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

Memorandum by the Local Government Association (LGA) (POS 37)


  1.  The Local Government Association (LGA) represents local councils in England and Wales. We work with and for our member authorities to realise a shared vision of local government that aims to put local councils at the heart of the drive to improve public services.

  2.  Voting is fundamental to our democracy and the British constitution. We are therefore very concerned about the continuing decline in elections—at european, national and local level—in this country. The LGA is committed to reinvigorating the democratic process, encouraging greater participation by citizens in democratic institutions. We believe that local authorities have a vital contribution to make in achieving this.

  3.  We welcome this opportunity to make comments to the Inquiry. The key points we would like to make are as follows:

    —  The problem of declining participation in the electoral process is common to all elections in this country.

    —  We believe that the key factors for local people in determining whether or note to vote is the extent to which their vote matters (to what extent does the institution they are voting for have a direct impact on their lives) and whether their vote has the potential to affect the result of the election.

    —  However it is also true to say that the current voting procedures remain largely unchanged over the last 100 years—despite the enormous changes in culture, lifestyle and technology—and that the introduction of new processes making voting easier and more accessible may be an important factor in facilitating voter engagement.

    —  The LGA therefore lobbied for the introduction of the piloting arrangements in the Representation of the People Act 2000. We have encouraged councils to pilot new arrangements and are pleased with the number, breadth and success of the electoral pilots that have been undertaken since May 2000—which reflects the importance councils attach to this issue and their willingness to innovate.

    —  We have noted the positive impact that all postal elections appears to have on electoral turnout. However, we also recognise that it is vital to address concerns about secrecy and security of all postal ballots and to combat the potential of electoral fraud. Moreover, whilst we accept the need to test all postal pilots over a wider geographic area we do not believe that all postal ballots should be rolled out on a mandatory basis to all councils without additional security being in place—as recommended by the Electoral Commission—in particular the proposed move from household to individual registration.

    —  In addition we have to accept that not all voters will want to trust their vote to the post. Staffed delivery points should be available for voters to drop off their vote and to mark their ballot in privacy. This is an important step to gaining public confidence and acceptability for all postal elections. It is important to ensure that those people who do not wish to use the post, are able to vote at a manned delivery point. Voting can be seen by many, particularly the elderly, as an important social and community activity.


  4.  The LGA lobbied for local authorities to have the opportunity to pilot new electoral arrangements, including all postal ballots. Local authorities have piloted all postal ballots (along with other new voting procedures) in local elections in May 2000 (7 councils piloted all postal ballots); May 2002 elections (15 councils ran all postal ballots) and May 2003 (32 councils ran all postal ballots).

  5.  The LGA has been working in partnership with the ODPM and the Electoral Commission to support the pilot authorities. We agree with the aims of the piloting programme, in particular to make elections more accessible, either by making it more convenient to vote or by making voting more attractive to people currently less likely to vote—particularly if this enables key groups of people who might otherwise be excluded (eg people who are working away from their area, or the elderly and people with mobility problems) to participate in the electoral system.

  6.  The Electoral Commission has a statutory duty to evaluate each of the pilots and produce an evaluation report. These evaluations provide a vital safeguard to ensuring the solutions are delivered in a robust and secure manner, and provide the Electoral Commission and Government with information on which to base the future electoral modernisation policy. The pilot schemes have required those councils which have conducted pilots, to incorporate mechanisms for quantifying the extent to which fraud or breaches of security were penetrated or attempted. Each pilot has also been required to test the elector's response to the pilot for example by using an exit poll or equivalent.

  7.  The Government has announced its intention to consult on "rolling out" all postal elections to local government elections on a mandatory basis. All postal elections will have the effect of lengthening the campaign period and as a consequence there may be arguments for considering moving the date of local elections to June. We suggest the Commission be asked to consider what impact the change of election date to June, had on campaigning and voting patterns when it conducts its evaluation of the 2004 pilots.

  8.  We believe that Councils' support for running electoral pilots has been the key to the success of the pilot schemes. As the Electoral Commission evaluation report of the 2003 pilots confirms:

    "All pilot schemes were well-conducted and successfully delivered an election result."

