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

Examination of Witnesses (Questions 1-19)

9 MARCH 2004


  Q1 Chairman: May I welcome you to the first session of the Committee's inquiry into postal voting. Before I ask you to identify yourselves, could I just point out for the record that the written evidence we have received has been published. It is in a volume that is available from the Stationery Office at £12 or, if you do not want to part with £12, you can get it on the website. Could I ask you both now to identify yourselves.

  Mr Younger: Sam Younger, Chairman of the Electoral Commission.

  Mr Dumper: Malcolm Dumper, Executive Director of the Association of Electoral Administrators, Democratic Services Manager, Southampton City Council.

  Q2 Chairman: Do either of you want to say anything by way of introduction or are you happy for us to go straight to questions?

  Mr Younger: I am very happy for you to go straight to questions, Chairman.

  Mr Dumper: Yes.

  Chairman: Could I emphasise, since you both come from very different organisations, that if you agree with each other, just let it run; if you disagree, please jump in and let us know.

  Q3 Mr Sanders: Parliamentary elections which continue to use traditional polling stations and systems produce a higher turnout of electors than local/European elections. Does this suggest that it is the issues at stake and the quality of the candidates that might deter the electorate rather than the system of voting?

  Mr Younger: I think, if I may so, it is absolutely the right point to start. I think, when one considers voting methods, one has to acknowledge that the key issue as to whether people turn out is a matter for political parties and candidates and what they offer to the electorate. That is absolutely clear. It is something that we have always emphasised, that that is in the end what will drive turnout. At the same time, I do not think that lets us out of looking hard at electoral methods to make sure that electoral methods best support the electorate in turning out. But I certainly would not want to claim that whether it is all-postal voting or electronic voting is in some sense the killer application that is going to turn around the turnout issue.

  Mr Dumper: As a practitioner, I would not see that whatever voting system we put on substantially affecting turnout. Postal voting piloting has, for other reasons, but generally I think it is a matter of engagement that affects turnout, not so much the voting methods that are provided for the voter.

  Q4 Mr Sanders: Is there any data that shows that local elections 30 years ago had a higher turnout than today? Are we wasting our time looking at this at all?

  Mr Younger: I think it is fair to say that there has been a broad downward trend in turnout which is not unique to the United Kingdom anyway, across a range of elections across a period, and therefore I think it is right that we should all be, everybody, concerned about issues of turnout. I think the issue when it comes to all-postal voting is the proposition we started with, which is to say that we need to have methods of voting, albeit in the end turnout is going to turn much more on issues of engagement, with issues and candidates, that we should have electoral methods that actually fit with the lifestyles, expectations and needs of the modern electorate. We have a system that until relatively recently had not changed in a very long time. It is quite clear from the piloting of all-postal voting—electronic voting is different—that there is a benefit, what looks like a sustainable benefit, in terms of people's participation. If you look at the 2003 electoral pilots in the local elections in England, the average turnout across all the local elections was, broadly speaking, just over 34%; the average turnout in the all-postals in that same time was around 49%. There is about a 15% difference.

  Q5 Mr Sanders: When was the last time that local elections had a 49% turnout, apart from the poll tax, from way back? Are we right to be concerned that there is a problem with turnout that might have been there in the 1950s but nobody noticed it?

  Mr Dumper: Professors Rawlings and Thrasher at the University of Plymouth provide some in-depth statistical data on turnout. If I could give you an accurate statistic from my job at Southampton City Council, we were traditionally around the high 40% in the 1980s on local government elections, a steady decline since 1990, and now we are running consistently at 26 to 28%.

  Q6 Mr Sanders: From 1983 to now the issues were high, we had the poll tax. Before that, they rose. Why was this not an issue back in the 1970s? Where is the data from the fifties and sixties to show that turnout is now a problem?

  Mr Dumper: I would give the same answer I gave to the previous question: I think it is a question of engagement. We have a situation locally where some people are confused about which elements of local government in fact represents them. If you think about Southampton, which achieved unitary status several years ago, the voters were then better educated about a whole range of services a unitary council could provide. In neighbouring authorities, where they may have three representations, through parish or town, district and shire, they are not too sure which elected body represents them on which issues and currently become confused and then disinterested.

  Q7 Mr Sanders: Do all-postal elections create more pressure on the electorate if a marked register is maintained and available during the course of the election?

