Examination of Witnesses (Questions 20-40)|
9 MARCH 2004
Q20 Mr Clelland: Presumably you have
studied those countries that do have compulsory voting.
Mr Younger: It has been on our
agenda but it has not been one of the top priorities up to now
because there have been other priorities. We are looking to undertake
some research on the experience of compulsory voting in other
countries. Quite apart from a general view, which is a general
prejudice I have which I expressed a moment ago, I think the one
experience that is probably closest to ours or the nation which
is closest to ours is Australia, which has had compulsory voting
for many years. I do remember talking to my counterpart in Australia
who said, "It works in Australia largely because it has been
there for 100 years and was brought in at a time when you had
the kind of deferential society that was prepared to accept it."
He said, "Frankly, if we did not have it and tried to introduce
it now in the context of modern Australia, it would actually be
more or less impossible to make stick." That stuck in my
mind as an important factor to take into account. That is not,
I think, that we should not be looking at it seriously, it has
just not been a sufficient priority for us to have looked at it
very hard up to now.
Q21 Mr Betts: The argument about all-postal
voting is that on the one hand it seems to increase turnout and
on the other hand there are concerns about security. Given that
turnout seems to be there and proven, are you convinced that we
can address the security issues and make people feel reassured
that there will not be any less secure elections as a result of
Mr Younger: Yes, I think we can.
There is a number of things that I think are already happening
and a number of elements of this, in terms of, for example, offences
and the ability to make arrests away from a poling stationobvious
ways of changing the law that apply to an all-postal situation
as opposed to a conventional situation. There are two key underpinning
measures that are not there yet, have not been there in the pilots,
which we believe are vital if the roll out of all-postal voting
on the wider scale is to be robust. The absolutely critical one
there is a move from household to individual registration, with
personal identifiers, including the individual voter's signature,
against which a return postal vote can be checked. That is why
I say it is a messy business moving forward into different methods
of voting. It takes a fair bit of time not just to get the primary
legislation on the statute book that would bring individual registration
but also to implement it, because one would want to implement
it in a way that did not instantly mean large numbers of people
off the electoral roll. We have some lessons we can learn on a
move from household to individual registration because it is exactly
what happened in Northern Ireland after the passage of the Electoral
Fraud Act in 2002, so there is some experience to go on in that.
But I must say that our belief is that is critical. Along with
that, if we are to take seriously the checking of the incoming
postal votethe checking against the signature, the follow-up
of possible occasions where the signature does not appear to the
electoral registration officer to matchwe must make sureand
whether this requires legislation or not I think is a question
for the futurethat electoral services, which have been
traditionally in many parts of the country underfunded, are underpinned
in a way that actually enables them to carry out the job.
Q22 Mr Betts: If we are moving towards
individual registration, then the efforts of most local authorities
now are inadequate in terms of getting a full register produced.
If we are going to individual registration, then getting the third
and fourth members of the household to register as well as the
head is going to require an awful lot more effort.
Mr Younger: I would absolutely
Mr Dumper: That is absolute fact.
It is becoming increasingly difficult to produce an accurate register
of electors under the current system because people are so reluctant
now to complete the electoral form on an annual basis; although
I think rolling registration has assisted in that because we can
link that reminder to register when council tax bills, for example,
are being changed because of a change in address. I would like
to add one or two things to what Sam has said. I wholly support
what Sam mentioned about the issues of security with regard to
individual registration enabling us to put in place better checks.
A significant concern from my perspective, being a practitioner,
would be the delivery of postal votes to houses in multiple occupation.
Once a postal vote effectively goes through a letterbox, you do
not know what is going to happen to it. Parental pressure may
exist. You do not know whether it is actually going to go to the
person who is named as the recipient on the postal vote envelope.
If you take my own local authority, for example, where we have
two or three wards that have a high student population, 20,000
spread over two or three wards, many of these in houses in multiple
occupation, at times 16 postal vote envelopes going through one
letterbox, it is very difficult to know whether the recipient
is actually going to get that.
