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

7 Electoral Materials

81. We received a number of submissions highlighting the complexities of designing and printing ballot papers and associated guidance within the short timeframe after close of nominations, within budget and suitable for use by all voters. The submissions from Grosvenor Print and Design, Royal Mail Group plc, Document Technology Limited, De La Rue Security Products, Electoral Reform Services and DocQwise Business Services, explained the number of complex variables which must be balanced, these included:

  • Size of main envelope, and of enclosures
  • The number of standard and personalised (addressed to an individual elector) enclosures
  • Use of perforated paper
  • Use of window envelopes
  • Use of colour/coloured paper
  • Use of watermarks
  • Use of barcodes
  • Hand finishing, such as sticky edges
  • Production breaks for ward changes

The production process will depend upon what variables are chosen; and whether envelopes can be filled by machine, or whether manual filling is required. The submission from Electoral Reform Services estimated the following filling figures:

  • Intelligent mailing machine 2,000 envelopes/hr
  • Manual enclosing (experienced) 250 envelopes/hr
  • Non-intelligent mailing machine 4,000 envelopes/hr[124]

Each of the submissions stressed that the priority was 100% correct enclosure of materials to ensure the elector's faith in the electoral process.

82. Balancing ease of use for the voter, swift production, security and 100% accuracy is not easy. The submission from Electoral Reform Services explained why the company advocated a perforated ballot paper combining the ballot form and the security statement:

"It is however, in our view, preferable for the voter to seal his ballot paper in a security envelope. How then would it be possible to remove the requirement for this to be personalised? [which is a time/resource cost] This could be achieved by making the inner envelope a window envelope into which the ballot paper is sealed but through which the ballot paper number could be viewed. Therefore, if we are able to combine the ballot paper and security statement into one item separable by a perforation (with a section being used as the address carrier), have a non-personalised security envelope with a window, a return envelope with a window we would have a mailing pack that required no matched items. This approach would require the voter to put two items into envelopes in such a way that barcodes or numbers were visible through windows. This could result in the voting process becoming too complicated and therefore prohibitive. Unfortunately, some voters are not able to follow the process and put the items in the envelopes in the wrong way. If the item to show through the window in the reply envelope is placed incorrectly this could result in the ballot envelope not being returned to the local authority."[125]

Although this design reduces printing demands, and is secure, it is not simple for voters to use. The precise nature of the last step, of ensuring the ballot papers are in envelopes the right way round, with numbers clearly showing would be difficult for a lot of people, especially those with a visual impairment. Richard Price QC OBE, of the HS Chapman Society, believes that ballot papers designed in such a way are confusing:

"It is undoubtedly confusing. If one looked at the way in which the ballot papers were devised in the all-postal ballot, in one of the cases that we put in our submission to you in fact had one piece of paper which was folded into three: one section was the ballot paper, the middle section was the declaration of identity; and the third section was the address of the voter, all joined together with perforations. As one saw from the court recount, all sorts of voters did a whole series of different things with that piece of paper. When they sent in their postal vote, some sent the whole lot back, including the bit with their name and address on; some tore the address off and sent the declaration of identity back and the ballot paper joined up; others sent them back separately; others chopped the ballot paper up, so it was only half the length that it was on the sheet, making it very difficult in fact to count them when they got to the count. You could see that the voters were all over the place in what they were supposed to do with this one simple three-section form."[126]

Scope agree with this view:

"We have seen, and some of the pilots have evaluated them, incredibly complicated instructions, unnecessarily complicated instructions as to how to fill in your ballot paper and instructions on how to fold a ballot paper which is more like origami than a postal vote."[127]

Scope have evidence that more people spoil their ballot paper accidentally when complex instructions and technical language are used on electoral materials. They stress the need for clear documentation using plain English, and diagrams when possible:

"It is important for positive public perception of postal voting that all election material including ballot papers is written in clear and simple language. Most of the 2002 postal-only pilot areas detailed instructions on ballot papers in straightforward language with two local authorities consulting with learning disabled people to ensure the process was accessible. The use of pictograms to explain the voting process was also a positive development. Conversely, some areas used overly complex instructions: "the written instructions were only clear because I had staff support" said one respondent."[128]

83. Three companies that produce electoral materials gave oral evidence to the inquiry. They each had different views as to whether tighter regulations on the format and design of materials would help:

Jon Sanders, Managing Director, Document Technology Limited: "I believe that the [production] systems that are devised must cope with the regulation design. I do not believe there should be wide variation and I do not believe it is necessary."[129]

Simon Hearn, Head of Ballot Department, Electoral Reform Services: "I think the more there are flexible designs in which to work, it is obviously of benefit, but you need some core parameters. What you are looking at here, the idea is to continue to scale and scale and scale and then you need to be able to make sure that respectable mailing houses and printers are able to do the work that you want them to do and, therefore, you need to be able to be saying, "We believe these designs are scaleable", as opposed to incorporating very tight designs which might not be scaleable. You are talking here about very high-end security papers and with these sorts of processes, then again the scaleability immediately comes down a bit because it is not something familiar to the print industry, so you are balancing these demands."[130]

Keith Brown, Director of Business Development, De La Rue Security Products: "I suppose not surprisingly, given what I have already said, I very much favour tight regulation and in almost a very tight specification that as wide a group of suppliers could meet as possible, but I think if you do not have that tight regulation, then, as a member of the general public, how do I know what to look for in a particular ballot paper coming through the post?"[131]

84. Balancing ease of use, security and production demands in the design of electoral materials is not always easy. We understand that production pressures, caused by the short amount of time between the close of nominations, and beginning of the polling period, drive the need for fewer personalised enclosures. However we are concerned that complex folding arrangements add an additional level of complexity to the voting process, especially for disabled voters. We recommend that the Government introduce tighter regulations on the design of electoral materials to prevent overly complex designs. The regulations should be informed by the Electoral Commission's evaluation of the June combined elections, including user feedback. Organisations such as Scope and the Royal National Institute of the Blind, who have conducted detailed research on colour use, print font and size, and so on, should also be consulted. Plain English and diagrams should always be used.   

124   Ev 41, HC 400-II [Electoral Reform Services] Back

125   Ev 42-43, HC 400-II [Electoral Reform Services] Back

126   Q179, HC 400-III [Richard Price QC OBE, Management Committee, HS Chapman Society] Back

127   Q217, HC 400-III [Ruth Scott, Campaigns Director, Scope] Back

128   Ev 18, HC 400-II [Scope] Back

129   Q248, HC 400-III [Jon Sanders, Managing Director, Document Technology Limited] Back

130   Q248, HC 400-III [Simon Hearn, Head of Ballot Department, Electoral Reform Services] Back

131   Q248, HC 400-III [Keith Brown, Director of Business Development, De La Rue Security Products] Back

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