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


Memorandum by the Green Party (POS 45)

INTRODUCTORY REMARKS AND GREEN PARTY POSITION

  This submission is simply a collection of observations made by various Green Party activists who have direct experience of postal voting pilots. My workload, and the extremely short notice given to me of the initial deadline for submissions, have precluded anything better organised.

  Some members of the Party have anecdotal evidence of abuse of postal voting, including Oxford Green Party, whose submission on the subject of coercion of postal voters by Labour Party activists I have been unable to re-locate. Others believe that there were no problems in their areas. In any event, both the Oxford and other material presented here has been previously supplied to the Electoral Commission.

  Examples of other difficulties presented by wide-scale postal voting are mentioned in various of the pieces appended below.

  The Brighton and Hove case highlights the scope for abuse of information on voting trends received before close of poll. (See also the more detailed report supplied to me by Jason Kitcat of the FREE e-democracy project which I have sent along with this submission).

  Even where no major complaints have arisen, the issue of provision of information to Parties as to who has already voted has clearly put some Returning Officers in an awkward position. They have provided it to Parties but told them not to tell voters where they got it from—lest a barrage of complaints arrive at the Town Hall.

  Both the submission by myself and by our North East Regional Party to the Electoral Commission on the European postal voting pilots point out the difficulties posed—especially to smaller Parties—by the relationship between postal vote despatch dates and the timing of freepost and any party election broadcast, especially where all-postal ballots apply. A number of Councils are in any case actively promoting postal vote take-up, so that the proportion of people that might vote before receiving Party material is likely to increase anyway.

  Notwithstanding the fact that no serious abuse of postal voting has been detected to date, and that the Electoral Commission are proposing to conduct some audits in order to check that this remains the case, the Green Party believes that postal voting provides far more scope for abuse than voting in person and that all-postal ballots exacerbate this to an unacceptable degree.

  The Party's Regional Council—which has the power to elaborate upon existing policy, and to create interim policy based on the Party's overall principles has, according to its Co-Chair Graeme McIver, concluded that "Postal voting [is] flawed in that it allows intimidation and vote buying ... Asking for evidence misses the point. The point is this—because the ballot paper can be filled in anywhere—and by anyone if the declaration is signed—an individual's vote is not necessarily secret from all the political parties standing. The evidence is in history. Before the UK introduced the secret ballot, intimidation and vote buying was rife. I am sure there is a 19th century Royal Commission report on the issue. The [Select] Committee should be written to and invited to read these reports ..."

Chris Rose

National Election Agent, Green Party of England and Wales

HACKNEY COUNCIL ALL POSTAL ELECTION 2002

  Thank you for the opportunity to comment on the Local Election Pilot Scheme in Hackney; we have the following comments, many of which are about the particular implementation of the scheme in Hackney.

  1.  There was no pre-consultation on the pilot scheme and its implementation between Hackney Council and the political parties (there was a brief consultation with sitting councillors). This did not give us the opportunity to make comments or suggestions that may have been helpful to the implementation.

  2.  There was a very late briefing about the pilot to party representatives on 14 March. This was the first and only meeting at which the system was explained and the timetable announced. Short notice of this meeting itself meant that many of us could not make the meeting. I myself was at the spring Green Party Conference in Scarborough on this date.

  3.  A curtailed election timetable was introduced to enable the extended voting period to finish on the same day as the rest of the country voted. This led to confusion and difficulties amongst some of the parties, who were following the statutory dates and not given enough advanced notice of the new dates. The period for completing nomination papers finished at noon the day after a bank holiday weekend. At least one party (Hackney First) failed to get any nominations delivered in time.

  4.  "Late registration" for voters (up to April 17th) was advertised in the council newspaper "Hackney Today" and then withdrawn without explanation by the Chief Executive Max Caller at the parties' briefing meeting. Mr Caller said the advertisement had been "a mistake".

  5.  As there is no requirement to remove yourself from the Electoral Register when you leave an address, a great many ballot papers were sent out to departed voters. A majority of these are in HMOs (most with a single letterbox) where there is a high tenant turnover, and consequently these papers are available to anyone unscrupulous enough to make use of them. The risk in this situation is far greater than with personal voting, and with very little chance of the discovery of any fraud.

  6.  The electronic version of the Electoral Register supplied to us was incomplete.

  7.  Too much emphasis was placed on the council newspaper "Hackney Today" for delivering information about the election and the new system. This newspaper has a very patchy delivery record. I myself have never received a single copy of this newspaper and I have my own front door onto a street. Large areas of Hackney are estates and tenants in these blocks are even less likely to see this publication.