  9.  Moreover the all postal voting pilots have shown an increase in electoral turnout. In their strategic evaluation of the 2003 electoral pilot schemes ("The Shape of elections to come"), the Electoral Commission state that "Our evaluation of the all-postal schemes suggests that this approach is effective in boosting participation rates at local elections". The average turnout in the 2003 all-postal pilots was around 47.5%, compared to an average turnout of around 33% at traditional elections.

  10.  However, the reasons for low turnout at elections are varied and complex. The Government should not think that new and modern methods of voting are, by themselves, the only solution to low turnout. The LGA believes that the key to raising turnout in local elections is to make local democracy and the role and function of local councils more meaningful. Nevertheless making voting easier and more accessible may be an important factor.


  11.  The European Parliamentary and Local Elections (Pilots) Bill allows the Secretary of State to approve new methods of voting—including all postal voting—in certain regions at the combined 2004 European Parliamentary and local government elections.

  12.  We agree with the Government that all postal elections now need to be tested over larger areas and that the 2004 combined European Parliamentary and local elections provide an opportunity to do so. The Bill requires councils in pilot regions to hold their elections on the same basis. The legislation changes the basis on which pilots have so far been conducted—from a discretionary basis to a mandatory one. In view of the critical role councils play in the process we believe that one of the factors that should be taken into account in determining the pilot regions is the extent of support from councils in the region.

  13.  The administration of postal voting is time consuming. This may be exacerbated when elections are combined. Clear instructions will be needed for voters and for staff to administer and process an increased volume of applications, postal ballots and postal vote queries to a tight schedule.


  14.  Confidence in the electoral system is vital if local people are going to vote. Whilst we support electoral modernisation, we also believe that an appropriate balance needs to be struck between greater accessibility to voting with the need to maintain or improve the security of the poll and the prevention of fraud.

  15.  We agree with the recommendations of the Electoral Commission—as set out In their report "The shape of elections to come" (July 2003)—to safeguard secrecy and prevent fraud, in particular:

    (a)  replacing the current declaration of identity with a new security statement;

    (b)  staffed delivery points;

    (c)  a move from household to individual voter registration.

  16.  We agree with the Electoral Commission that in all postal elections there should be staffed delivery points for those voters who choose to return their ballot papers in person and not through the post. We believe that there should be at least one delivery point in each district ward and that these delivery points should also have an area for voters to mark their ballot in privacy. This is an important step to gaining public confidence and acceptability for all postal elections and ensuring that those people who do not wish to use the post, are able to vote conventionally

  17.  We are also pleased that the Government intends that many of the Commission's other recommendations are to be adopted for the 2004 all postal pilots, (ie replacing the Declaration of Identity by a simplified Security Statement, introducing a watermark or "under-printed" mark to replace the traditional form of official mark and that the ballot paper will carry a bar code instead of a ballot paper number).

  18.  The political parties also have a crucial role to play in stimulating turnout at elections. However their resources can often be limited. The marked register has many potential benefits and should be made available to political parties in order to help then target canvassing activities and so potentially increase the number of people who vote. We welcome the proposal to supply political parties, before the close of poll, with "polling progress information" on which electors have retuned their ballot paper. However this should be extended to independent and other candidates who are standing for election.

  19.  We believe that a publicly available marked register could also be available in an electronic format on a daily basis for individuals to check that their ballot has arrived. We also believe that it is important to ensure the effective delivery of all postal ballots to whom they are intended. This is particularly important for houses of multiple occupation and in residences with no facilities for direct delivery to each individual property. Enabling individuals to check that their ballot has arrived is an important step in combating potential fraud and ensuring public confidence in postal ballots.


  20.  In their strategic evaluation of the 2003 electoral pilot schemes ("The Shape of elections to come"), the Electoral Commission recommended that all postal ballots should be rolled out on a mandatory basis to all councils. We would expect the Government to consult widely before moving to such a fundamental change in the way of voting. At this stage however we do not believe that all postal ballots should be rolled out on a mandatory basis to all councils without the Commission's recommendations designed to safeguard security and prevent fraud—in particular a move from household to individual registration—being in place.

  21.  In addition we would first want to see the Commission's evaluation of the 2004 pilots and to examine the impact of the Commission's recommendations on secrecy and the prevention of fraud.

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