Memorandum by the National Association
of Local Councils (NALC) (POS 38)
The National Association of Local Councils (NALC),
submits the following statement for consideration by the Office
of the Deputy Prime Minister: Housing, Planning, Local Government
and the Regions Committee in its inquiry into Postal Voting (as
it affects the European Parliament and Local Authority Elections
NALC's contribution is in two parts, the first
part looks at the guiding principals we believe should be part
of a sustained "renewed democracy" campaign, part of
which the promotion and extension of Postal Voting might figure.
The second part looks at our attitude to Postal Voting in general,
the pilots and the proposals for June 2004. NALC is unapologetic
at stating that this the work already done by and the potential
of, the First Tier of Local Government (Town, Parish and Community
Councils of England and Wales), in promoting renewed democracy
is extensive but requires support.
The aim and objectives of an renewed democracy
policy will only be achieved if the participatory tools are available
to everyone, effective as a means for democratic participation
and trusted by all participants. Therefore, NALC proposes that
a renewed democracy policy be underpinned by five principles
Inclusiona voice for all expressed
through appropriate mediums.
Opennessopen provision of
information on voting options.
Security and privacya safe
place to participate.
responding to problems.
These principles should be encompassed in an
democracy charter that informs people of their rights and responsibilities.
Inclusiona voice for all
It is important for democracy that everyone
should have access to the ballot box. NALC acknowledges that,
for a form of voting to be truly democratic, issues other than
access need to be considered. For example, new/extended forms
of voting should allow for the participation of people who do
not use English as a first language or who are illiterate. Any
study should look at a very broad range of inclusion factors,
including gender issues as well as disability, language, social
and educational barriers to democratic involvement.
When postal voting was made universally available
in the General Election 2001, this new method was considerably
successful in terms of take-up. This may show that people appreciate
more convenient ways to vote and are willing to try something
NALC acknowledges that the democratic process
will work best if it is conducted as openly as possible. An underpinning
principle of democracy is openness.
Security and privacy
Security and privacy are especially important
in voting. The regulations governing the electoral register and
the conduct of polls effectively impose security standards on
the electoral system.
In participation, NALC recognises that the democratic
process works best when conducted as openly as possible. However,
it is vital to respect people's requests for privacy when they
contribute to the process.
It is our view people like to vote. The electorate,
as all studies show, is more inclined to go out and vote when
they are given the opportunity to do it quickly and conveniently.
Whilst welcoming the recent commitment to e-voting/weekend voting
and other minor reforms, we do feel that Government (and the Principal
Local Authorities) have yet to articulate a coherent policy on
renewed democracy, and this failure contributes to the decline
in turn-out. Principal Local Authorities should be given the duty
of finding out what barriers to voter participation exist locally
in there jurisdiction (specially looking at forms of voting and
not falling back on the cop-out of "politicians behaviour")
and then responding positively to removing any such barriers.
For effective deliberation in an election environment,
there should be enough space and time to examine complex issues,
to develop ideas and to enable constructive discussions between
citizens. This will also demand the encouragement of an environment
where people can contribute without fearing that they will be
shouted down, have their ideas ridiculed or find their views lost
among others competing for the same space. Variations in personal
style should be accepted, so that citizens can voice their own
case and contribute in their own way. It is important that contributions
get noticed and are developed..
The National Association is willing to promote
the idea that First-Tier Councils are the natural starting point
for policies on democratic renewal and the best place for pilots
that encompass effective guidelines for deliberation.
NALC supports the use of Postal Voting, its
extension from a request orientated voting tool to a right and
general expectation. We do not however support any proposals that
mean the end of polling stations. We see no incompatibility between
Postal Voting been universal and Polling Stations been open on
Polling Day. In the context of the June 2004 pilot areas and the
subsequent difference of opinion between the Government and the
House of Lords, we offer the following view: If Electoral Returning
Officers in Yorkshire/North West are not ready for such a experiment,
we, as representing the First-Tier, would like to know why, as
we were under the impression that re-engaging the electorate with
the democratic process was one of their core responsibilities.
NALC welcomes the 2001 decision by the Government
to relax the criteria for obtaining a postal vote and the subsequent
pilots in all postal voting elections. Our policy is based on
our belief that voting should be as easy as possible (without
becoming facile or vulnerable to fraud). NALC also believes in
the following, slightly cliqued, but still valid, position of
no price too big to pay for democracy. We think that sentiment
applies across all forms of governance and can be applied to this
Last year, the Electoral Commission proposed
to the Office of the Deputy Prime Minister that the administration
costs of all elections be paid for out of a central pot, administered
by the Electoral Commission. We fully support this and await ODPM's
response (we suspect that the Treasury may not be keen!). Presently,
it is a lottery whether a First-Tier Council is re-charged for
elections and clearly where costs are rising this lottery will
become worse. We also note that if the Electoral Commission's
proposals on the Cycle of Elections are to be implemented, then
the case for the central pot is unarguable against.
