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

8 Polling progress information

85. In conventional elections 'marked' copies of the electoral register have been made available, after voting has finished, so that candidates and political parties can check for personation, or other fraud, and focus future canvassing efforts. A marked copy merely shows that an elector has attended the polling station; it does not record who they voted for. Returned postal votes have never been included on this register. In two of the all-postal pilots last year, marked copies of the electoral register were made available to candidates during the polling period.

86. Marked registers will also be made available during the polling period for the June combined elections as a result of an amendment to the European Parliamentary and Local Elections (Pilots) Bill. Chris Leslie MP, Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State at the Department for Constitutional Affairs told us:

"In the passage of the bill at the committee stage in the Commons we did introduce an amendment to allow for what is known as polling progress information to be made available to candidates and agents and, of course, also to the electoral administrators themselves so that they can tell effectively who has returned an envelope containing a ballot paper. This is effectively mirroring the arrangements in conventional elections where parties and their agents can sit outside polling stations and see who turns up to vote and that enables campaigning so that candidates in the normal way can then see if they need to chase up persons who they feel need to be aware that there is an election. This is effectively a mirroring of the marked register arrangement into all postal arrangements and this was something that was requested during debate by opposition parties. The Conservative Party suggested that it was necessary, and the Liberal Democrats, even the Scottish National Party, were urging it on the government and in response to the debate that came through in committee stage at report we made that amendment to enable polling progress information to be made available."[132]

He added:

"[…] it will be for candidates and agents and electoral administrators only to have the data of those people who have had envelopes returned to the returning officer with no more frequency than one list per day of polling numbers and names and no less frequency than twice a week, and we hope that parties and the returning officers will negotiate between them what is the most efficient […]."[133]

87. However Sam Younger, Chairman of the Electoral Commission, has concerns about potential contravention of human rights and is urging Returning Officers to be cautious in the provision of polling information this year:

"[… ] we have taken some legal advice on the human rights aspects of this. Though we have not had full time to evaluate it, we wanted to make sure we made that available at the time the debate was going on about the availability of the marked register for the elections in June. There is, I think, in human rights' terms, a clear danger. One can quite see why and quite sympathise with the reasons that for political parties and candidates there is a real advantage in having access to the electoral register on an on-going basis through a campaign, but I do think there are human rights' implications, and we have actually counselled for this year caution in that, pending the conclusion which we should reach later this year in terms of where we should go in the long term. As I say, we have not fully evaluated the legal advice we have had but I do think there is a real question mark. […] There are two issues, it seems to me. There is the issue, which I think we would all recognise - which I do not think is evidence-based at the moment - that it is possible, obviously, if you have campaigners who have narrowed down the number of people they want to have a go at in terms of saying, "We want you to return your vote," that the pressure on those individuals could be great. That is the theoretical bit of it. The general proposition is that it does open the opportunity for an interference in the privacy of the individual for somebody to go to their house. We have not reached a final conclusion on this but there are clearly dangers that have been pointed to by the legal advice we have been given."[134]

He added:

"[…] the Information Commissioner has made a view very clear that this should not be information made available, certainly contemporaneously, and, indeed, many people would argue it should not be made available even after the election. There is a balance here. And of course we are also looking at something, in terms of the use of the electoral register and so on, that has been a practice for many years in terms of the use of the electoral register and the marked register after an election."[135]

Returning Officers, who will have to provide the polling progress information, are consequently left in an uncertain position. They are entitled to clear guidelines:

Christine Mason, Electoral Services Manager, Wakefield Council: "I think as long as the regulations are drafted properly, and that we are covered and not left in a vulnerable position in terms of electors not having that choice any more, then I do not see a problem with that."[136]

Roger Morris, East Midlands Returning Officer for the European Parliamentary elections: "[…] I think from our point of view, it either is required or it is not. As has just been said by Ms Mason, we simply need some clear instructions. I am sure we can do it effectively in accordance with whatever rules are determined. The issue about whether it should be done, I think, is a matter of policy, and you can take a view on that, but that is not really the approach that we will have when we manage the process that we are given."[137]

88. Councillor Sir Jeremy Beecham, Chairman of the Local Government Association, does not foresee any problem with the provision of polling information;

"Most people's experience, obviously the experience of Members of this Committee, is that people are very happy at their polling station to give you their number, very few decline to give you their number, fewer do that than refuse to identify their political preference when you canvas them. I do not think in principle there would be a vast objection […]."[138]

Sam Younger believes the public would object, and noted that some electors living in areas which released polling information in previous pilots have indeed complained:

"We did have a small number of complaints that came to the Commission on the provision of the marked register to candidates before the close of poll. In focus groups conducted for the Commission - and this always has the health warning of how it is suggested - MORI asked participants for their views on whether political parties should have access to the marked electoral register before the close of poll, and MORI report that most people are instinctively against giving marked registers to political parties. Even if people do not mind personally, opposition remains. That is as far as it goes at the moment and that is what I think we need to investigate further before coming to a conclusion."[139]

Sunderland City Council were one of the areas that released polling information during the polling period in a previous pilot. Bill Crawford, Elections Officer for the Council told the Committee he had not received one complaint.[140]

89. Gavin Barwell, of the Conservative Party believes that marked registers will benefit the public because those who are listed as having voted will be crossed off canvassers lists:

"[…] if you look at it from a voter point of view those people who have cast their ballot papers the effect will be that they will not be bothered by political parties so I would have thought they are very unlikely to complain about that."[141]

However there will be a time gap between the voter posting their ballot paper, and the Returning Officer adding their name to the list. The Association of Electoral Administrators are concerned that this time gap may result in voters worrying that their ballot form has not reached the Returning Officer because canvassers' lists show them as not having voted. They argue that polling progress information will have limited value because it will be out of date as soon as produced.

