Rory Sutherland

The Hitler guide to rigging a referendum

The Hitler guide to rigging a referendum
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In 1964 Harold Wilson was so afraid that a scheduled election-night broadcast of Steptoe & Son would cost him at least a dozen marginal seats that he successfully pressured the director-general of the BBC to postpone it. There are plenty of ways to manipulate an election, short of stuffing a ballot box.

Another example is here, from 1938:

This ballot paper crudely follows the advice of Dr Josef Goebbels, that ‘the most effective form of persuasion is when you are not aware you are being persuaded’. Translated, it reads: ‘Do you approve of the reunification of Austria with the German Reich that was enacted on 13 March 1938 and do you vote for the party of our leader, Adolf Hitler? Yes. No.’

It does several things no ballot should be allowed to do — it conflates two separate questions, uses mention of the Anschluss to ‘prime’ voters by referencing Hitler’s recent ‘triumph’ and arranges the tick boxes to create a default answer. It’s the equivalent, in other words, of printing Scottish Referendum Papers in blue and white and then scenting them with the faint odour of shortbread. Then scheduling a peak-time, election-eve showing of Braveheart on BBC Scotland.

Not much better is the recent South Shields by-election, where 60 per cent of the votes were postal votes. (An insider at the count revealed that Ukip won a clear majority of the votes cast in person by those Tynesiders who can walk unaided.)

Almost all losing candidates will blame some external factor for a narrow miss but in this case Ukip is inarguably right. Psephologists know that seemingly trivial differences as the order of the names on the ballot paper can affect voting, which is why they randomise them from one paper to the next. It seems absurd to go to these lengths and yet to allow a large group of people (effectively pre--selected from among known supporters of the dominant local party) to vote in a different manner, at a different date and in a different context to everyone else. Turnouts in many constituencies are now so low that the possibility of winning by influencing who votes rather than who they vote for becomes significantly greater.

Context matters when you vote. Some studies suggest holding ballots in council-funded sports halls skews voting leftwards. And, in the politically incorrect study of the decade, a University of Texas scientist found ovulation affects female voting behaviour, though intriguingly the direction of travel depends on whether the woman is in a relationship or not.

Much as the technophile in me would love to see online voting or voting by text, it is quite impossible simply because of the problem of coercion — as with postal votes, how can you be sure the voter has been allowed to cast his or her vote in private? I also dislike the practice where activists help able-bodied voters to register for postal votes and offer to collect them and take them to the letter box. The simple instinct of human beings to reciprocate one act of generosity with another is immensely strong.

Having said all this, I practised my own form of Goebbels-style electoral manipulation for the council elections here. I didn’t remind my pinko wife to vote until 9.55 p.m.