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


3 Extension of all-postal voting

12. Postal voting is popular. Twice as many people chose to vote by post in the 2001 General Election as in 1997, constituting 5.2% of votes cast compared to 2.3%.[10] In Southampton, an area which has not piloted all-postal voting, the number of postal votes rose to 26,000 from only 2,000 in 1997. Yet MORI research suggests that nationally only 52% of people know that they can choose to vote by post.[11] As awareness of on-demand postal voting increases, it is expected that more people will choose to vote by post. In areas where all-postal pilots are not taking place, and for elections not subject to pilot orders, this may lead to a "dual" electoral system, where half the electorate vote by post and half at a polling station. Malcolm Dumper of the Association of Electoral Administrators is concerned that running such a system would be resource hungry and costly, with the need for two teams of extra staff; one team of casual labour for clerking the polling stations, and another more highly trained team to manage the postal vote process for the whole election period.[12]

13. The Government appears to view the June 2004 all-postal pilots as a cut-off point after which decisions about the mechanics of future elections will be made. It states its objectives for June are to:

  • build on the experience gained in previous pilot schemes, especially those in 2002 and 2003;
  • test the 'scalability' of new voting methods. European Parliamentary regions are considerably larger than any previous pilot electoral areas. Pilot schemes will be able to explore the technical robustness and the costs of new voting methods on a larger scale;
  • test new voting methods in elections using systems other than first-past-the-post;
  • continue to raise awareness of new voting methods, and to test their acceptability to a larger number of people in a wider set of circumstances.[13]

The Electoral Commission will evaluate the June all-postal pilots, and the results are expected to help the Government develop a 'road map' to achievement of a multi-channelled General Election after 2006.[14] There is less clarity as to whether the Government intends to extend all-postal voting to other areas for future non-parliamentary elections.

14. Increasing numbers of areas are choosing to participate in pilot schemes; 34 councils held all-postal pilots in 2003, compared to 13 in 2002. Pilots are also becoming much larger; the combined European Parliament and local authority elections in June 2004 will cover 30% of the electorate. The current situation is a half-way house, with most areas operating a dual electoral system, part postal and part conventional voting; and other areas operating only postal voting systems.

15. The Government has been right to trial all-postal voting through a series of pilot schemes. The June 2004 all-postal elections will be on a large scale and will build on previous experience, and test the robustness of the all-postal system. Provided that the Electoral Commission's evaluation of the June 2004 pilots is positive, we recommend that the Government does not hold any more pilot schemes. The June elections should answer the crucial questions about the scalability, cost and security of the all-postal system, and the Government will learn no more from holding further pilots. The Government must make a firm decision whether to extend all-postal voting after evaluation of the June elections.

16. During the course of our inquiry, the European Parliamentary and Local Elections Pilots Bill, which makes provision for all-postal voting in four regions in the June combined elections, has been considered and passed into law. The pilots are not in themselves the focus of our inquiry. We are however concerned by the Government's poor management of the arrangements for the pilots. The regulations which set out the legislation in detail were only published on Tuesday 27 April, nearly four weeks after the Bill received Royal Assent; and despite the Minister, Chris Leslie MP, telling us in oral evidence on 17 March that the drafting of the regulations was "in hand"[15] and that the regulations would be published "as soon as absolutely possible"[16]. The 30 April was the last possible day for Returning Officers to post notice of polls for the June elections. Leaving publication of the Orders until such a late stage in the process is deeply unsatisfactory. For any future all-postal elections, including the regional referendums expected in the autumn of 2004, the Government must make more timely preparations, and ensure tighter control of the process.  


10   Ev 3, HC 400-II [Office of the Deputy Prime Minister: Housing, Planning, Local Government and the Regions] Back

11   MORI presentation to the Committee on 9th March 2004. Back

12   Q39-40, HC 400-III [Malcolm Dumper, Association of Electoral Administrators] Back

13   Ev 4, HC 400-II [Office of the Deputy Prime Minister: Housing, Planning, Local Government and the Regions] Back

14   Ev 3, HC 400-II [Office of the Deputy Prime Minister: Housing, Planning, Local Government and the Regions]  Back

15   Q386, HC 400-III [Chris Leslie MP, Parliamentary Under-Secretary, Department for Constitutional Affairs] Back

16   Q385, HC 400-III [Chris Leslie MP, Parliamentary Under-Secretary, Department for Constitutional Affairs] Back


 
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