  Mr Younger: The Commission's view on this is that there is that danger. Indeed, we have taken some legal advice on the human rights aspects of this. Though we have not had full time to evaluate it, we wanted to make sure we made that available at the time the debate was going on about the availability of the marked register for the elections in June. There is, I think, in human rights' terms, a clear danger. One can quite see why and quite sympathise with the reasons that for political parties and candidates there is a real advantage in having access to the electoral register on an on-going basis through a campaign, but I do think there are human rights implications, and we have actually counselled for this year caution in that, pending the conclusion which we should reach later this year in terms of where we should go in the long term. As I say, we have not fully evaluated the legal advice we have had but I do think there is a real question mark.

  Q8 Chris Mole: Is that a hypothetical or an evidenced danger?

  Mr Younger: That is a hypothetical danger in terms of . . . . There are two issues, it seems to me. There is the issue, which I think we would all recognise—which I do not think is evidence-based at the moment—that it is possible, obviously, if you have campaigners who have narrowed down the number of people they want to have a go at in terms of saying, "We want you to return your vote," that the pressure on those individuals could be great. That is the theoretical bit of it. The general proposition is that it does open the opportunity for an interference in the privacy of the individual for somebody to go to their house. We have not reached a final conclusion on this but there are clearly dangers that have been pointed to by the legal advice we have been given.

  Q9 Chris Mole: What difference is there in principle between those actions on the day and the actions spread over a long period?

  Mr Younger: At the polling station, the voter coming out has the option as to whether they give their poll card to a teller, as an option as to whether they say they have voted or not; in the case of the marked register of returned postal votes, there is no such option. That is the difference between the two.

  Q10 Chairman: In terms of the annoyance factor, it is fairly annoying if someone knocks on your door three times of an evening trying to persuade you to go to vote on polling day. But is it not even more annoying if three political parties knock on your door one after the other and ask you if you have returned your postal vote?

  Mr Younger: I concede that that would certainly be annoying. That is why we are still looking at this issue. For example, the Information Commissioner has made a view very clear that this should not be information made available, certainly contemporaneously, and, indeed, many people would argue it should not be made available even after the election. There is a balance here. And of course we are also looking at something, in terms of the use of the electoral register and so on, that has been a practice for many years in terms of the use of the electoral register and the marked register after an election. One of the interesting points, which is one I think we do need to bottom out and do a bit more work on, is that actually very large percentages of the electorate simply are not aware of it. One of the things we are looking to do is to look at the attitudes of electors, but it is very difficult to do in this area without leading questions in an area where the electorate are not necessarily very closely aware of the issues involved, but, if you put it baldly, "Do you like the idea that people have access to information as to whether you voted?" you tend to get an instinctive "No" a lot of the time. Whether that is a useful piece of information I think is questionable in any event, because people then tend to link it in some sense to people knowing how they have voted as opposed to knowing only that they have voted, so I think it is something which still bears more analysis.

  Q11 Mr Betts: In the elections we have had under the all-postal system so far, some returning officers have actually issued a list of people who have voted on an updated basis, a daily basis, to political parties. How many complaints have you had from individuals or did they have from individuals about a breach of their human rights as part of that process?

  Mr Younger: Very little evidence that I have seen of real complaint about it so far.

  Q12 Mr Betts: Have we counted them? Do we know any numbers? Presumably the local authorities themselves record complaints.

  Mr Dumper: I really could not give an answer to that. I have not been involved in any of the pilot schemes conducted and I have not spoken to any colleagues in those areas who have. Looking at the evaluation reports that the Commission have published, there is nothing significant in there that people have complained about the availability of this data.

  Q13 Mr Betts: So the advice against pursuing this information is based on no hard evidence at all.

  Mr Younger: Just to be clear, so far only two authorities have actually made available a marked register during the course of an all-postal vote. There have been a small number of complaints but I do not actually have the numbers here. I think it is fair to say that it has not, in those two instances, been something that would be an issue that would reach the radar screen of issues concerned in an all-postal vote, but it is a very small sample so far.

  Q14 Mr Clelland: Even under the old system the way people vote is a secret ballot. It is not a secret that they do vote, because they are physically walking in and out of the polling station. I have never had a problem so far as I am aware, in my experience of elections, with people saying they are going to vote, so why should there be concern with people knowing that they have voted?