Q23 Chris Mole: Would the introduction
of a national identity card resolve some of the issues?
Mr Dumper: If legislation enabled
the registration office "or returning office" to make
validity checks of postal votes and the identification number
on a national ID card was one of those yes, I also see that as
an opportunity to dispense with the current arrangements for the
declaration of identity, where a third party is actually needed
to witness the declaration. That I think is one of those areas
we have problems with. It is difficult to give you a percentage
but the highest number of votes that are rejected at any election
is because the declaration of identity has not been completed
properly, and that is wrong when the ballot paper has been completed
accurately. The person has clearly made their choice but the failure,
first, to understand the process in the completion of the declaration
of identity and, secondly, the need to get a third party involved
does in fact invalidate a number of votes.
Mr Younger: We very much support
the notion of dispensing with the witness signature on the declaration
of identity, partly because people often fill it in wrongly; secondly,
because, I think Malcolm would accept, very few electoral registration
officers actually check that signature when it comes in, so it
is not really an effective fraud check anyway; and, thirdly, we
believe it is positively more dangerous to security to invite
a third party into an individual's casting of the vote. But, in
the end, the ability of that declaration of identity with the
individual voter's signature to be a really effective security
check does require individual registration.
Q24 Mr Brady: Last night I raised with
the Minister the question of security of the ballot in houses
of multiple occupation and he gave assurance in the House that
felt adequate steps had been taken to ensure that HMOs would be
properly dealt with. It seems from the comments that have been
made already that you would share that confidence.
Mr Younger: I would certainly
share the confidence that the individual regional returning officers
and returning officers and their staff are looking hard at how
they best cope with this problem. I think Malcolm would probably
say there is a resource problem here in how you do it. Because
actually there is certainly a way of operating effectively with
homes of multiple occupation if you actually do, as it were, physical
delivery on behalf of the electoral officer yourself; the question
is issues of scale in that. Indeed, I think it is fair to say,
just to note, that, on the recommendation we made to say that
all-postal voting should become the norm, we put a caveat to say
that it was open to a returning officer not to do so, given good
reasons, and I think one reason might be if you were in a ward,
for example, in an area of a local authority that had a very,
very high quotient of, say, student population in multiple residences.
That might be one reason. I would not want to belittle the importance
of the problem, but I think there are ways around it, but part
of the way round it rests on the proper funding of electoral operations
and I think it is fair to say that we have, as it were, underfunded
our democratic processes in the past and I hope we do not do so
in the future.
Q25 Mr Brady: You believe that electoral
officers, returning officers, are looking at the problem and recognise
there is a problem but, as of now, we do not have adequate resources
or adequate measures in place to ensure that fraud does not take
place in houses of multiple occupation.
Mr Younger: As a long-term proposition,
yes, but, to be fair . . . I am not trying to duck the issue,
it is just that I think there are people coming to your hearing
a bit later this morning who are better placed to answer that
question than I because they are closer to the individual areas.
I am aware that it is an issue of which all the returning officers
I speak to in EROs are seized and they are looking to what they
can do. One of the difficulties is that there is a resource constraint
in what they are in a position to do about it.
Q26 Mr Betts: Would you say that the
all-postal ballots in some ways have forced concentration on some
issues which have actually been around with postal voting in ordinary
elections for some time? The security issue, where it has been
alleged that people will gather up all the postal votes in one
house, getting 50 or 60 sent to one address; the issue of the
witness attestation which has been a problem for a long time in
validating votes; and also the very poor return of the registration
forms, particularly from areas with households in multiple occupancy.
Are they three big issues which have been around but which actually
all-postal voting is now forcing you to address?
