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


Conclusions and recommendations

Extension of all-postal voting

1.  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. (Paragraph 15)

2.  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" and that the regulations would be published "as soon as absolutely possible". 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. (Paragraph 16)

The impact of all-postal voting

3.  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. (Paragraph 23)

Electoral Security

4.  The Committee recognises that the move to individual voter registration is complex and must be managed carefully to avoid electors 'falling off' the electoral register. However, the move to individual registration is critical to the extension of all-postal voting. We recommend that the Government seeks to introduce a bill at the earliest opportunity to secure the necessary legislation. The Government should consider working with the Office of National Statistics to utilise the next census period to implement the change. Each elector's signature, and a standard individual identifier, such as date of birth or national insurance number, should be required as part of the move to individual voter registration. Following the implementation of individual voter registration we recommend that the witnessed declaration of identity should be replaced with a voter-signed declaration. This declaration should also require completion of an individual identifier. This numeric based individual identifier will facilitate a computerised identity check on each returned ballot paper. Should this check fail, the voter's signature should be compared with the signature held on the electoral register. In addition, each Returning Officer should signature check a sample of returned papers, and contact each of the sampled voters for additional verification. Additional Government funding should be made available to ensure Returning Officers have the necessary resources to implement these recommendations, and a significant expansion of canvassing for individual registration. (Paragraph 50)

5.  The Committee does not believe that all-postal voting poses any greater security risk than conventional voting. However, we believe that the investigation and prosecution of electoral offences needs to improve in order to increase public confidence in the system. We therefore strongly support the Electoral Commission's report on Absent Voting which recommends;

  • Inter-agency cooperation to develop and disseminate information and guidance to local police forces in relation to electoral offences;
  • Development of a protocol in liaison with prosecution authorities, the Association of Chief Police Officers (ACPO), the Society of Local Authority Chief Executives (SOLACE), and the Association of Electoral Administrators (AEA) setting out clearly the respective roles of the Returning Officer, the police and the Crown Prosecution Service in pursuing allegations of fraud;
  • Identification of best practice in relation to the handling of postal vote applications and postal ballots by representatives of political parties and development of a Code of Practice in conjunction with political parties;
  • More publicity for offenders caught and successfully prosecuted for electoral offences;
  • Introduction of a new offence of intending fraudulently to apply for a postal (or proxy) vote. The maximum sentence should be a custodial sentence in line with the penalties for personation;
  • Redrafting of the law on undue influence to clarify the nature of the offence. It should also become a legal requirement that secrecy warnings are included on postal (and proxy) voting literature;
  • Extension of the existing statutory provisions on personation to give the police power of arrest based on 'reasonable suspicion' of personation at any location; and
  • Introduction of a new legal provision so that in exceptional circumstances, and where the prosecution has demonstrated all due diligence, the Courts may extend prosecution time limits by up to 12 months. (Paragraph 64)

6.  We wish to underline the need for prosecution agencies to rigorously pursue allegations of electoral offences, and for the courts to punish those convicted with harsher penalties. Political Parties have a responsibility to demonstrate the security of postal voting, therefore candidates and canvassers who are convicted should be banned from participation in election activity. (Paragraph 65)

7.  In addition to the recommendations made by the Electoral Commission, we recommend that the Government consider the case for granting the police search and arrest powers to aid investigations of allegations of electoral offences. We also think it is vital that the Government establish a national database to record allegations of electoral offences. In the response to this report we recommend that the Government outlines the number and nature of all allegations of electoral offences resulting from the June 2004 combined elections. (Paragraph 66)

Access

8.  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. (Paragraph 78)

9.  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. (Paragraph 79)

10.  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. (Paragraph 80)

Electoral Materials

11.  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. (Paragraph 84)

Polling progress information

12.  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. (Paragraph 92)

Infrastructure of Elections

13.  All-postal elections are currently more expensive than conventional elections, but we believe that the higher turnouts produced do justify some additional costs. We welcome the Government's commitment to meet extra costs resulting from the use of all-postal voting in the June elections. We recommend that the Government carefully considers the future funding of elections, including the consistency of recharges to first-tier councils, and the Electoral Commission's proposal for a central pot. In response to this report we expect the Government to outline its long term plans for the funding of elections, including the viability of a central pot. (Paragraph 98)

14.  In oral evidence the Parliamentary Under-Secretary at the Department for Constitutional Affairs assured us that if necessary, the Government would fund an election re run; the subsequent letter from the Minister indicates that the Government would only fund a re-run if the "pilots were at fault", presumably meaning the legislation was defective. The Minister advises that "for all local elections, it is expected that the Local Returning Officer will have recourse to their local insurance policies, which are funded by their local authorities". It is unfortunate that the assurance given by the Minister in oral evidence was subsequently discovered to be baseless. The Government must ensure that insurance cover has been secured by Returning Officers for the June all-postal pilots. If it has not, we recommend that the Government provide insurance cover because we have no doubt that many Returning Officers will have been confused by the Government's u-turn. The Government must meet with Returning Officers for the proposed 2004 regional referendums as soon as possible to ascertain whether regional insurance should be provided by the Government. (Paragraph 105)

15.  We recognise that the Royal Mail has a great deal of experience in processing secure post in large volumes over concentrated periods of time. However we are concerned that the public may not view the postal service as reliable or secure. It is therefore vital that the Royal Mail's audit trail is rigorous and transparent. In order to monitor the performance of the Royal Mail during an election, we recommend that the Government introduces seeded electoral papers. The Electoral Commission should include reference to the performance of the Royal Mail, based on these seeded papers, in its evaluations of elections. The independent regulator, the Postal Services Commission (Postcomm), should also assess the Royal Mail's performance and set targets which require 100% secure and accurate delivery of ballot papers. In response to this report we recommend the Government outlines what research it has conducted into the use of seeds; or other audit processes to ensure the reliability and security of the Royal Mail's handling of postal votes. (Paragraph 111)

16.  The use of different electoral systems for different elections is no doubt confusing for all involved, although we accept that different systems are inevitable when piloting new electoral methods. Nevertheless we recommend that the Government makes a firm decision as to the future form of electoral systems, and implements any changes as soon as possible to prevent further confusion, and potentially lower voter turnout. In the meantime it is vital that the Government, Electoral Commission and local authorities, take steps, including use of the media, to ensure that all electors are aware of the method(s) of voting in their area in each election. In response to this report we recommend the Government outline what promotional strategies have been implemented. (Paragraph 114)

17.  We recommend that if all-postal voting is used in future elections, the Government and Electoral Commission consider holding elections in June so that canvassing can be done in lighter evenings, encouraging greater engagement with the electorate. (Paragraph 116)

Armed Forces Personnel

18.  The Ministry of Defence suspect electoral participation rates among service personnel are low; considering that the Government is trying to increase electoral participation, we are surprised that there appears to be little attempt made to encourage service personnel to vote. Every effort must be made to ensure all who wish to vote are able. We are pleased that the Ministry of Defence, when it issues its guidance, intends to encourage greater use of proxies and we hope to see a copy of this guidance in the response to this report. The Ministry of Defence and Armed Services must offer more help to personnel who wish to apply for a proxy vote; we recommend all new personnel are given forms and guidance during their initial training period. We also recommend that the Government, Ministry of Defence and Electoral Commission consider the results of the electronic voting trial for military personnel in the United States of America. (Paragraph 121)


 
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