  8.  The ERO in Hackney failed to send agents a list of candidates successfully accepted. Similarly, candidates' confirmation letters did not state the name of their election agent.

  9.  Delivery of ballot papers was done by council officers. Delivery was patchy and as evidence neither myself nor my partner received our ballot papers, which were mistakenly delivered to a neighbour's house. This situation was relayed to us by voters on numerous occasions.

  10.  The ballot paper and envelope system was possibly over-complicated. The well intentioned signature system to deter fraud may have actually deterred voting by those that did not understand it. It was not immediately apparent how to even complete the "cross" in the strange looking boxes designed with the computer readers in mind rather than the voters.

  11.  The postal ballot system can lead to coercion during the completion of ballot papers. There is evidence that some church groups were holding group voting sessions where members of the congregation were asked to bring in their ballot papers for completion en masse. This no doubt also happens in families with a strong matriarch/patriarch, particularly as a witness signature is required.

  12.  Completed ballot papers were collected by canvassers during the voting period. The Green Party refrained from this activity, unsure of the legal situation, but it was carried out quite openly by some of the other parties. Unlike the ferrying of voters to the polling booth, this feature of the election is open to abuse, as there is no means for voters to check that their ballot paper, which may or may not have been in favour of the party that collected it, was actually received at the town hall.

  13.  The return by post or by hand of papers was to the Town Hall rather than to an independent body. In contrast to the strict rules governing traditional sealed ballot boxes, papers were filed in open trays at the public reception desk and in unsealed wheelie bins and boxes. I believe a pre-sort of rejected papers was made outside of the formal counting process open to observation by party agents.

  14.  Given that returned ballot papers are logged by their serial numbers which are linked to the Electoral Register, we would have expected the council to have made a statement about data protection and about their security arrangements for protecting this data.

  15.  The process of counting of ballot papers was conducted in a less than transparent manner. In contrast to a regular count where the counting is open to inspection at close quarters by party agents, the count was done by machine some distance from the area allowed for observation. In my experience, mistakes regularly happen at counts, but these could not be picked up by observers who could not see the details on the papers during the count.

  16.  There was a massive number of spoilt ballot papers for this election, particularly for the mayoral referendum. Election Agents and Counting Agents were shown very few of the spoilt papers and were not sent a breakdown of the rejection statistics and causes.

  17.  The evening of the count in Hackney was frankly chaotic. The decision to split venues for the counting and the actual announcement led to confusion and near angry scenes. The ERO announced the results to a largely empty hall in a music venue while candidates and agents unfamiliar with the building were left bewildered in the adjacent bar. As everyone jostled past the door staff standing between the bar and the hall the results on the public address system went unheard above the shouting.

  18.  Despite the fact this was an experimental vote, there has been no move by the council to check the validity of the vote. I understand your own assessment is to inform future elections, but we would like to see the council or an independent body assess the actual completed process in Hackney, particularly with regard to fraud, for which the borough has an unenviable history.

  19.  In spite of moves to streamline the paperwork associated with "return of expenses" submissions, the return for each candidate is still 10 sides of A4 (6 expenses and 4 declarations). The Green Party in Hackney stood 18 candidates and spent under £1,000 altogether, yet we had to complete a 180 page expenses return, with much of the information repeated again and again on the candidates sheets. It is high time for local parties to be able to submit a single return with a simple breakdown of expenditure for each candidate.

Our own conclusions from this pilot are:

    —  Voting experiments should not take place in boroughs with a history of poor management of the electoral process.

    —  Postal voting may increase turnout, but at the expense of transparency, security and voting privacy.

    —  Where postal voting is introduced there should be consultation with the parties inside and outside of the council, and with voters. The voting paper should be simple and clear.

    —  Data protection standards need to be clearly enforced if computer counting of ballot papers is to become the norm.

    —  Elections which are the subject of experimental voting procedures should be independently audited and assessed during the process and after completion. A report should be published on the audit.

    —  Postal voting and other voting methods alone are insufficient to raise voter enthusiasm or faith in the system. Our suggestions are proportional representation, a voting age of 16, councillor `recall' and greater decentralisation.

Chris Dixon

Local Election Agent

Hackney Green Party

BRIGHTON AND HOVE 2003

Item from the Brighton Argus.

"Letter sparks Town Hall turmoil" by Adam Trimingham

"Ken Bodfish said `evidence' actually meant guesswork."

