Memorandum by the Electoral Reform Society
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
4. Our concern is both with "fraud"
and with other forms of malpractice. We see two categories of
(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
(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
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
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
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
(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.
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
17. All the evidence seems to suggest that
postal voting is likely to increase turnoutsif 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
(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.
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.
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.