Although the Swedish PR system appears to guarantee equal chances and reasonable local access to all potential points of view, there are features of the electoral system which, despite being in force for many years, are of dubious value. Like most people in Britain, most Swedes are understandably proud of their long history of parliamentary government. However, as in Britain complacency about election procedures can creep into the system and make people unaware of emerging flaws or even irregularities and cheating.
Although initial counts in the individual polling stations around the country are open to observers from the different parties and members of the general public, participation of non-members of election commissions throughout the whole counting process is not universal. Where all members of the local commission are known to each other and may be friends/comrades, even if not drawn from the same party, there is always the risk of collusion in counting. This, admittedly small risk, is magnified by the very large number of ballot papers floating around the country. Given that voters, and even non-citizens, can pick up ballot papers at post offices around the country at least 18 days before the election day, the possibility of “valid” ballot papers being available to substitute for ballots actually cast exists. The theoretical possibility exists that members of an election commission might be horrified by the turnout for an extremist party beyond the pale of the existing Swedish parliamentary model. Such members could be tempted to substitute legally valid ballot papers (of which there are too many left over around the country) for the offending extremist ones. In the absence of external control by observers or public, this would be very easy to achieve. Unlike in other electoral systems which list all candidates/parties on a single sheet of paper with only so many ballots issued as voters are registered, the Swedish model (like similar models in France, Latvia or the Czech Republics) puts temptation in the path of EC members since it makes cheating a much easier theoretical possibility.
Of course, many, probably most Swedes, as well as foreigners aware of the country’s reputation for probity, will dismiss as improbable any risk of cheating. However, since all politics is about the possession of power, it is inherently unwise to rely on indefinable such as national character as the guarantors of the democratic process.
Ironically, in proportional representation systems where every vote counts, the temptation to cheat is greater than in less fair first-past-the-post systems (in use in OSCE members like Great Britain, Canada and the United States). Small shifts in a party’s vote can influence its number of seats or whether it gets representation at all.
As in Great Britain, there is anecdotal evidence that party activists responsible for the care of the elderly and infirm occasionally misuse the postal voting system in Sweden. So-called “granny farming” has recently been the subject of several prosecutions in Britain, when care home owners or welfare workers affiliated to particular parties (all three main U.K. ones in fact - Labour Conservative and Liberal) have cast proxy votes on behalf of Alzheimer sufferers or other patients so ill that they could not possibly be said to have exercised any choice of their own. Allegations were made to the Group’s observers that politicized carers in Sweden can exercise a similar prerogative to cast postal votes in the name of seriously infirm people in their care whose political views cannot be reasonably ascertained because of the severity of their mental or physical infirmities.
Although Swedish pollsters anticipate an electoral participation far higher than Britain’s miserable 59% in the June, 2001, general election, many Swedes would regard a turnout in the mid-80s% as a severe challenge to the standing of the political system. Even if in Britain the pressure to find ways to boost turnout rests on a steady fall in voter participation to levels unseen in the democratic age (since 1918), in Sweden too, the ease of access to the ballot raises questions about whether the security of the poll is being diluted.
However desirable it may be that universal suffrage is realized by the active participation of all registered voters, when proxy and postal voting is made absurdly easy and guarantees of the reality of the identity of individual voters are frequently not ascertained in practice, then the rights of real individual voters may be diluted by fraud. Obsession with a high turnout can mask indifference or blindness to structural failings in an electoral system which makes voting too easy.
Another problem which arises with the widespread distribution of ballot papers before the poll is that ballots may be deliberately destroyed or misdirected in order to disadvantage a particular party list. Parties on the margin advocating radical policies which might seem abhorrent to many ordinary Swedes even though such parties are entirely legal and properly registered for the general election could suffer disproportionately from such interference with the pre-election distribution of ballots.
Representatives of the Swedish Democrats in Gothenburg had a specific complaint. They claimed that the ballot papers for their party’s list were routinely removed by opponents of their party from post offices in the city. They also implied that postal workers were deliberately slow to replace the removed or vandalized ballots. This meant that their party’s potential voters could not always find their ballots and might choose another party’s list which was still available.
The Gothenburg Swedish Democrats also claimed that supporters had telephoned their volunteer office to complain that they had not received by post the mailed ballots which their party like more mainstream ones sent out to likely backers. The envelopes containing such ballots are clearly marked with the party’s election symbol and so any postal employee, or anyone else for that matter, could identify and remove or destroy such mail on behalf of a party which they might strongly disapprove of.
In a close-fought election or referendum such interference with the distribution of ballots could decisively affect the outcome. For future polls, Sweden would be advised to consider ways of tightening the security of the ballot and limiting access to ballots before polling day in order to avoid the possibility of a scandalous fraud which lax rules could tempt over-zealous partisans of a particular party/side into attempting.