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


Memorandum by the Electoral Reform Society (POS 35)

SUMMARY

  1.  The Electoral Reform Society advocates a very cautious approach to the extension of postal voting in public elections. We recognise that postal voting can increase turnouts: that is good for democracy because when more people vote in an election the more likely the outcome will reflect the views of the electorate. But we also recognise that postal voting increases the risk of electoral malpractice: that is bad for democracy, both because malpractice can produce the wrong outcome and because incidences of malpractice (or even the suspicion of it) can reduce public trust in the electoral process. A balance therefore needs to be struck to ensure that the benefits do not outweigh the disadvantages.

  2.  That balance point could, however, be moved if the risks in postal voting could be reduced. We are therefore anxious to see better measures to prevent malpractice (although we accept that there will always be some level of risk) before any significant expansion of postal voting.

  3.  We note that the Government is promoting postal voting to increase electoral turnouts. While we share the Government's concern over turnouts, we do not believe that turnouts have been falling because voting at polling stations has become more difficult. Electors will want to vote if they believe that their votes could make a difference: rather than increasing the risk of malpractice through all-postal voting, we would like to see the Government taking other approaches to increasing turnouts, including improvements to voting systems and more campaigns to increase voter awareness. Electors will also want to vote if they believe the outcome matters to them, and some may see the decision-making powers of local authorities as limiting the significance of local elections.

ELECTORAL FRAUD

  4.  Our concern is both with "fraud" and with other forms of malpractice. We see two categories of problems:

    (i)  those arising from the difficulty in knowing whether the person who cast a vote was the person to whom the vote was issued (and whether the vote was issued to a real person entitled to vote);

    (ii)  those arising from any form of "remote voting" where secrecy of the act of voting cannot be guaranteed.

The problems of personation

  5.  While personation might occur in polling station elections, perpetrators need to take the risk of being identified by polling station staff or other voters. With postal voting at present, personation is almost risk-free. There are several ways in which it can be done: for example:

    (i)  where a number of ballot papers are delivered to the same address (eg a household or a multi-occupation address), one person can collect all envelopes and cast all of the votes him- or herself;

    (ii)  use may be made of ballot papers sent to people who have died or moved home without the electoral register being updated;

    (iii)  arrangements can be made for postal votes of people who have died or are no longer at their electoral register addresses to be sent to addresses where they will be fraudulently completed and returned;

    (iv)  in extreme cases, electors can be "created" in the electoral registration process, and the votes of these fictitious electors cast by others.

  (While (iii) and (iv) are also possible with polling station voting, a separate visit to a polling station is needed for each fraudulent vote, each with the risk of being identified as an imposter.)

  6.  We do not believe that the local government pilot projects of recent years give any grounds for considering such risks to be minimal. Particularly in pilots which did not use Declarations of Identity, we simply do not know how many votes were fraudulently cast.

  7.  We therefore consider it essential that postal votes should be returned with a declaration of identity. We accept that a declaration which needs to be witnessed by a person other than the voter would deter voters and further decrease turnouts, but the declaration must be of a form which allows the returning officers and their staff to make checks on the validity of the declarations. There is little point in asking voters to sign a declaration if the returning officer has no signature on file against which a comparison can be made.

  8.  We therefore believe that changes are needed in the electoral registration process to provide information for the validation of declarations of identity. This could be achieved by a shift to individual registration, in which each elector must provide a signature, rather than the present system in which one signature per household is considered sufficient. A further change could be to include dates of birth on the electoral register (but not on copies available for public inspection) and to require postal voters to give a date of birth on their declarations of identity.

  9.  We would also like to see Electoral Registration Offices carry out more spot checks, both to assess the accuracy of their registers and to provide a deterent against malpractice. This will require the allocation of more resources to electoral registration work.

  10.  Where there is prima facie evidence of malpractice, confidence in the system requires that the police and prosecuting authorities take action. This also has resource implications.

The problems of ballot secrecy

  11.  Voters who do not vote in the privacy of polling booths may vote:

    (i)  at home in the presence of a dominant family member who can exert undue pressure on the voter;

    (ii)  in the presence of an enthusiastic canvasser who goes beyond acceptable persuasion in showing an elector how to vote;

    (iii)  in the presence of one who has offered a bribe for a vote for a preferred candidate; or

    (iv)  in the presence of one who has threatened violence or other retribution should the elector not vote as directed.

