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

6 Access

67. The aim of postal voting is to increase the numbers of electors who participate in elections. However groups such as the Disability Rights Commission, Scope, Mencap and the Royal National Institute of the Blind are concerned that all-postal voting will reduce turnout because it will make it harder for some people to vote. They want a range of voting options to ensure that all electors are able to vote, including the average 13,400 disabled voters in each parliamentary constituency, who make up one sixth of the total electorate:[96]

The Disability Rights Commission: "It is unlikely that a single voting system could be designed which was accessible and easy to use for people with any impairment given the diversity of access requirements. Thus offering a range of options to maximum access and usability standards is inherently more likely to maximise participation and eliminate exclusion."[97]

Scope: "We draw a sharp distinction, therefore, between offering voters the choice of casting their ballot by post as one of a range of voting options which (subject to some reservations) we broadly support and postal-only elections which effectively disenfranchise many millions of disabled voters and which we strongly oppose."[98]

Scope Cwmpas Cymru: "Scope Cwmpas Cymru is extremely concerned about all-postal elections. We believe that it will significantly reduce choice for a proportion of disabled people. […] People with communication or learning impairments will be particularly disenfranchised. […] we are not against postal voting within a mix of other voting methods. All-postal voting is however not the answer."[99]

Mencap: "In order to achieve greater participation in the democratic process, it is important that voting systems are inclusive so that disabled and non-disabled voters have an equal opportunity to make political choices. […] Mencap recommends that a range of methods be adopted simultaneously as no single voting method can suit the needs of all voters."[100]

Royal National Institute of the Blind (RNIB): "RNIB draws a sharp distinction between pilot schemes that involved multiple options for voting and those that only allow for voting by post. Whilst we accept that some disabled people find voting by post easier RNIB's evidence suggests that postal voting does not benefit blind and partially sighted voters. The Representation of the People Act 2000 gave all voters the right to vote either in person at a polling station or by post. RNIB believe that an all-postal voting system would go against the spirit of the Representation of the People Act which was designed to encourage voting by offering voters a choice about the method they used to cast their vote."[101]

68. Roger Morris, the East Midlands Regional Returning Officer, agrees in principle, but highlights that the more methods of voting, the higher the cost:

"It is easy in principle to be in favour of wider choice, but it has to be recognised that managing the different parallel systems required for such choice becomes increasingly costly."[102]

Sam Younger, Chairman of the Electoral Commission agrees:

"In principle, the more choice you can provide, the better. But there are practical issues involved in it. Our view has been that all-postal voting has real benefits, if it is correctly underpinned, and that is the direction in which we ought to go. Of course, that means that it would be impractical in resource terms - and, frankly, not justifiable - at the same time to have a polling station everywhere a polling station has traditionally been […]"[103]

John Pitt, Corporate Resources Director of Wakefield Council, believes that every electoral system will cause difficulties for some people, but thinks that arrangements can be made to ensure all electors can vote in all-postal elections:

"All different forms of elections bring with them different disability problems. Obviously, with traditional elections there is a mobility disability issue there, and with postal ballots a sight disability, and so on. Certainly from Wakefield's point of view we will put in place whatever arrangements we can to assist people with disability difficulties to take part in democratic processes."[104]

Arrangements made by the Government include; tactile voting templates, staffed delivery points, and home assistance to ensure that all electors, including disabled voters, are able to participate in all-postal elections.

Assistance for disabled voters

69. The Royal National Institute of the Blind estimate that 2 million people in Britain have visual impairments which cannot be corrected by spectacles or contact lenses.[105] For these voters, a tactile voting device is available on request from the Returning Officer. The device is similar to that used in conventional elections as polling stations, it is the same shape as the ballot paper and has Braille numbers which correspond to the candidates' names on the ballot paper. The device is stuck over the ballot paper and guides the voter to the relevant box in which to place their mark. However, none of the candidates' names or political parties are in Braille on the device; as the evidence from Scope highlights, sighted help is therefore still required in order for the blind voter to know who they are voting for. One voter told Scope, "the tactile template was useless. The most crucial information i.e. a tactile template with the candidates' names on it - was not available".[106]