  The row over a letter from Brighton and Hove's Labour leaders had all the hallmarks of a serious political scandal. Days before the final votes were in, leaders of the party in power appeared to have peered into the ballot box and used the information to target critical wards.

  Yesterday, we revealed how the city's Labour leader had circulated a letter to the party faithful. Apparently admitting it had been given a sneak preview of the early returns in the all-postal ballot. Ken Bodfish, the leader of the city council, warned party members the result was hanging on a knife-edge and urged activists to step up the pressure.

  But last night there was the sound of frantic back-pedalling from the city's Labour HQ. Coun Bodfish, who put his name to the rallying letter in which he broadcast the "bad news", said he had not written it.

  Instead, the party's election organiser Simon Burgess, also a candidate, admitted penning the offending leaflet in which four "key wards" were identified as being crucial to retain Labour's position as the ruling party. He said he had got it wrong and apologised.

  Coun Bodfish said the "firm evidence" to which he referred in print was, in fact, educated guesswork.

  David Panter, the chief executive of the city council and also its returning officer, insisted the integrity of the election had not been compromised.

  But, typically, the leaders of the opposition parties quickly jumped on the bandwagon with accusations of foul play and threats of calling in the police.

  Because the all-postal ballot process is so new, the subtle shifts in the rules have not been fully tested.

  These include allowing election agents to make regular checks on the number of people who have returned their votes in the run-up to the closing date.

  This information, obtained perfectly legitimately under the new pilot election guidelines, can then be used to forecast patterns and trends in each ward allowing parties to target the critical seats where they need to make an extra push. it is a very different story from the one Coun Bodfish/Mr Burgess referred to in their wake-up call leaflet to activists. That suggested party leaders had been able to assess a sample of votes already cast, which would have been against the law.

  Because of this, there are those from within and outside the political sphere who say the whiter-than-white image essential for a free and fair election has now been tarnished.

  Keith Taylor, Green Party convenor in Brighton and Hove, led those calls which were also backed by a series of worried members of the public who contacted us yesterday afternoon.

  Coun Taylor said: "This represents a gross abuse of the system."

  Tory leader Brian Oxley weighed in saying Coun Bodfish's letter had been unwise at the very least.

  He said: "Ken Bodfish's letter is irresponsible in the extreme as it is feeding people's concerns about the confidentiality of the voting process."

  Lib Dem leader Paul Elgood said: "This must be fully investigated. We will be taking legal advice from the national party and will consider making a police complaint. This could plainly have interfered with the electoral system."

  David Weltman, 70, and his wife Linda, 56, from Kemp Town, were among those who contacted us. Mr Weltman said: "We have always voted in local elections because we realise how important it is to have our say. During every election we have walked to our local polling station, except this year when we voted by post. We feel very uneasy about this latest development. I do not feel my vote is secure or confidential anymore."

  Mr Burgess, who put his hand up to causing all the fuss when his letter was leaked to opposition councillors and The Argus, said last night: "With hindsight I would have written it differently but it was a private letter to Labour members.

    "I regret it's being interpreted a different way than intended. The letter was just meant to motivate members.

    "We can make predictions that a certain level of turnout is likely to favour certain parties from what has happened in the past. For example, it is well known I think that Labour voters are possibly the hardest to get out. If we see a certain turnout is likely, it indicates to us that we need to get more people out in that ward. The whole thing is absolutely scrupulously supervised and there isn't any question of us doing anything dodgy. With hindsight I regret it is open to this interpretation. I drafted this letter for Ken, I put his name on it and I want to take responsibility for it."

  Mr Panter said his task as returning officer was to reassure people the electoral process was intact and had not been corrupted.

  He said he had spoken to Coun Bodfish and asked Mr Burgess for "clarification" but was confident nothing improper had taken place.

  He added: "I'm absolutely clear they have not seen any of the ballot papers to do any sort of sampling."

  He denied the row had damaged the image of the city's first major postal ballot saying it had merely provided another chance to stress how secure the procedure was.

  He said: "There was some inappropriate explanation used in a party leaflet, which, as returning officer, I have no control over. It's unfortunate."

  The strict guidelines governing the way elections are run are enshrined in law as a foundation stone of British democracy.

  In conventional elections they are laid down by the Representation of the People Act.

  Representatives of political parties are allowed to watch as postal votes are opened prior to polling day but are subject to strict confidentiality rules.