  12.  We see no easy way of eliminating the risks of these malpractices. The secret ballot was introduced to protect voters from undue pressures, intimidation and bribery, and we are concerned that the Government appears willing to remove the protection of the secret ballot with so little discussion of the risks involved.

  13.  If postal voting is to be extended, we therefore recommend that on all communications with voters and on the ballot paper itself there should be a prominent warning that it is an offence to observe an elector in the act of voting and that those convicted of such an offence will be fined heavily. There should also be a facility for voters to report in complete confidence on intimidation, bribery and other forms of interference in the secret ballot.

  14.  We are also concerned at the risks involved in the "wholesaling" of votes: ie the direction of large numbers of postal votes to a single address from which party workers can ensure that ballot papers and completed and posted. While we have no evidence of wrong-doing, the practice would appear to create situations in which the risk of ballot secrecy being breached is increased. We recommend that regulations are introduced to control this practice.

PUBLIC PERCEPTIONS

  15.  We have no direct evidence on how the public perceives postal voting, but the turnout evidence from local government election pilots, as well as international experience, suggests that postal voting is generally accepted by the public.

  16.  However, we note that many (particularly elderly) people regard the acting of voting as a public duty which they feel should be discharged in a polling station. There are many people whose disabilities or frailties would have entitled them to postal votes in past elections who have nevertheless wanted to vote "properly"—ie by putting their ballot paper directly into a ballot box. While we do not want to romanticise a rather old-fashioned process, we hope that wherever possible some account will be taken of those who take pride in their active citizenship.

TURNOUTS

  17.  All the evidence seems to suggest that postal voting is likely to increase turnouts—if it did not then there would be no reason for considering it further. However, there are two issues we believe need to be considered:

    (i)  how significant are the likely increases in turnout?

    (ii)  are there other ways, which incur fewer risks, of achieving the same increases in turnout?

  18.  We note that some local government electoral pilots achieved very significant increases in turnout through all postal voting. However:

    (i)  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.

    (ii)  Electoral pilots were preceded by extensive publicity explaining that voting would be conducted in a different way. What increase in turnout might there have been if there had been the same publicity saying there would be coloured ballot papers, felt pens and soft music in the polling stations? We need to separate the effect the publicity had on the turnout from the effect of the change in voting method.

    (iii)  Not all electoral pilots of all-postal voting resulted in increases in turnout.

  19.  There are longer-term effects which must also be considered. There are areas, such as parts of Gateshead, which have had more than one postal election for local government. They will have postal votes in the 2004 European elections, and postal votes later in the year in a referendum on the establishment of a regional assembly. Once postal voting has become the norm in these areas, what might be the effect on the general election turnout where postal votes will only be available on request?

  20.  All postal voting is not the only way of increasing turnout. On many occasions we have made the argument that better voting systems would make more votes count and give electors more incentive to vote. We do not just argue for proportionality: the closed list system used for the European Parliament elections denies electors the right to choose individual candidates and thereby makes the representatives too distant from the electorate with inevitable consequences for turnout. We need a voting system which would help create a vibrant democracy, and that is why we favour the STV system. Of course there are other changes which should be made: too often local councils are seen as having insufficient power for it to matter who are elected as councillors, while voter education and clearer policy choices presented by the parties would also increase interest, and hence participation, in elections.

ADMINISTRATION AND COST

  21.  Although postal voting is likely to cost more than polling station voting, we would not want any decision taken on cost grounds alone. The cost of elections is tiny when compared with the lost opportunity cost of electing representatives who do not provide effective leadership.

ACCESS AND DISABILITY ISSUES

  22.  Although we have reservations over the extension of postal voting, we fully support postal voting as a way of allowing people to vote who would otherwise have great difficulty in reaching a polling station.

  23.  We accept that there is some anecdotal evidence to suggest that some groups within society, for example some ethnic minority communities where English is not the first language and some young voters, might find polling stations culturally intimidating. We believe that such problems should be dealt with through educational programmes and by making polling stations more welcoming for all cultures and ages.


 
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