70. Voting information should be available in Braille from councils, as Sir Jeremy Beecham, Chairman of the Local Government Association highlights: "The literature we have distributed in Newcastle, and I think this is true of other pilots, made clear that if people required ballot papers in Braille then contact could be made."[107] Although Scope argue this is not always easy, one voter "had great difficulty in requesting voting information from the council in Braille - it took five phone calls".[108] It is in the light of such problems and local disparities that the Electoral Commission has recommended the introduction of national standards for the provision of assistance to disabled voters. They have recommended that the Government should require Returning Officers to comply with these standards; central funding should also be made available.[109]

71. Scope believe that all disabled people should be able to vote independently, and are concerned that voters with visual impairments will be unable to do this in all-postal elections. However, Sir Jeremy Beecham argues that local authorities are making every effort to ensure all electors can vote. He thinks that visually impaired electors will need no extra assistance to that they require when dealing with ordinary written correspondence:

"People who are visually handicap will receive ordinary correspondence as a matter of course and most of it will be written or printed material presumably they will have some help in dealing with that."[110]

Scope disagree. They argue that the need for outside help to vote compromises the secrecy of the elector's vote, and makes them more liable to undue influence or coercion:

"Any form of remote voting, including postal ballots, substantially increases the possibility of disabled people being unduly influenced to vote for a particular candidate or party. An advantage of voting at polling stations is that is very difficult to force a person to vote in a particular way. The risk of this type of coercion is much higher under a remote system where people may be put under pressure or have their ballot paper completed by someone else. Many disabled people who need support will access this informally through family, friends or carers. Many disabled people will be comfortable with this situation but some may not. Coercion or undue influence may occur because the views of disabled people are not as valued as those of non-disabled people."[111]

To address these concerns, Scope argues that:

"[…] local authorities need to create independent voter support structures to ensure that disabled people can request assistance from an impartial person such as a council official."[112]

72. Many pilots have implemented schemes where voters have been able to request a home visit from electoral staff. If voters need assistance in filling in their ballot, or a copy of the tactile voting device, or a copy of a large-print ballot paper, they can request that an electoral official visits them at home. Scope have welcomed the Government's support for this scheme although emphasise the need for officials to be available to voters throughout the election period:

"What we are concerned about obviously is that disabled people have the same opportunity to vote when they like within a three or four-week period of postal voting and if large numbers of disabled people ring up on the last day before the polls close and say, "I need some assistance", we want assurances that they will get that assistance and that nobody is disenfranchised because the assistance they need is not available."[113]

We were told that some councils will find providing this level of officer support difficult, and others have concerns that the service may be open to exploitation. Assisted delivery points are thought by many to be a more workable solution.

Delivery points

73. Delivery points have been used in previous pilot schemes, varying in their number, location and facilities. Some have been just secure delivery points where voters can deposit their vote into a box, rather than use the postal system. Others have been more comprehensive and have provided electoral officers to assist voters, and a secure place in which votes can be cast. Some have opened only on polling day; others for part; or all of the electoral period. Generally, there has been one delivery point in each local authority. Sam Younger, Chairman of the Electoral Commission, stresses that the point of all-postal voting is to increase turnout, so for those unable or unwilling to use the postal service, delivery points will ensure they can still vote:

"[…] there is a question for a number of people who either prefer to physically go and cast their vote somewhere, or, alternatively, require some help in doing so, and that is why we have made the proposal - and it is a proposal that has been taken up in the pilots - for staff delivery points in local authority areas that allow people not only physically to put their vote in a box there if that is what they feel more comfortable doing but also to be assisted in doing so. That is an element of it. It is not replicating polling stations in what is essentially an all-postal election but it is ensuring that there is a reasonable degree of choice for people who are not comfortable about sending in a postal vote. One has to see all of this always, it seems to me, against the background - which is the thing I always thing it is important to keep in mind - of the benefits, in terms of encouraging more people to fill in their vote, of going in an all-postal direction."[114]

Other evidence we received also supports delivery points:

The Conservative Party: "In light of concerns about the reliability of the postal service during an all-postal election, we would support the provision of manned or unmanned delivery points in all-postal elections, especially in the final week. The appropriate number and location will depend on local circumstances. Delivery points should not be used as a means of turning an all-postal election back into a traditional election, but they are appropriate when people want to vote in the last few days before the deadline and there is not time to guarantee delivery. Delivery points can also provide reassurance to a minority of voters who have little confidence in the reliability of the postal service and might not otherwise vote."[115]