  Mr Dumper: The marked register at the moment is only available after the voting has finished. The marked register is available to anybody who requests it at the conclusion of the poll and after. The difference here is that you are providing data before the poll closes, and, although it could be overcome through a proper voter-education process, I believe there is a suspicion amongst the electorate that, if somebody knows you have not voted, they may know how you have voted. Clearly that is not the case but I can quite honestly say that during election day probably the biggest source of complaint or enquiry I have in my office is from people asking why their electoral number is written on the ballot paper counterfoil, because their vote could be traced, and the fact that, if we did provide information that they have not voted before, there is a suspicion that the vote could be traced.

  Q15 Mr Clelland: Obviously the arrangements for these pilots are going to take some time to put in place, particularly in those areas that have not had pilots before. Does it give you any concern at all that the legislation is not yet before Parliament?

  Mr Dumper: Yes. I think it is a problem.

  Q16 Mr Clelland: It is going to cause a problem, you think.

  Mr Dumper: Yes.

  Q17 Mr Clelland: Is there evidence that it is causing a problem at the moment?

  Mr Dumper: I think the biggest significant issue where pilot schemes have taken place—not just postal but electronic as well—is where people are happy with that process, they see it more convenient, but then may have to return to traditional voting methods. That is more the case in those authorities that have conducted electronic pilots, where people have found that very convenient and modern but then have to return to a traditional voting method at the next parliamentary election.

  Q18 Mr Clelland: That was going to be my next question. Do you think that is going to be a problem as well, with people having one system of voting in these elections and then, come the next general election, perhaps having to go back to the polling booth.

  Mr Dumper: Absolutely. I could quote Alan Winchcombe, the Deputy Returning Officer at Swindon—an authority which is very proactive in piloting electronic voting, and, indeed postal voting. Alan, I believe, undertook several pilots in the last two or three years and he has already had that criticism from a number of his electors and a number of the locally elected politicians, that voters who are going to have to return to the traditional voting methods do not like that and consequently will not vote unless they can continue to vote in the pilot status voting methods that were trawled out in the last two years.

  Mr Younger: I would absolutely go along with that. It is very striking from those particularly who have undertaken all-postal voting, particularly over a sustained period, that they are very worried about the implications of going back to other methods. I have to say that I think, in a sense, that is in the nature of the beast when you are in a period where you are experimenting and looking at different methods. In an ideal world, we would take what we have learned from the pilots, roll out the underpinning legislative framework that you need and then roll it out; but life is not as simple as that, and we recognise it but nevertheless it is important that we do so. Malcolm mentioned Swindon and one might also mention Stevenage, where they have done all-postal voting—in fact I think they first did it in 2000—and of course they are not in a region which anyone has suggested seriously for piloting, and there is a real practical problem there of going back to old methods. I have one more bit of detail on the question that arose about the marked register which is from our report on the pilots last year. We did have a small number of complaints that came to the Commission on the provision of the marked register to candidates before the close of poll. In focus groups conducted for the Commission—and this always has the health warning of how it is suggested—MORI asked participants for their views on whether political parties should have access to the marked electoral register before the close of poll, and MORI report that most people are instinctively against giving marked registers to political parties. Even if people do not mind personally, opposition remains. That is as far as it goes at the moment and that is what I think we need to investigate further before coming to a conclusion.

  Q19 Mr Clelland: All of this is designed to combat the problem of diminishing turnout and encourage more people to vote. Could that not be tackled simply by having a system of compulsory voting?

  Mr Younger: My own view—but again this is not a formal Commission position—is that compulsory voting would tell us that people are being compelled to vote, not necessarily that they are engaged in the act of voting or engaged in the issues, and I would rather be in a position of persuading people that it is worth turning out to vote rather than compelling them to do so. It is in that context that I think all-postal voting is something that is worth rolling out, so long as we can effectively address the security issues concerned, because the record shows—and this is very much evidence based—that it does have a benefit in turnout and also attitudes to it are fairly positive. One figure I came across which I was quite struck by because it goes back beyond the period when we have had, as it were, very significant piloting, was in some work MORI did for us in the 2001 general election—and this was when postal voting on demand was available but there had been very little all-postal voting. Fifty-three% in the survey they did said other methods should replace the polling station, and that was a view very much weighted to the younger end of the spectrum in terms of voters; 34% were against it, and that was very much weighted to older people. Part of what that says to me is that we are in danger, if we do not look at adapting the system, of having a system that may still be just about all right now, but if you look at the way lifestyles and people develop is not necessarily going to be appropriate in the coming years.

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