Mr Younger: I think that is a
fair point. As we look at changing systems we look at all these
things and have to look at them in a way they have not been looked
at before. I think registration is a particular one. To add one
point: I think we are well aware that if we move to individual
registration, or assuming we do, particularly, but even with our
existing system of registration, we actually need to do some cleverer
operations, it seems to me, in making sure we have the right people
on the register. Relying on an annual canvass and rolling registration,
I think we would all accept is not enough. There needs to be a
greater concentration on it, because the starting point of all
this is the fullest and cleanest possible electoral register and
I think there is more that could be done in that area.
Q27 Mr Betts: Does that mean we have
to go very slowly on this or can we actually start to learn lessons
and push all-postal voting out across the country at a reasonable
Mr Younger: I think we can roll
it out at a reasonable speed. Individual registration, to me,
is the key. I think it is fair to say we have been pressing government
since we made the recommendation just about a year ago to say
that we would see that as the priority now: to get that underpinning
registration, to get individual registration on the road, because
that is the critical part of giving comfort in the roll-out of
Chairman: You are giving us some excellent
answers which are very useful. We have five more questions, so
could I just stress that we try to make it a little sharper or
we are going to overrun in this session.
Q28 Mr Cummings: Many submissions to
the inquiry argue that all-postal voting takes choice away in
relation to the method of participation in voting. How important
Mr Younger: In principle, the
more choice you can provide, the better. But there are practical
issues involved in it. Our view has been that all-postal voting
has real benefits, if it is correctly underpinned, and that is
the direction in which we ought to go. Of course, that means that
it would be impractical in resource termsand, frankly,
not justifiableat the same time to have a polling station
everywhere a polling station has traditionally been; however,
recognising that there is a question for a number of people who
either prefer to physically go and cast their vote somewhere,
or, alternatively, require some help in doing so, and that is
why we have made the proposaland it is a proposal that
has been taken up in the pilotsfor staffed delivery points
in local authority areas that allow people not only physically
to put their vote in a box there if that is what they feel more
comfortable doing but also to be assisted in doing so. That is
an element of it. It is not replicating polling stations in what
is essentially an all-postal election but it is ensuring that
there is a reasonable degree of choice for people who are not
comfortable about sending in a postal vote. One has to see all
of this always, it seems to me, against the backgroundwhich
is the thing I always thing it is important to keep in mindof
the benefits, in terms of encouraging more people to fill in their
vote, of going in an all-postal direction.
Mr Dumper: It has to be that postal
voting is more convenient, in so much as it gives the elector
more time to cast their vote. The returning officers would traditionally
have most postal votes out five to seven days before the day of
election. Whatever political campaign might be going on right
up to a day or two before the election, then the elector does
have the opportunity to take on board whatever campaign is going
on, maybe to influence their vote. In a polling station, of course,
they would go in and cast their vote, already having made their
mind up, certainly, but the postal vote system does allow them
more time to make their choice.
Q29 Mr Cummings: It does appear that
the experience of all-postal voting has been quite positive. Has
any more detailed and quality work been done to assess how well
individuals understood or coped with the system?
Mr Younger: Yes, indeed. In the
pilot areas there has been a good deal of work done, both in terms
of the Commission's own research and research done by local authorities
in the context of the pilots, which has brought out the answer
that people have felt broadly informed. There have been variations
in the publicity of local authorities surrounding all-postal voting,
and it has been absolutely clear that, where there has been better
publicity, there has been better understanding, but I think it
is fair to say that broadly the public reaction has been positive.
