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

Examination of Witnesses (Questions 160-179)

16 MARCH 2004


  Q160 Sir Paul Beresford: I was talking to the Mayor of Auckland, where they have had all-postal voting for some time. His comment was that initially the turnout went up and then it dropped back, but anecdotally he was clearly convinced that a considerable proportion of the increase was down to fraud.

  Mr Price: Yes.

  Q161 Sir Paul Beresford: Do you agree with that? Possibly?

  Mr Ritchie: We have seen very big increases in turnouts in places like Gateshead and I just do not believe that those increases are due to fraud. But what does worry me is that in places like Gateshead they conducted the pilots without using a declaration of identity. You may argue—we would certainly argue—that a declaration of identity, where there is not a mechanism for checking the signature against another signature that is held against the register, is rather meaningless, but nevertheless it is a bit of a deterrent. I would argue that it is more likely that in Gateshead they made voting easier and the publicity surrounding the pilots have also increased the turnout, but what proportion of the increase might have been fraud we would not want to guess.

  Q162 Chris Mole: If we accept that there are problems but they are unquantified, how do we strike the balance between the benefit of increasing turnout and the loss of security that it could be argued is self-evident in a traditional voting system?

  Mr Price: It seems to me that that question throws up some pretty fundamental problems. If you are going to introduce all-postal voting it would seem to us in the society—and I think it would also seem to the Electoral Commission—that you have to link this to individual registration of voters, which is, we think, absolutely fundamental to starting to have a secure system. The whole concept of individual registration with proof of identity and some form of individual number, be it an NHS number or National Insurance number, whatever it may be, at least starts you off on the right lines. In many ways, this is linked to the possibility of compulsory individual registration and electoral identification cards being issued. That is the system that operates in Brazil, where they in fact have an electronic voting system. When somebody reaches the age of majority in Brazil, they get an electoral identification card. Without that card they cannot in fact get any other state benefits or even a driving licence, but then when they go to vote there is a method of checking who they are. They use an electronic system and it appears to work very well.

  Q163 Chris Mole: Is there anything that can be done to ensure, when an individual votes within their own household, that you can guarantee the individual has voted personally? Or do we have to assume that they are all mature adults and keep these things secret, as they would their banking or medical records?

  Mr Ritchie: Clearly it is not something that can be policed but we would certainly want to see there being plenty of warnings given that this was something that was illegal. It is illegal to watch somebody else voting; it should be illegal to cast your vote when somebody else can watch. If that warning was made very clear in the information sent to the voter, perhaps on the ballot paper itself in bold type, it would not overcome the problem but it might at least be a deterrent for some people who were tempted.

  Q164 Mr Sanders: Is it acceptable to introduce the all-postal ballot in June before implementation of the Electoral Commission's recommendations?

  Mr Price: Are you talking about individual registration?

  Q165 Mr Sanders: Yes.

  Mr Price: We would be of the view that it is not—certainly not on the scale that was originally planned. The logistics in any event of all-postal ballots in the European elections this June seem to some of us to be quite difficult, simply because of the problems of timing, but we would have thought that with electoral areas this large it would be desirable, if not essential, for there to be some safeguard that the registration system itself was as reliable as it could be.

  Mr Ritchie: I think we would say from our society that we would be unhappy, though we do recognise that it is not satisfactory to have an election in which perhaps only one in four or perhaps one in five people turn out to vote. You cannot be certain then that the outcome reflects the will of the electorate as a whole. So there is a balance to be struck. We are not certain about the argument that going ahead in this case is the right thing to do but we accept that there is a balance of risk against the disadvantage of a poor turnout. It is a judgment that has to be made.

  Q166 Mr Sanders: How important is the introduction of individual voter registration?

  Mr Ritchie: We would see it as essential if you are moving towards any form of remote voting—and of course we are already in a situation where people can ask for a postal vote on demand. Now that that facility exists, we think it is very important that that is done as soon as possible.

  Q167 Mr Sanders: How concerned are you with proposals to modify the "declaration of identity" to do away with the need for witness attestation?

  Mr Price: In the H S Chapman Society we are very concerned. We are very concerned, amongst other things, that we appear to be in complete disagreement with the Electoral Commission about this. The Electoral Commission appear to be in favour of scrapping the requirement of having a witness to a declaration of identity, so that you go to self-certification, where you just have what is supposed to be a signature on the declaration of identity which is linked to nothing. There is no outside way of checking that signature against anything at the moment. In one of the cases to which we refer in our submissions which was in the courts this year, the declarations of identity in an all-postal local authority pilot scheme were there to be seen at the court-supervised inspection of the ballot papers and vast numbers of the signatures on those forms were squiggles which may or may not have been a signature—certainly they were not a recognisable signature of anybody.

  Q168 Mr Sanders: Was anything done at the time? The problem with the system at the moment is that nobody seems to be bothering to take up whether they are genuine signatures.

  Mr Price: I am not sure that the system exists at the moment to enable that to be done. Certainly the returning officer or whoever is running the election at the moment would have no means, short of walking round to somebody's house, putting the declaration of identity under their nose and asking them whether the signature is theirs.

  Mr Ritchie: Certainly there is nothing to check against, but, on the other hand, if you do have a witness's signature, that can equally be a squiggle against which there is nothing you can check the witness's signature. For that reason, we would not advocate going for a system in which you do need to have a witness's signature. That is why we think it is much more important to move to a system where the voter does not need to go to somebody else—for some voters that might be difficult—but where the voter can give some information that gives confirmation that it is the person to whom the vote was issued. But that is why we need to change the system of registration, so that it is possible to make a check and that spot-checks are done.

