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


4 The impact of all-postal voting

17. In the introduction to this report we highlighted that elector turnouts at recent elections have been very low. The Government has introduced alternative electoral processes in an effort to increase turnout. MORI conducted research in May 2003 with members of the public to ascertain what might encourage them to vote. 31% mentioned voting by post, as Figure One demonstrates:



18. Sam Younger, Chairman of the Electoral Commission, believes that it is vital to engage young people in electoral issues. MORI conducted research for the Electoral Commission to try and understand why there had been such a low turnout. Of the people surveyed, they found that 53%, mostly young people, wanted to replace the polling station with alternative methods of voting; 34%, mainly older people, were against change.[17] Sam Younger was concerned: "Part of what that says to me is that we are in danger, if we do not look at adapting the system, of having a system that may still be just about all right now, but if you look at the way lifestyles and people develop is not necessarily going to be appropriate in the coming years." [18]

19. Evidence shows that all-postal voting has had a positive effect, increasing turnout significantly in all but three pilot areas, as Table One demonstrates. Gavin Barwell, Operations Director of the Conservative Party, estimated that all-postal voting had increased turnout by an average of 15% during the last pilots.[19] Sam Younger, Chairman of the Electoral Commission, agreed: "If you look at the 2003 electoral pilots in the local elections in England, the average turnout across all the local elections was, broadly speaking, just over 34 per cent; the average turnout in the all-postals in that same time was around 49 per cent. There is about a 15 per cent difference."[20] Some areas experienced a much greater difference including Gateshead, South Tyneside and Sunderland where turnout more than doubled. Table One: All-Postal Voter TurnoutThe areas where all-postal voting did not produce a higher turnout are shown in italics; the areas shown in bold are those where the higher turnout produced by initial use of an all-postal pilot was not sustained in subsequent all-postal elections.
Authority
All-postal Turnout (%)
Turnout at last comparable election (%)
May Local Elections 2000
Bolton Metropolitan Borough Council 3925.6
Doncaster Borough Council 4524.5
Gateshead Metropolitan Borough Council 5424.5
Norwich City Council 31.519.7
Stevenage Borough Council 43.532.5
Swindon Borough Council 29.618.9
Wigan Metropolitan Borough Council 26.117.6
May Local Elections 2002
Chorley Borough Council 61.532.58
Crawley Borough Council 30.1 18.6
Gateshead Metropolitan Borough Council 57.429.6
London Borough of Greenwich 29.9 32.2
London Borough of Hackney 31.934.7
London Borough of Havering 4537.5
North Tyneside Council (incl. mayoral) 42.436
North West Leicestershire District Council 33.538
Preston Borough Council 33.9 28.6
South Tyneside Metropolitan Borough Council 54.727
Stevenage Borough Council 52.929
Stratford-on-Avon District Council 42.440.8
Trafford Metropolitan Borough 52.933.2
May Local Elections 2003
Blackpool Borough Council 50.429
Blyth Valley Borough Council 5227
Bolton Metropolitan Borough Council 4232
Brighton & Hove City Council 45.938
Chesterfield Borough Council 51.635
Copeland Borough Council 55.739
Corby Borough Council 4331
Darlington Borough Council 51.534
Derwentside District Council, Chester-le-Street District Council & Wear Valley District Council (Joint Pilot) 52.431
Doncaster Metropolitan Borough Council 4729
East Staffordshire Borough Council 44.934
Gateshead Metropolitan Borough Council 54.657
Guildford Borough Council 5437
Herefordshire Council 6138
Hyndburn Borough Council 51.436
Kings Lynn & West Norfolk Borough Council 47.636
Lincoln City Council 47.326
Newcastle City Council 49.832
North Lincolnshire Council 51.233
North Shropshire District Council 4733
Redcar & Cleveland Borough Council 51.537
Rotherham Metropolitan Borough Council 51.327
Rushcliffe Borough Council 5440
Salford City Council 4125
Sedgefield Borough Council 44.130
St Edmundsbury Borough Council 38.538
St Helens Metropolitan Borough Council 4826
Stevenage Borough Council 52.253
Stockton-on-Tees Borough Council 5231
Sunderland City Council 46.522
Trafford Metropolitan Borough Council 52.453
Telford & Wrekin Council 48.628
Wansbeck District Council 50.232
By- Elections* 2002
Kerrier District Council 35
Eden District Council 37
Stirling Council 63.2
West Wiltshire District Council 56
Monmouthshire County Council 38.8
Aberdeenshire Council 51
Scottish Borders Council 65.8
Trafford Metropolitan Borough Council 53
By-Elections* 2003
Doncaster Borough Council 46.5
King's Lynn & West Norfolk Borough Council (Tilney All Saints) 50
King's Lynn & West Norfolk Borough Council (West Dereham) 54.4
Durham City Council 46.4
Telford & Wrekin Borough Council (Nedge Ward) 36
Telford & Wrekin Borough Council (Ketley Oakengates Ward) 43.4
Chester-Le-Street District Council 60.4
Cumbria County Council 44.4
London Borough of Lewisham 24.7
Newcastle City Council 48
By-Elections* 2004
Herefordshire Council 52
North Kesteven District Council 45
South Ayrshire Council 63
Mid-Bedfordshire District Council 43.1
Telford & Wrekin (Haygate and Newport North) 55
Doncaster (Mexborough Ward) 45.5
King's Lynn & West Norfolk (Heacham) 45.5
Wear Valley 40%
Mayoral Elections* 2002
London Borough of Hackney (incl. simultaneous local by-election) 31.9
Stoke on Trent City Council 24.1