  Anybody who subsequently passes on information about voting patterns would be committing an offence, according to some senior election administrators.

  The same regulations do not apply to this year's all-post ballot.

  Mr Panter said there had been no breach of the code as the pilot election was not governed by Standard regulations.

  He said: "Certainly it was in the provisions within our particular proposal that this information should be shared and that was the bid that was approved."

  Alex Folkes, of the Electoral Reform Society in London, whose sister organisation Electoral Reform Services is running the election on behalf of the council, said security was vital.

  He said: "People are always worried about the security of any voting procedure and they are right to have these concerns because we do need to make sure that we can rely on our ballots to give the right result at the end of the day."

The Editorial

Foolish act on eve of count

  Many people in Brighton and Hove are worried about the secrecy and efficiency of the all-postal ballot being piloted for the city elections this week.

  So it was remarkably foolish of election organiser Simon Burgess to write, and council leader Ken Bodfish to sign, a letter to party members indicating that they had wind of how people were voting.

  The letter does not say Labour had access to ballot papers, which are supposed to be kept confidential, but it does say: "We are able to `sample' how people are voting."

  It's highly unlikely that the independent Electoral Reform Society, which is helping make sure everything runs properly, would let people from any party have access to information other than the voting percentages and whether the election was being run efficiently.

  Now Burgess and Councillor Bodfish, experienced operators who should have known better, have raised fresh doubts in the minds of many people about the all-postal vote, which was a genuine attempt to get more people involved.

  Labour's ploy to get party members working hard in marginal seats has rebounded hard on them.

  Greens, who have never liked the postal vote, have responded with predictable fury while Lib Dems have gone right over the top by suggesting police could be involved.

  The voters could still have the last laugh on Labour. Those who have not voted so far, and the number is worryingly large, still have the chance to drop their ballot forms into boxes at town halls until Thursday afternoon.

  Their verdict on a party as clumsy as Labour might be to vote for someone else.

RUSHCLIFFE BC

  Rushcliffe Borough was a "pilot" area for complete postal voting. I have already been interviewed on this by market reseachers Deloite & Touche, who were assessing the pilot.

  Consultation with affected Parties, including political Parties. Whether or not sufficient notice was given of the management of the process. Whether concerns were adequately addressed or not.

  I was interviewed before during and after the pilot scheme. Yes sufficient notice was given. My concerns weren't ones that could be addressed as they were due to the nature of postal voting.

  Were you provided with a written set of "rules" for the conduct of the pilot? Were these clear and were they properly adhered to by the RO?

  Yes and yes.

  What was your view of the mechanics of the conduct of the pilots? Were you provided with lists of people who had cast postal or e-votes throughout the campaign? At what frequency? Were the public told this would be happening? Did any members of the public find out and, if so, what was their reaction?

  Prob with Roy Mail as they posted some ballot papers too early, on the 18th instead of the 22nd April. This was because they had had the papers delivered early to the post offices! They didn't apologise! A full council meeting last Thurs unanimously approved a motion proposed by the Lib Dems (most affected by this early delivery) stating that future deliveries should be subject to a formal contract which includes penalties for early or late delivery.

  Also the motion asked that any future deliveries of ballot papers be made in envelopes clearly marked as containing ballot papers, although the envelopes were clearly labelled as being from the borough they were not labelled as containing ballots. The motion also asked that the instructions on the papers be checked in future, by an independent org eg Plain Eng Soc as some people couldn't understand them. (I saw no evidence of this in Lady Bay but then we are the most highly educated ward in Notts!)

  We weren't given lists but then we didn't ask for them so it may have been possible to obtain this info—I really don't know.

  What was your view of the democratic strengths and weaknesses of the? What scope was there for abuse of the new voting options being piloted? Do you have any hard evidence that such abuse took place? If so, what has been done about it?

  The pilot did increase the number of voters so it was successful in that way. Good for me because voters could see who was standing, for which parties and where the candidates lived well in advance. Problems with security eg multiple occupation households (1 politically active student could vote on everyone's ballot, elderly people or those with learning disabilites could have their ballots taken and filled in by staff or management—several homes in Lady Bay; in these categories, Dominant figure in household could fill in rest of family's ballots etc). Also, when canvassing noticed ballot papers in American style mail boxes, in open porches where no letter box on inside door; (rarely) sticking out of letterboxes/under doors, some older flats conversions allowed access by any person in block to anyone else's mail, any of these could have been taken and filled in. Campaign had to be very quickly organised as less time for canvassing, delivery of leaflets etc bad news for smaller parties with fewer financial & human resources. No evidence that any abuses actually took place, but then how would it be possible to find out and keep the ballot secret?