On the matter of proxy votes (in the context
of Postal Voting), we believe that they are so open to corruption
that we would like the Committee to consider whether there is
still a case for the existence of proxy votes for anybody other
than overseas voters and those voters who will be out of the country
for polling day.
We note that all of the major parties encourage
their campaigners to try to sign up as many voters as possible
to proxy votes. We believe that such campaigns are currently completely
legitimate, but that there is a very small distance between legitimate
campaigning and an over enthusiastic campaigner falsifying proxy
vote applications. We therefore feel that it would be beneficial
to take the whole realm of proxy voting out of the party campaigning
A recent change to the postal vote rules changed
the deadline for the last day on which a voter could apply for
a postal vote from 10 days before poll to six days before poll.
In view of the advances in technology and the frustration caused
to voters who used to miss out, we welcomed this change in the
We note with encouragement that the increased
number of postal votes at the last general election (in some areas
hugely increased) was, by and large, administered efficiently
and effectively by local Electoral Returning Officers. We would
encourage the Committee to consider asking that the Electoral
Commission annually issue a best practice guide on this matter.
Errors and Omissions
Inevitably, with a far larger number of postal
votes, there were a number of mistakes that occurred. We believe
that the number of mistakes was larger than that which occurred
at previous elections and that this is a cause for some concern.
We have no evidence that they were deliberate
acts of fraud or sabotage. We recognise that there will always
be a risk of human error, but where errors occur there needs to
be a full investigation with a view to determining whether the
procedures are sufficiently robust and whether the safeguards
We believe that some elections staff and some
of those involved in postal service sorting offices and deliveries
may need to re-assess their ability to cope with the extra burdens
placed on them by elections. It may well be the case that none
of these errors would have changed the result of the election
in a particular seat, but we view it as a key priority for the
Committee to ensure that elections staff, Royal Mail/Consignia
staff and councils which decide the amount of money to be allocated
to democratic services are all brought on board for a discussion
aimed at avoiding complacency in the future.
The issue of the potential for fraud in postal
voting was one which does command a disproportionate amount of
Our view is that there has always been a potential
for some fraud in postal votes and that the relaxation of the
rules to create postal votes on demand has not increased this
We believe that postal vote fraud can be split
into two categoriesopportunistic fraud and organised fraud.
Whilst we believe that both are serious and should be punished
where proved, we believe that organised fraud, which has the power
to change election results and shakes public confidence in elections,
needs to be tackled as a matter of urgency.
It is our view that there are currently sufficient
powers for EROs to tackle most cases of fraud. These powers include
the ability to investigate applications to join the electoral
register, to amend the register in the light of reports of deaths,
and to investigate applications for postal and proxy votes.
We believe that far too few EROs are using their
existing powers due to lack of staff, time, money or willingness.
Our view is that at least random checks should be carried out
by all EROs on postal vote and register applications and that
guidance should be issued by the Electoral Commission on this
matter. We believe that if EROs continue to show an inability
or unwillingness to use their powers to combat fraud, then the
Committee should consider asking Parliament to introduce extra
powers or instructions to combat fraud.
Registration and Rolling Registers
NALC supports the move away from annual registration
and towards rolling registers which can be updated on a monthly
basis. However, we believe that the current, almost random, final
date for registering in order to be on the register for the next
month is confusing and in need of revision. We feel that there
should be a fixed date in the month by which a voter needs to
register in order to be included on the register the next month.
We believe that the biggest concern about rolling
registers are that old addresses may not be deleted properly and
that regular, if not annual, canvasses are required to ensure
that people are not missed off the register through ignorance
of the new system. We would therefore welcome strengthened guidelines
to ensure best practice among EROs.
NALC wholly supports the use of contact addresses
to allow people without permanent homes to register. We believe
that this is a very progressive move and support further efforts
to publicise the new system. We would welcome efforts by the Committee
to persuade the Electoral Commission to identify and target other
groups who may currently find registration difficult.
Other than our concern (expressed earlier) that
costs should not trickle down to the First-Tier, we support the
case for an extension of all Postal Ballots, but as a tool of
choice. We do not support the hysteria around fraud and certainly
find the "cost" arguments to be fundamentally flawed.
We look forward to the quick implementation of the Electoral Commission's
proposals on a central pot for election administration costs.
NALC supports any and all effective tools to the renewal of democratic
participation and civic re-engagement.
One further point. The Cabinet Office recently
consulted on consultations, it recommends a minimum of eight weeks
and a normality of 12 weeks between the issuing of a document
and the final response date. It would, in our view, be useful
if Select/Departmental Committees could move towards a similar