* Due to the nature of by-elections and mayoral elections, comparable figures are not available.

Source: Ev 6-7, HC 400-II (Updated from subsequent correspondence) [Office of the Deputy Prime Minister: Housing, Planning, Local Government]

20. The increased turnout apparently generated by all-postal elections is treated with suspicion by some, including the Electoral Reform Society and Lord Greaves, who questions the legitimacy of some of the returned ballot papers:

The Electoral Reform Society: "We note that some local government electoral pilots achieved very significant increases in turnout through all postal voting. However these turnouts were particular high where declarations of identity were not used: while we have no evidence that this was the result of electoral fraud rather than increased voter convenience, we do not recommend the use of postal voting without the safeguard of the declaration of identity."[21]

Lord Greaves: "It is quite clear in the pilots which have taken place that the number of ballot papers which have been returned has increased substantially in almost all cases, and there is no dispute about that obviously. There is some dispute about who has returned all those ballot papers. Just because a ballot paper has been returned does not mean that that voter has returned it."[22]

21. The Metropolitan Police Special Branch argue that increased turnout will make it harder for people to commit fraud:

"It is going to be quite useful if turnout increases, because if you have a higher turnout you are obviously going to make it harder for the fraudsman to get those few extra votes that can make a decision go his way or her way. I think, also, that if the turnout increases you are starting to get more ownership of the system by the electorate. If, for argument's sake, you have a constituency where the turnout is 25 per cent, you could then say that 75 per cent of the people could not give a damn about it. That might not necessarily be the case but a large proportion of people will not necessarily care whether there is any fraud. As in many cases, we are not going to solve these offences without the support of the community that we try to serve."[23]

Evaluation of all previous all-postal pilots by the Electoral Commission found no significant evidence that increased turnout was a result of fraud. It is more likely that increased turnout reflects increased convenience and awareness of the election, partly because of the publicity generated by the pilot.

22. The assertion that publicity may cause increased turnout worries some who believe that if all-postal voting becomes the norm, it will generate less media interest and less publicity, meaning voter turnout may drop again. Indeed, experience of all-postal voting in Western Australia suggests this could happen; Figure Two shows postal voting turnout over three elections by size of community, in all communities with a population of 1,000 or more, turnout was less at the third election than at the first.


Evidence from New Zealand all-postal local authority elections shows a similar pattern - turnout at the third election is invariably lower than at the first:



However, Gateshead Metropolitan Borough Council has conducted three all-postal pilots in 2000, 2002 and 2003; although turnout was reduced in the third election (by 2.4%), it was still over double the turnout before the introduction of all-postal voting.

23. The Government must engage electors in politics, and not rely on changes in the electoral system to increase voter turnout. However it is vital to ensure that voter inconvenience is ruled out as a contributing factor to low turnouts in elections. In all but three pilots all-postal voting has produced higher turnouts than in the preceeding comparable elections, suggesting that for significant numbers of voters it has removed an obstacle which prevented them voting. Increased turnouts must be sustained; experience from Western Australia and New Zealand suggests that turnouts at all-postal elections may drop once the novelty wears off; the Government must be alert to this possibility.


17   Q19, HC 400-III [Sam Younger, Chairman, Electoral Commission] Back

18   Q19, HC 400-III [Sam Younger, Chairman, Electoral Commission] Back

19   Q344, HC 400-III [Gavin Barwell, Operations Director, Conservative Party] Back

20   Q4, HC 400-III [Sam Younger, Chairman, Electoral Commission] Back

21   Ev 64, HC 400-III [Electoral Reform Society] Back

22   Q339, HC 400-III [Lord Greaves, Liberal Democrat Member of the House of Lords] Back

23   Q207, HC 400-III [Representative A, Metropolitan Police Special Branch] Back


 
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