Sue Blount

Councillor for Lady Bay ward, Rushcliffe Borough Council

STEVENAGE BC 2003.

  I had three points, the first regarding Postal Voting. I said that from our experience, when handing out leaflets, people were giving them back saying that "They had already posted their vote". I felt that this took away the "focus" of the election. Denying the opportunity to debate the issues in the lead up to the election. Making it all too convenient for people to vote for the party they had always voted for, rather than consider an alternative.

  My second point covered the fact that you could obtain from the council, during the period allocated for postal votes, a list of who had voted so far, although obviously, not who they had voted for. This was achieved by barcoding the sealed envelopes.

  I again said that this could play into the hands of the larger parties, because with more people on the ground they were better able to target those addresses where known supporters were yet to vote, particularly if the result was predicted to be close.

  My last point covered the fact that counting for the postal vote begins before the actual "physical count" on the evening of the election. I said that councils had to be very careful that the ability to view this count was not abused, bearing in mind there was still time left before the election closed.

  There was a "fair" amount of information as to how the above were to be regulated etc, but obviously it was all laid down long before the election with little or no time to consider or debate the for's and against's of each process.

  I'm confident that our RO adhered to all the rules, but I did not receive a copy of them. He was quite open about the process and always willing to discuss them.

  I don't believe the public were very aware of the fact, if at all, that information as to whether they had voted or not was available to the parties. We were offered a list of those people who had voted, but declined as they were of little use when only standing paper candidates.

(EXTRACT FROM) SUBMISSION ON LOCATION OF 2004 ELECTORAL PILOT SCHEMES FROM THE GREEN PARTY OF ENGLAND AND WALES

  We take this opportunity to remind the Commission that all-postal and e-voting, commencing as they will some time in advance of "polling day", have the potential to significantly exacerbate previous problems regarding the ability of the Royal Mail to complete freepost deliveries before people cast their vote. We are now in direct communication with relevant Royal Mail officers about this and other matters regarding freepost. No doubt the Commission has also discussed the implications with them.

  We are pleased to see that the Commission has acknowledged the potential for erosion of the value of Party Election Broadcasts by these pilots. This is especially the case for smaller Parties that will probably only get one broadcast during the election period and (at least in our case) have traditionally spent a significant proportion of our campaign budget on its production. If we do get only one broadcast it could end up being shown after a big chunk of the electorate have voted, or so far ahead of polling day that its impact on everyone else's voting behaviour is near zero. We would be interested to know whether the Commission has discussed broadcast allocations and scheduling with the BBC in the context of the proposed pilots.

Chris Rose

National Election Agent, Green Party of England and Wales

SUBMISSION OF BEHALF OF NE ENGLAND GREEN PARTY

  In response to the Electoral Commission's consultation on piloting all postal votes in three regions, the Green Party for England and Wales has expressed a preference that the North East should be one of the pilot regions because:

    —  The North East is the smallest region, both in terms of area and population. This makes the region suitable for a pilot from which lessons can be learnt before being tried on a larger scale.

  We as the Green Party within the region endorse this position, but have a number of concerns about procedures and precautions that we would wish to see addressed before the pilot goes ahead. One of the main effects of postal voting is that many people vote as soon as they receive the ballot paper—in fact the increased response rates sought depend heavily on this fact. Depending on when the ballot papers are sent out, this could cut the effective campaign period by up to 10 days, which has significant consequences:

    —  The Post Office already have to phase free post leaflet deliveries over a period of one or two weeks in the run up to the election. Arrangements must be in place to ensure that all the free post leaflets have been delivered before the ballot papers go out.

    —  Party political election broadcasts are timed to take place right through to election day. While larger parties may get multiple broadcasts, smaller parties, like the Green Party will get only one broadcast. Since this is organised nationally, it means either that many people voting by post will have voted before the single broadcast is screened, or that it will be transmitted so long before election day that it will have little impact elsewhere in the country.

    —  The nature of a national election campaign is such that many critical issues may be "released" just a few days before election day. Poll results suggest that sharp swings can take place up to 12-24 hours before the election as a result of the way campaigns climax. Postal voting in part of the country in a national election may well miss the "national mood".

  We hope that these matters can be addressed in a way which will not lead to premature, uninformed voting.

Councillor Dr Nic Best


 
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