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

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 23 years.

  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 commonplace.

  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 duty—and of course some countries make voting compulsory—you 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

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