The critical figure to me among those we had from MORI was in
a survey in 2003 of all the all-postal areas. Whether they voted
or not, the people in those areas, when asked whether they regarded
the ease of use as being in a range from good to neither-good-nor-bad
to bad, 85% said good and only 7% said poor. In terms of convenience,
89% said good and only 4% said poor. That seems to me a fairly
strong figure. Interestingly, in the same surveywhich is
where we do need to make sure that we move to address the issues
of securitythe figures were not so strong in terms of safety
from abuse: 48% said it was good in terms of safety from abuse
and 23% said poor. Clearly there is more work to do there, but
in terms of ease of use and convenience there has been very much
a positive response from voters, although it has also been clear
that the simplicity of use is related to the simplicity of the
declarations one is required to make. When voters have been asked
in those areas which have piloted no declaration of identity at
all, that is the easiest to use for voters. The ones that have
required a counter-signature get less high marks on that. Our
view is that actually requiring no signature at all, although
being easy to use for the voter, is a step too far in terms of
taking a leg away from the security stool, but that the witness
signature does not add sufficiently to the security in order to
be something that is worth doing against the potential voter confusion.
Q30 Mr Cummings: How do you respond to
the Venice Commission of the Council of Europe in advising extreme
caution in postal votes?
Mr Younger: My own view is that
extreme caution is a very good watchword. I would say that there
has been extreme caution. We have done a number of pilots. It
is not yet rolled out. There is a large number of measures that
are either being implemented through the pilots or under serious
consideration and I hope moving forward, such as individual registration.
Q31 Mr Cummings: So "the heightened
risk of family voting" does not worry you.
Mr Younger: Risk of any abuse
worries me, but this is why I say that it does have to be seen
against the context of what we need to do in order to make voting
convenient for lifestyles of today and of the future. I think,
weighed against that, with the measures that are either in place
now or that are suggested to be in place, the dangers cannot be
eliminated entirelybecause I do not think attempts to defraud
the system will ever be eliminated entirely: they were there in
the conventional systembut can be coped with.
Q32 Mr Betts: It has been suggested that
all-postal voting on a regional basis for the June elections cannot
now be considered as a pilot. Are you convinced that can be done
now adequately and safely, bearing in mind all the things we have
discussed today, whether it be in two regions or four regions?
Mr Younger: Our view is that there
is a benefit in scaling up and it is particularly a benefit in
terms of testing the capacity of external agencies (printers,
for example, and the Royal Mail) to cope with something on a wider
regional basis. In a response to government we have not been in
agreement with the Government that we should go as high as four:
37-38% of the English electorate seems to us to be too big a number,
the risks being thereparticularly, in those areas which
have a high proportion of complexity in terms of local elections
at the same time, many of them all-out elections on new electoral
boundariesso we have concerns there. We also have concerns
about rolling out too far. People have referred already to the
fact that once people get into all-postal they are reluctant to
move back again and I think moving too far down that road before
we have the underpinning legislation in place is something that
I am concerned about.
Q33 Mr Betts: I am sorry, I do not understand
that. If it is going to be no problem doing it in the North East,
why is there a problem doing it in Yorkshire and the Humber? Once
you roll it out, they may not want to go back, but they may not
want to go back in the North East. Having another region or another
two regions, why does that not work in principle?
Mr Younger: They certainly do
not want to go back in the North East. I think it is fair to say
that, as it were, the nature of the risk is not different in one
region from another. The scale of the risk is, I think, greater
because of the complexity.
Q34 Mr Betts: It is the same risk over
a larger area, that is all, is it not?
Mr Younger: Yes, but the quantum
of risk increases and particularly the quantum of riskand
this is one of the things that worried us. One of the things we
took into account in making our recommendationsand I accept
there have been discussions between government and regional returning
officers since then in which we have not been involved, but one
of the factors that government asked us to take into accountand
indeed the Government itself was very clear needed to be taken
into account when London was excluded from the potential for a
pilot because of the complexity of the electoral process going
on in Londonwas to look at the numbers of authorities in
a region and the complexity of the elections they face. If you
take, say, the North West, it has a much higher proportion of
local authorities undertaking local elections than either of the
two regions we have suggested. It is more than three-quarters,
as opposed to 15% in the East Midlands.
Q35 Mr Betts: I understand the electoral
officers in Yorkshire and Humber have now said they actually are
content they can manage all-postal vote elections. Is that true?
