The UK’s Conservative Party has delayed sending out leadership contest ballots to its members in order to “enhance security around the ballot process,” after consulting with the National Cyber Security Centre (NCSC), the party confirmed on Aug. 3.
The rule was also changed to prevent members from voting for a second time to override their first ballot.
Meanwhile, former Conservative Party treasurer Lord Peter Cruddas continued to call for the suspension of the race, offering to pay for a “Boris ballot,” which would ask party members to vote on whether or not to accept Prime Minister Boris Johnson’s resignation.
Some 160,000 Conservative Party members were expecting to receive their ballot packs this week, which would contain a paper ballot, online voting instructions, and two unique security codes, allowing members to vote for their candidate, Liz Truss or Rishi Sunak, by post or online.
The party previously said on its website that qualifying members could expect to receive their ballots between Aug. 1 and Aug. 5. It now states ballots will arrive between Aug. 1 and Aug. 10. The change was made on Aug. 2.
According to The Telegraph, members received a message on the night of Aug. 2 saying the ballots would “arrive with you a little later” because the party has “taken some time to add some additional security to our ballot process.”
Under previous rules, voters were technically allowed to change their minds by voting a second time, but they are now only allowed to vote once.
The party website previously stated, “You can only vote once and should a duplicate vote be received by our ballot company, only the last received vote will count.”
The line was changed on Aug. 2 to: “It is an offence to vote more than once. Any member who attempts to do so will have their membership of the Party withdrawn.”
A Conservative Party spokesperson said: “We have consulted with the NCSC throughout this process and have decided to enhance security around the ballot process. Eligible members will start receiving ballot packs this week.”
An NCSC spokesperson said: “Defending UK democratic and electoral processes is a priority for the NCSC and we work closely with all parliamentary political parties, local authorities, and MPs to provide cyber security guidance and support.
“As you would expect from the UK’s national cyber security authority we provided advice to the Conservative Party on security considerations for online leadership voting.”
The NCSC isn’t thought to have responded to a specific threat to the contest.
‘Malicious Cyber Activity’
It isn’t the first time that concerns about online security have surfaced during elections, with contests around the world subject to attacks.
The Intelligence and Security Committee’s 2020 report on Russia noted that Moscow “has carried out malicious cyber activity” including “attempting to influence the democratic elections of other countries.”
The MPs and peers who scrutinise the work of the UK’s intelligence agencies said they had been informed that “the mechanics of the UK’s voting system are deemed largely sound: the use of a highly dispersed paper-based voting and counting system makes any significant interference difficult.”
However the next prime minister—either Liz Truss or Rishi Sunak—will not enter Downing Street as the result of a general election but instead the Conservative leadership contest, with members allowed to vote online.
Sunak has so far consistently trailed behind Truss in polls among Conservative Party members.
According to a YouGov poll of 1,043 party members published on Aug. 2, Truss had a 38-point lead, 14 points up from July 21, and those who intended to vote for her were less likely to say they might change their minds.
Cruddas, along with former Conservative MEP David Campbell Bannerman and the Conservative Post outlet, previously published a petition demanding a ballot on Johnson’s resignation.
In a letter to the Board of the Conservative Party on Aug. 3, Cruddas said his campaign had sent around 12,000 signatures to the board, with a further 5,000 to be sent by the end of the week.
Cruddas called on the board to suspend the election, reject Johnson’s resignation while it “fixes any cyber issues,” and give party members a Boris ballot, which he offered to pay for.
If party members decide to accept Johnson’s resignation, Cruddas said, he will then pay for cybersecurity for the race between Truss and Sunak.
PA Media contributed to this report.