Memorandum by R J B Morris, Regional Returning
Officer, European Elections East Midlands Region (POS 36)
For 2004, as I was in 1999, I am the Regional
Returning Officer for the East Midlands region in the European
elections. I have been Chief Executive and Town Clerk of Northampton
Borough council since 1986, and was Town Clerk and Chief Executive
of Durham City prior to that, so that I have now been a Returning
Office at all levels for local and national elections for some
Northampton has experienced greater use of postal
voting since this became available on demand, but it remained
relatively modest with approximately 7,400 electors choosing to
vote that way at the end of local elections in May 2003 out of
a total electorate of 148,500. Subject to Parliamentary process
of course, the East Midlands will be a postal vote pilot region
for this summer's European elections.
I comment below briefly on the six points set
out in the Committee's notice.
There is little or no evidence of actual electoral
fraud in my own area, though clearly people are more conscious
of the prospect of fraud than used to be the case. Unease has
generally centred around the alleged opportunities to influence
or interfere with voting in circumstances where relatively large
numbers of people, particularly vulnerable people, live together,
but again I have not come across any proven cases of significant
problems actually occurring.
Recent election pilots have sometimes reduced
or removed the need for postal votes to be witnessed, and the
current proposal for the European pilots is for voters simply
to sign. This provides a retrospective check in the sense that
a suspect signature could be compared after the event, but of
course it is not practical to compare thousands of signatures
within the sort of counting periods usually expected. Again, Returning
Officers are only likely to have signatures on file from the voters
who actually return the electoral canvass forms, and there are
data protection limitations in using other sources. To add to
this, physical comparison of signatures still does not really
lend itself to electronic counting or checking. A balance must
be struck between security, not making the process so complex
as to deter voters, and also facilitating checking and counting,
which means reducing the amount of manual handling to a minimum.
This is especially important if all-postal elections are to become
In addition, security steps must be proportional
to the risk or consequence if the vote is abused. While elections
do sometimes turn on tiny majorities, the safeguards are likely
to be viewed differently from cases where, for example, physical
security or the transfer of large sums of money are involved.
Today's technology allows such techniques as fingerprint scanning
to be readily used for everyday purposes, and it seems likely
that we are now at the point where new technical solutions can
be found that will be as secure as reasonably required without
being unnecessarily complex.
To counter circumstances where allegations of
fraud are made, I have asked the Chief Constable in Northamptonshire
to consider with his colleagues in our region a fraud reporting
procedure to enable a rapid response to be made to any allegations
or suspicions. I understand that the Electoral Commission has
contacted the Crown Prosecution Service at York in a similar vein.
Although more publicity has been given recently
to the prospects for electoral fraud, it is important to recognise
that, in this region at least, actual experience of it is, as
I have said, very slight indeed. A major benefit of the traditional
way of voting is the high degree of public confidence in a tradition
which believes that elections are honestly managed and in general
honestly contested. Though it would be easier to lose that trust
than to regain it, the speed at which new technology is being
accepted by the public, and particularly by the young, means that
we are probably already at the point where the average voter would
accept different techniques for safeguarding postal voting (you
have only to try to open a new bank account to appreciate how
requirements have changed in recent years in other areas where
certainty about personal identity is important). There may be
arguments that using more modern technology may be a greater incentive
to encourage some younger voters to exercise their rights.
The Electoral Commission's report Absent Voting
in Great Britain (published in March 2003) provided much evidence
about turnout of which the Committee will be aware. In Northampton,
where we have not directly piloted any new voting arrangements
so far, the impact of postal voting on demand was noticeable but
still rather less than we expected. In round terms there is a
general expectation that local election turn out might be expected
to rise from around a quarter to a third currently up to about
half if all voting is by post. Of course, it will be a key part
of evaluating the 2004 European postal pilot election to see how
that relates to elections other than local elections, but the
1999 European turnouts in the various East Midlands Parliamentary
constituencies varied between about 16% and 32%, with an overall
turnout figure of about 22.7%.
Early estimates suggested that all postal voting
would cost roughly double voting by traditional means, but again
the 2004 European experiments may produce different results.
I am currently seeking bids from contractors
prepared to provide the election services and postal voting packs
required for the 40 authorities in the East Midlands (the five
counties of Derbyshire, Leicestershire, Lincolnshire, Northamptonshire
and Nottinghamshire together comprise some 3.25 million voters).
The intention is to facilitate an arrangement whereby individual
Local Returning Officers can effectively buy into a bulk contract
which will allow both easier uniformity across the region and
also lower costs.
The major saving lies of course in not having
to provide polling stations and staff, but the precise details
of the procedure required will have a huge impact on the eventual
cost. Clearly, if the recent House of Lords amendment requiring
acknowledgement of postal votes remains, a huge clerical effort
and postage bill will be added to the anticipated procedures.
At the present, my expectation is that all postal voting will
be more expensive than the traditional method, but maybe will
yield better value in the sense of leading to participation by
more voters than took part in 1999.
Though we have worked hard in Northampton to
make all our polling stations (150 or so across the Borough) physically
accessible to most, postal voting undoubtedly helps many people
for whom even a limited walk in flat circumstances presents difficulties.
Experience suggests that the device to assist blind people to
vote is little used. The barriers, however, to voting are not
just about voters with obvious physical challenges. Combined elections
result in significant numbers of postal votes that are returned
incorrectly marked or enveloped or witnessed, and although the
overall turnout is expected to be higher, there are of course
people for whom written material and instructions of this kind
present particular difficulties.
Voter choice was undoubtedly widened when postal
voting became available on demand recently, but the general perception
seems to be that voter choice and expectations are now not so
much about this narrow point as about voting in other ways and
at other times, rather than involving what is essentially still
a variation on the traditional method. It is easy in principle
to be in favour of wider choice, but it has to be recognised that
managing the different parallel systems required for such choice
becomes increasingly costly.
If you view voting as something which the public
have to be persuaded to do, you must approach running elections
from a marketing standpoint. To the extent that you regard voting
as a dutyand of course some countries make voting compulsoryyou
presumably take that into account in expecting voters to play
their part in helping the overall system to be run efficiently
in terms of both integrity and cost.
R J B Morris
Chief Executive and Town Clerk