The Local Government Association: "[…] we have to accept that not all voters will want to trust their vote to the post. Staffed delivery points should be available for voters to drop off their vote and to mark their ballot in privacy. This is an important step to gaining public confidence and acceptability for all postal elections. It is important to ensure that those people who do not wish to use the post, are able to vote at a manned delivery point. Voting can be seen by many, particularly the elderly, as an important social and community activity."[116]

Scope: "We are very clear that disabled people ought to have the same rights as every other person to vote secretly and that means independently and we feel that staffed delivery points are going some way towards providing that, and actually it is about providing assistance to vote rather than actually making the system itself inherently accessible."[117]

The Scottish National Party told us that delivery points are essential for voters who live in areas with a disrupted or reduced postal service.

74. Although Scope believe delivery points are a practical solution to the needs of some voters within the context of all-postal elections, they argue that the existence of the points highlights the flawed nature of the all-postal voting system:

"I think the issue for us is that in terms of providing staffed delivery points, you have to question whether that is actually for postal voting or not, and as many disabled people have had a long history of being excluded from the democratic process, what we do not want to see, in terms of considering new systems of voting and introducing new systems, is that disabled people again are going to get the worst of both worlds in some ways where they have to vote by post, but then additional systems need to be put in place in order to enable them to vote."[118]

Scope also question whether delivery points will work if only located one per electoral unit:

"We have got some particular concerns around the proposals for the staffed delivery points in June, largely, that there are not going to be very many of them and there are only plans to have one per local authority area. For some people in the north of England, living in rural areas, this could mean having to travel up to two hours to get to somewhere where they can get assistance to vote, which we do not think is acceptable at all. If postal voting is being promoted on the basis of ease and convenience, we do not think that a four-hour round trip in order just to get help to fill in your ballot paper constitutes convenience for many people."[119]

Michael Green of the National Association of Local Councils is of a similar view;

"We take the position that a number of delivery units would have to be based on a reality that you cannot have one where every polling station previously was but you do not necessarily have to narrow the options down to one ward. I think principle voters can identify sustained communities within themselves and identify where communities would like to have what would be called a delivery point - I do not know why it cannot be called a polling station on polling day, I do not think there is an issue there."[120]

The distance between delivery points is particularly relevant to the June elections for the European Parliament because a local counting area in a European Parliament region is far larger than a local authority ward; the vast majority of voters would therefore find the points difficult to access. The Government will provide funding for one delivery point for each counting area, but additional points, provided at the discretion of the Returning Officer, have to be funded locally. The opposite will be true for small-scale elections, such as Parish councils, where the delivery point could be equivalent to a polling station, meaning there would be a dual electoral system in operation with all the associated costs.

75. There is also the question of whether there is demand for delivery points. Councillor Sir Jeremy Beecham told us:

"We are in favour of having a delivery point, at least one, in each ward. Not much use was made of those. I have a report on the by-election in Newcastle where the turnout was of the order of over 3,000 and only 20 odd votes were deposited in the ballot box. It is important that that facility should exist particularly for people who remember late in the day they have not voted because it enables them to vote."[121]

76. The Minister, Chris Leslie MP, believes that delivery points are compatible with all-postal elections:

"I was quite keen to see the use of staffed delivery points, even though these are all postal elections because there are some people, I suspect, a very small minority who for whatever reason want to cast their vote in a secret environment or want to physically hand over their ballot paper. Although that is a very small minority who would not be prepared to use the postal arrangements I felt it was important to give that opportunity. I think we have provided that each local authority area should have at least one staffed delivery point effectively with a secure, safe ballot area where the vote can be marked and cast and deposited in a ballot box in what would in other circumstances seem to be normal conventional arrangements. That is something that I think gives us a level of protection if for some unforeseen reason people do not feel they would like to cast their vote like that."[122]

77. The election orders for the European Parliamentary elections state that assisted delivery points should be open for nine days during the election period, from the 1-9 June (excluding Sunday 6 June), at hours determined by the Returning Officer; and on 10 June, polling day, from 7.00am-10.00pm. However in oral evidence the Minister, Chris Leslie, told us that delivery points should only be "Open on the day of the election."[123] There appears to be some confusion within the Department for Constitutional Affairs as to the extent assisted delivery points should be used.

