision on the leadership to the members (which there is no constitutional requirement to do), Conservative MPs have placed a huge responsibility on the party’s collective shoulders. The choice will affect not only Tory fortunes at the ballot box, but the lives of millions of our fellow citizens.
It is therefore essential that CCHQ runs a full contest, that both candidates receive proper scrutiny, and members are given a chance to cast an informed vote. My first instinct would be to have a shorter submission window towards the end of the campaign; a chance to re-submit one’s ballot is an adequate substitute, albeit one with potential technical dangers.
Two candidates fit to be prime minister should both be quite capable of navigating a summer’s campaigning. And if either’s supporters seem to think they’re not up to it, well – all the more reason not to lock in an early vote.