What Price Democracy? the UK Rivals Ghana by Administering One of the World's Cheapest Voting Systems, but Camilla Berens Finds That It Is Showing Severe Signs of Strain

By Berens, Camilla | Financial Management (UK), February 2005 | Go to article overview

What Price Democracy? the UK Rivals Ghana by Administering One of the World's Cheapest Voting Systems, but Camilla Berens Finds That It Is Showing Severe Signs of Strain


Berens, Camilla, Financial Management (UK)


Modern western societies generally agree that democracy is a Good Thing. Like religion, however, it has caused wars, rebellions, riots and protests--from the French revolution to the suffragette movement to the continuing violence in US-occupied Iraq. Given the positive consensus, it's surprising that democratic processes are still controversial even in those countries that have had plenty of practice.

The major controversy depends, as power always has, on money: where it comes from and where it goes. Debates tend to focus on perceptions of inequality or corruption and, although they may start with abstract principles, quickly come down to the nitty-gritty of administration. How much do you pay for your vote? How efficiently is this money spent? Is it possible for rich individuals or large organisations to exert an unfair influence over the process?

As with a public company, the repercussions for a country that fails to satisfy its citizens and the watching world that its electoral processes are fair, honest and transparent can be serious. The recent events surrounding the disputed ballot in Ukraine showed that scandals about democratic procedures immediately trigger questions about a nation's credit rating among international investors. But the logistics of running an election in even a small country are far larger than the administrative burden on any company.

Surprisingly, the adoption of modern methods doesn't necessarily make the process any more foolproof. When the US went to the polls in the autumn of last year, the disappearance of 60,000 postal votes in the key state of Florida raised fears about the security of postal ballots--a method that many governments, including that of the UK, have been promoting for future elections. Other critics questioned the use of electronic polling in the US, while the re-emergence of concerns about the influence of private donors has intensified the international debate on whether or not political parties' election campaigns should be wholly funded by the taxpayer.

All of these issues pose questions for the forthcoming UK general election, widely predicted to be held in May. Unfortunately, the usual frenzy of political point-scoring is likely to overshadow a bleak warning from one of the government's own advisory bodies that the infrastructure in place to administrate the democratic process is in serious danger of being stretched beyond its capabilities. If this warning is ignored, the UK could lose its reputation for providing a rock-solid electoral system.

On the face of it, the current system is not only an efficient vehicle for the country's 45 million-plus potential voters, but also extraordinarily good value for money. A study conducted after the 1997 general election by United Nations adviser Professor Rafael Lopez-Pintor estimated that the cost of an individual vote in the UK was not much more than the price of a litre of milk. He calculated that, at around 50 pence per voter, the country's election administration costs were among the lowest in the world.

In a league table of 12 North American and western European countries including the US, Canada, Germany and Switzerland--Lopez-Pintor put the UK in first place for providing the best value per vote. This cost was estimated to be equivalent to 80 cents, compared with $1 in both the US and Germany and $5.40 in Switzerland. On a global scale, the UK ranked seventh in terms of overall value for money behind Bangladesh (10 cents), Georgia and Nepal (40 cents), Pakistan (50 cents), Ethiopia (60 cents) and Ghana (70 cents).

This might appear to reflect commendable British efficiency but, according to the Electoral Commission, it obscures the fact that the system is in fact dangerously overloaded. The British are often seen by the world as obsessively preoccupied with bureaucracy, so it's surprising to find that there is no single organisation responsible for the strategic direction or auditing of election administration. …

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What Price Democracy? the UK Rivals Ghana by Administering One of the World's Cheapest Voting Systems, but Camilla Berens Finds That It Is Showing Severe Signs of Strain
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