78. If the Government intends to extend all-postal voting, they must ensure all electors who wish to vote are able to do so. Postal voting will make voting easier for those with mobility problems; however it may make independent voting more difficult for those with visual impairments or literacy problems. The Government has tried to address potential difficulties through provision of tactile voting devices, Braille and large-print voting information, delivery points and home assistance. We are concerned at Scope's reports that some electors have struggled to obtain Braille voting information; and that others have found the tactile voting device unhelpful. Although the device was successfully used in polling stations, we recommend it is redesigned for all-postal voting use to include candidates' names and political parties in Braille. For those who require assistance to complete their vote, home visits by electoral officers who can offer impartial advice and assistance, are welcomed. We share the view of Scope that this assistance should be available throughout the electoral period; however we have concerns that this system will not be sustainable should large numbers of people seek assistance. We therefore recommend that in their evaluation of the June combined elections the Electoral Commission evaluate the provision of home assistance considering demand, user perceptions, and the resource impact on local authorities.

79. The aim of all-postal voting is to increase electoral participation and give electors every opportunity to vote; we therefore welcome the use of assisted delivery points. However we are not satisfied that the Government intends to fund only one assisted delivery point in each local counting area. It would obviously not be cost-effective to replicate the number and location of conventional polling stations; however we believe that in some local authority areas there is a need for more than one delivery point. One option Government should consider is use of mobile libraries, or similar, staffed by electoral officers, as delivery points. We recommend that Government provide central funding if a Returning Officer can offer convincing evidence of the need for additional assisted delivery points.

80. We are disappointed at the apparent confusion of policy within the Department for Constitutional Affairs. The Minister tells us that he wants assisted delivery points only open on polling day, while the Election Orders state that delivery points should be open for nine days. In response to this report we recommend that the Minister urgently clarifies the department's position. We recommend that delivery points are open for most, if not all, of the polling period; they should provide a secure place for electors to cast their vote; and be staffed by electoral officers able to offer impartial assistance. We hope that the Government consider this recommendation in its preparations for the all-postal regional referendums foreseen in the autumn.

96   Ev 16, HC 400-II [Scope] Back

97   Ev 22, HC 400-II [Disability Rights Commission] Back

98   Ev 16, HC 400-II [Scope] Back

99   Ev 45-46, HC 400-II [Scope Cwmpas Cymru] Back

100   Ev 44, HC 400-II [Mencap] Back

101   Ev 25, HC 400-II [Royal National Institute of the Blind (RNIB)] Back

102   Ev 66, HC 400-III [Roger Morris, East Midlands Regional Returning Officer, European Parliamentary elections] Back

103   Q28, HC 400-III [Sam Younger, Chairman, Electoral Commission] Back

104   Q84, HC 400-III [John Pitt, Corporate Resources Director, Wakefield Council] Back

105   Ev 25, HC 400-II [Royal National Institute of the Blind (RNIB)] Back

106   Ev 16, HC 400-II [Scope] Back

107   Q127, HC 400-III [Councillor Sir Jeremy Beecham, Chairman, Local Government Association] Back

108   Ev 16, HC 400-II [Scope] Back

109   The Electoral Commission, Funding Electoral Services, February 2003 Back

110   Q128, HC 400-III [Councillor Sir Jeremy Beecham, Chairman, Local Government Association] Back

111   Ev 18, HC 400-II [Scope] Back

112   Ev 18, HC 400-II [Scope] Back

113   Q215, HC 400-III [Ruth Scott, Campaigns Manager, Scope] Back

114   Q28, HC 400-III [Sam Younger, Chairman, Electoral Commission] Back

115   Ev 45, HC 400-II [The Conservative Party] Back

116   Ev 67, HC 400-III [Local Government Association] Back

117   Q213, HC 400-III [Ruth Scott, Campaigns Manager, Scope] Back

118   Q213, HC 400-III [Ruth Scott, Campaigners Manager, Scope] Back

119   Q213, HC 400-III [Ruth Scott, Campaigns Manager, Scope] Back

120   Q119, HC 400-III [Michael Green, Policy Officer, National Association of Local Councils] Back

121   Q118, HC 400-III [Councillor Sir Jeremy Beecham, Chairman, Local Government Association] Back

122   Q394, HC 400-III [Chris Leslie MP, Parliamentary Under-Secretary, Department for Constitutional Affairs] Back

123   Q395, HC 400-III [Chris Leslie MP, Parliamentary Under-Secretary, Department for Constitutional Affairs] Back

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