Mr Dumper: I would not really
want to comment on that. I have not consulted colleagues.
Q36 Mr Brady: On that basis of complexity,
would it be the case that the North West is actually the least
suitable of the Government's favoured four regions?
Mr Younger: In terms of that complexity,
yes. Nearly 77% of authorities in the North West have other elections,
including many all-outs in the mets. In Yorkshire and Humberside
it is nearly 62%, compared to only 15% in the East Midlands and
just over a quarter in the North East. That was one of the factors
in the consideration we gave.
Q37 Chris Mole: We have said quite a
few things about security and secrecy in voting within households.
People look at issues like dominant family members, enthusiastic
canvassers potentially bribing or using threats of violence. When
was the last occasion when anybody actually heard of any of those
things happening in reality, returning to the question of the
hypothetical as opposed to the real risk?
Mr Younger: I think you are right
to say that the empirical evidence is not there that this is a
problem of any scale. Equally, when we look at all-postal voting
or, indeed, any other method, I think we have to recognise that
there are, as it were, the objective issues that are empirically
based that need to be addressed. There is also a public confidence
issuewhich is not necessarily exactly the same thingthat
needs to be addressed. We need to make sure there are measures
in place, in a sense, to over-ensure. The other point I would
make in terms of things like family influence and so on is that,
of course, all-postal voting is not different in that from having
opened the door by postal voting on demand, because with postal
voting on demand anybody, if they really want to make sure their
family will vote in a way they want them to, can make sure their
family applies for a postal vote. Having decided on it, it seems
to me it is inconceivable we would go back from postal voting
on demand. That principle, as it were, that Rubicon, has already
been crossed, and it seems to me the roll-out of all-postal voting
does not make too much difference to it, albeit we need to make
sure we get all the right secrecy and security warnings in place
and make sure the right offences are available and make sureand
it is not something that has always happenedthat there
is a real focus in the police on following up allegations of fraud.
Malcolm would know more of this than me, but I think historically
the police have preferred to leave politics alone as far as is
Q38 Chris Mole: Would you agree that
it is right to start from the principle of assuming that everyone
is an individual responsible adult? We can vote by post/electronically
in ballots for union general secretaries, for the demutualization
of building societies. People are getting used to these sorts
of methods and expect to be treated as an adult in this.
Mr Younger: I would agree with
Mr Dumper: You are right, there
is no hard evidence of parental influence, but of course parental
influence could also take place prior to the individual voting
at a polling station.
Q39 Chairman: We could have these pilots
this summer and then we could move on to the general election
where we would actually go back to everybody having to go to the
polling stationor not everybody, because a whole lot of
people could apply for the right to vote by post. Would it be
very difficult administratively if, say, 50% of the electorate
were choosing to vote by post and the other 50% were choosing
to turn up to the polling station?
Mr Dumper: The administration
of postal votes is resource hungry. I employ the same amount of
staff to conduct an election no matter what the method is. If
I give you an example of Southampton's postal vote figure rising
from 2,000 in the 1997 general election to 26,000 in our last
local election. We are not a pilot region. That is postal voting
on demand, and the additional advertising and awareness that postal
voting is available. With the same amount of staff, it is extremely
difficult to conduct. The postal vote process, particularly the
issue and the opening process prior to election day, is very,
very resource hungry, and, in my view, is substantially dearer
than traditional voting methods.
Q40 Chairman: Is that because you need
permanent staff to do that? Whereas manning polling stations is
a nice little earner, is it not, for whoever?
Mr Dumper: Well, some might not
say that, at £4 an hour for a polling clerk, but, yes, you
do need dedicated staff for postal voting who understand the process.
Clearly, polling staff need to, but they are likely to be casual
labour you can get in for one day only. For a postal vote process,
you may need six to a dozen staff for a week to two-week period.
Chairman: On that note, may I thank you
both very much for giving evidence to the Committee.