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
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
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 votingelectronic
voting is differentthat 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
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
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
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 recognisewhich
I do not think is evidence-based at the momentthat 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
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
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
Mr Dumper: Yes. I think it is
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 placenot
just postal but electronic as wellis 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
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 Swindonan
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 votingin fact I think they first
did it in 2000and 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 Commissionand
this always has the health warning of how it is suggestedMORI
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 viewbut
again this is not a formal Commission positionis 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 showsand this is very much evidence basedthat
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 electionand 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.