Select Committee on Office of the Deputy Prime Minister: Housing, Planning, Local Government and the Regions Seventh Report


1 Introduction

1. The Government's programme of electoral modernisation has developed against a background of declining voter turnout. In the June 2001 General Election, turnout was the lowest recorded since the advent of universal adult suffrage; only 59.4% of the 44,403,238 registered voters chose to vote, compared with 71.4% in the 1997 General Election.[3] Other recent elections have produced lower results. UK turnout for the 1999 European Parliamentary elections was just 24%: average turnout at local elections is just 30%.[4] The decline in voting is most marked among young voters, three out of four 18-24 year olds did not vote in the 2001 General Election.[5] With such low voter participation, the outcome of an election may not accurately reflect the will of the electorate. The Government is therefore trying to increase voter turnout, and has conducted a review of electoral procedures in an attempt to "make elections more accessible and more efficient, whilst maintaining or increasing the security of the electoral process."[6] This report considers one approach adopted by the Government to make elections more accessible - postal voting.

2. Voting by post was first introduced after World War One in order to allow service personnel stationed overseas to vote at the December 1918 General Election. Until 2000 the facility was only available to limited groups, for example, those who would be absent from the area, or who had a physical disability. In 1999 a Home Office Working Party on Electoral Procedures undertook a review of how electoral procedures might be changed to increase voter turnout. The Working Party recommended the introduction of electoral pilot schemes as a means of testing innovative voting procedures. This recommendation was enacted as section 10 of the Representation of the People Act 2000, under which local authorities in England and Wales may apply for permission to run pilot schemes at particular local government elections. The Act gives the Secretary of State discretion, subject to prior consultation with the Electoral Commission, to approve such schemes.[7] The Electoral Commission is an independent body that was set up by the UK Parliament in November 2000. It is tasked with increasing public confidence in the democratic process within the United Kingdom - and encouraging electors to take part - by modernising the electoral process, promoting public awareness of electoral matters, and regulating political parties. It is also required to report on and evaluate each electoral pilot scheme.

3. The Representation of the People Act 2000 also made provision for postal votes to be made available on demand to any elector in Great Britain. It extended to the whole electorate the right to apply to vote by post either at every election (whether parliamentary or local), for a pre-determined period (for example a set number of years), or at a particular election.

4. Since 2000 approximately 100 local authorities have taken part in 150 electoral pilots, of which 62 have tried out variants of postal voting.[8] All-postal voting pilots have been the most popular pilot; eighty all-postal pilots have taken place in England and Wales and four in Scotland.[9] Under an all-postal voting pilot, the entire electorate, whether or not they have applied to vote by post, is issued with a postal vote; there are no 'traditional' polling stations, although there may be staffed points for the completion and receipt of votes. As a result, polling is not confined to one day. The largest pilot to date will take place in 2004 when elections for local councils and the European Parliament will be combined on 10 June. Voters in the East Midlands, North East, North West and Yorkshire and the Humber regions, making up 30% of the electorate, will only be able to vote by post.

5. The Committee resolved to conduct an inquiry into postal voting, exploring in particular the following issues:

  • electoral fraud
  • public perceptions
  • impact on turnout
  • administration and cost
  • access and disability issues
  • voter choice

6. A press notice announcing the inquiry and requesting evidence was published on 15 January 2004. A wide range of organisations responded, and we received 47 submissions of evidence and a number of useful background papers. We held 3 evidence sessions on the 9, 16 and 17 March 2004 and took evidence from 31 witnesses including the Rt. Hon Nick Raynsford MP, Minister of State for Local and Regional Government, Office of the Deputy Prime Minister; and Chris Leslie MP, Parliamentary Under-Secretary, Department for Constitutional Affairs. We appreciate the time spent and efforts made by all who submitted evidence and gave oral evidence to the inquiry. We are particularly grateful to Simon Atkinson, Research Director of MORI Social Research Institute, who briefed us on the work MORI had completed for the Electoral Commission on public perceptions of postal voting. We also wish to thank our specialist advisors David Godfrey and Colin Rallings, whose advice and guidance was of great assistance.   


3   The Electoral Commission, Election 2001: The Official Result, July 2001, Preface Back

4   The Electoral Commission, Election 2001: The Official Result, July 2001, p4-5 Back

5   The Electoral Commission, Election 2001: The Official Result, July 2001, p4-5 Back

6   Ev 2, H 400-II [Office of the Deputy Prime Minister: Housing, Planning, Local Government and the Regions] Back

7   In Scotland, pilot schemes may be approved under Section 5 of the Scottish Local Government (Elections) Act 2002. Back

8   Ev 1, HC 400-II [Office of the Deputy Prime Minister: Housing, Planning, Local Government and the Regions] Back

9   Ev 2, HC 400-II [Office of the Deputy Prime Minister: Housing, Planning, Local Government and the Regions] Back


 
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