90. Despite this argument, political parties remain keen to receive polling information during the polling period arguing that it will help them to detect fraud and delivery problems:

Grant Thoms, Scottish National Party: "If you do not know who has a postal vote until they have gone out because they refuse to release the postal vote list ahead of the start of an election, and if there is no marked register for postal votes for parties to assist in terms of security and detection fraud, how can we prove anything or get evidence? […] It should be available in the same way as the register for people attending polling stations should be available. My understanding is that the Electoral Commission has not come to any formal position as yet, but the principle seems to be against the idea."[142]

Peter Watt, Labour Party: "[…] it also useful for the political parties in terms of issues of fraud, and that sort of thing. It will be political parties who will notice if there is widespread fraud. It will also be political parties who will notice by using that information if there are delivery problems. If the Royal Mail or another deliverer has a particular problem in delivering postal votes in a particular area it will be political parties doing their normal activity who will notice that first. We think it is a very welcome move."[143]

91. The Local Government Association argue that electors should also be able to view polling information during the polling period because they would be best placed to identify electoral fraud:

"We believe that a publicly available marked register could also be available in an electronic format on a daily basis for individuals to check that their ballot has arrived. We also believe that it is important to ensure the effective delivery of all postal ballots to whom they are intended. This is particularly important for houses of multiple occupation and in residences with no facilities for direct delivery to each individual property. Enabling individuals to check that their ballot has arrived is an important step in combating potential fraud and ensuring public confidence in postal ballots."[144]

Mike Lloyd of the Royal Mail Group shares this view, as does the Metropolitan Police Special Branch:

"I certainly think it would be very useful to have some method of alerting a bona fide voter that his or her identity has been taken or that their address has been misrepresented on another form somewhere else […]."[145]

Although they do not believe provision of a register would help in circumstances where there has been fraud or undue influence within a family:

"[…] the problem is that the recent postal vote offences that we have investigated tend to be mostly in the Asian communities, where the head of the household has persuaded the rest of the family to apply for postal votes and therefore vote for a particular candidate. The family structure is very patriarchal anyway and therefore it is very difficult, and even if we had a register it probably would not make any difference to that."[146]

Mark Croucher of the UK Independence Party does not believe that provision of a marked register to voters would help detect fraud:

"[…] people who make a conscious decision to abstain and not to vote presumably take sufficient interest in a political process to make those checks, but in terms of finding out on a wider basis you do not remove the element of fraud from it. If people cannot be bothered to vote then they are unlikely to check to see whether they have or not."[147]

The Minister does not currently favour provision of polling information to voters:

"[…] electoral officers themselves will have access to this polling progress information and that is part of the reason why we wanted to put it in, because they will be able to use it as a tool to check against any malpractice. For example, if an elector comes with an inquiry, as you are suggesting, "Has my vote been returned improperly?" they can report to the electoral administrator and the electoral administrator will then be able to tell whether an envelope has been returned purporting to contain their ballot paper, so it is an extra safeguard in that respect as well."[148]

92. We are concerned that the Electoral Commission are advising caution to those Returning Officers who will be responsible for the provision of polling progress information in the all-postal voting pilot areas in June. The Government and the Electoral Commission must provide consistent advice; we urge immediate clarification of the legal position and human rights implications of the provision of polling progress information. Political parties are unanimous in their support for this information, arguing that it will reduce unnecessary canvassing, increase turnout, highlight delivery problems and reveal electoral fraud. Provided that provision of polling progress information does not contravene data protection legislation or human rights, we recommend the Government reconsider whether provision of polling information to voters would lead to increased detection of electoral fraud.   

132   Q409, HC 400-III [Chris Leslie MP, Parliamentary Under-Secretary, Department for Constitutional Affairs] Back

133   Q410, HC 400-III [Chris Leslie MP, Parliamentary Under-Secretary, Department for Constitutional Affairs] Back

134   Q7-8, HC 400-III [Sam Younger, Chairman, Electoral Commission] Back

135   Q10, HC 400-III [Sam Younger, Chairman, Electoral Commission] Back

136   Q95, HC 400-III [Christine Mason, Electoral Services Manager, Wakefield Council] Back

137   Q96, HC 400-III [Roger Morris, East Midlands Regional Returning Officer, European Parliamentary elections] Back

138   Q137, HC 400-III [Councillor Sir Jeremy Beecham, Chairman, Local Government Association] Back

139   Q18, HC 400-III [Sam Younger, Chairman, Electoral Commission] Back

140   Q91-92, HC 400-III [Bill Crawford, Elections Officer, Sunderland City Council] Back

141   Q366, HC 400-III [Gavin Barwell, Operations Director, The Conservative Party] Back

142   Q327-8, HC 400-III [Grant Thoms, Head of Campaign Unit, Scottish National Party] Back

143   Q336, HC 400-III [Peter Watt, Head of Constitutional and Legal Unit, the Labour Party] Back

144   Ev 68, HC 400-III [Local Government Association] Back

145   Q193, HC 400-III [Representative A, Metropolitan Police Special Branch] Back

146   Q195, HC 400-III [Representative A, Metropolitan Police Special Branch] Back

147   Q330, HC 400-III [Mark Croucher, Policy Research Team and Press Officer, UK Independence Party] Back

148   Q413, HC 400-III [Chris Leslie MP, Parliamentary Under-Secretary, Department for Constitutional Affairs] Back

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