  Q169 Christine Russell: Do electoral registration officers not already have power to do the checking, but is it not true that they just do not do it because of lack of resources or time?

  Mr Ritchie: With a declaration of identity there is nothing at all to check against.

  Q170 Christine Russell: What about who is actually on the register? Do you think more should be done to check that all the entries on the register are valid?

  Mr Ritchie: Yes.

  Mr Price: Yes.

  Q171 Christine Russell: Could I ask you about whether or not marked copies of the register should be made available. If the answer is yes, at what point during the campaign should it be made available to political parties?

  Mr Ritchie: We would certainly want to see marked copies continuing to be made available to parties and others after the election. I am not so sure though about before the close of the poll.

  Q172 Christine Russell: Do you see any difficulties in giving daily returns to political parties of those who have returned their postal votes?

  Mr Ritchie: It is not one I have thought about.

  Mr Price: I have to say, nor have I.

  Q173 Chris Mole: Are you worried about the role that party agents might take in interfering with all-postal votes by going out and interacting with the voters in a way that is not appropriate?

  Mr Price: I think that is a risk but I do not think it is restricted to party agents. I think it is restricted to anybody who is involved in a pressure group of whatever sort. It could be a community pressure group, it could be a trade union pressure group, it could be any sort of pressure group you like to name, and if you have the all-postal vote system then the opportunity for them to do something that they should not be doing is greater than it would otherwise be.

  Q174 Chris Mole: Would the cost to your cause not be too great for the risk? Is the damage to be done when you are found out not higher than the value you get by doing that?

  Mr Ritchie: I think the difficulty is that within a political party the agent might know the rules but you have other very, very enthusiastic people who are all out doing the job, and it is where you put the dividing line between trying to argue your case and being very persuasive and perhaps going a little bit too far and actually directing the voter on how to vote.

  Q175 Chris Mole: If you go back to the traditional approach to voting, in general the national elections produce a higher turnout. Does that not suggest that the issue is something other than the voting method?

  Mr Ritchie: It is what election analysts would call a first order rather than a second order election. It is an election in which many more people take an interest: they feel it is going to have much more significance for the country and therefore there is more interest and more people turn out to vote. I do not think it is at all to do with the voting method. It certainly indicates that where people feel that voting makes sense or it is important to them, they will go to the polling station.

  Q176 Mr Betts: If the Government does insist in forcing through a change to the system which is self-evidently open to far greater abuse like fraud, what is the increased Scope for legal challenge after the event, whether it be according to the Human Rights Act or other aspects of electoral law?

  Mr Price: The only way you can challenge an electoral result is through an election petition through the High Court. There would be an increased risk of more challenges, but it all depends on somebody having the evidence in a particular case because you cannot bring those petitions unless you have the evidence and you have to have it in a very short period of time after the election, which is usually 21 days, and that time period cannot be extended. So there is a narrow time frame for people to bring up the challenge and they have to be prepared, if you like, to fund it and have the evidence to prove it; that can be difficult for private individuals.

  Q177 Mr Clelland: In June, particularly in metropolitan areas, electors are going to face all-out elections which they are not used to. Normally one-third of the council will retire each year; this time electors are going to have the opportunity to vote for three candidates potentially on one ballot paper, on the basis of new wards, again on all-postal ballots. At the same time they are going to be voting in the European elections, which are done on a PR system, all-postal votes. Later on this year, in four of the regions, we are going to have regional government referenda, and in the shire areas there will again be multiple choices on those ballot papers. Then, when the general election comes, perhaps next year or the year after, they are going to return to a first past-the-post system again. Is this not going to be a bit confusing for electors?

  Mr Price: I would have thought it is going to be inordinately confusing. There are an awful lot of problems already, with people being confused with the existing system, but faced with that lot I would not like to guess what would happen.

  Mr Ritchie: The evidence suggests that voters in other parts of the world and, indeed, in other parts of Britain can cope with using different electoral systems without any great problem but it is important that there is as strong an educational campaign and information campaign beforehand, so that, for example, where it is an all-out election, people do know, if it is a three member ward, that they have three votes and that they do not just cast one.

  Q178 Mr Clelland: Who should be responsible for that campaign? The political parties or the local authorities?

  Mr Ritchie: The political parties obviously have a job to do and it is in their interests that they do it, but I would like to see the local authorities actually doing it at the same time, no doubt with Electoral Commission.

  Q179 Mr Clelland: What about the actual material? The potential for confusion because the material is not designed particularly well is enormous as well.

  Mr Price: It is undoubtedly confusing. If one looked at the way in which the ballot papers were devised in the all-postal ballot, in one of the cases that we put in our submission you in fact had one piece of paper which was folded into three: one section was the ballot paper, the middle section was the declaration of identity; and the third section was the address of the voter, all joined together with perforations. As one saw from the court recount, all sorts of voters did a whole series of different things with that piece of paper. When they sent in their postal vote, some sent the whole lot back, including the bit with their name and address on; some tore the address off and sent the declaration of identity back and the ballot paper joined up; others sent them back separately; others chopped the ballot paper up, so it was only half the length that it was on the sheet, making it very difficult in fact to count them when they got to the count. You could see that the voters were all over the place in what they were supposed to do with this one simple three-section form.

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