Memoranda submitted by the Scottish National
Party, the Green Party and the UK Independence Party
Examination of Witnesses (Questions 303-319)
17 MARCH 2004
Chairman: Can I welcome you and can I
just stress that, if you agree with each other, please do not
repeat what one or the other has said and, if you disagree, please
come in quickly.
Q303 Mr Sanders: The Electoral Commission
was asked to rank regions in terms of their appropriateness for
all-postal voting at the June European Parliament elections. Two
of the regions it did not positively recommend are being required
to have all-postal voting. What are your views on the government's
proposal to include those two additional regions?
Mr Forse: We oppose it; we feel
that it is too much of a risk. There have been a lot of problems
with the postal votes that have already taken place. We believe
it should be limited to the smaller regions so it is more contained.
Q304 Mr Clelland: What problems?
Mr Forse: In our submission with
places like Hackney and Brighton there have been all sorts of
problems regarding the secrecy issue. There was a case, for instance,
in Hackney in our submission where it was threatened that the
churches had a voting day where people took their votes to the
church and voted collectively. The idea of course is still to
have secret votes, and the whole postal vote system really makes
that a lot more difficult. Obviously some people will vote in
private but a lot of them are subject to family pressure, particularly
if there is a dominant member of the family. Also we believe there
is greater pressure from political parties. My constituency is
Leicester West which is going to have an inquiry on this, including
the MP, so we do have, in principle, problems with postal votes.
But there is so much going on at the moment in legislation with
the PPERA and everything that it is very difficult for small political
parties to keep on top of all of it, and therefore we believe
it is best to play safe on this. We would rather have it in a
sense in no region and know more first but, if not, then let's
do it in the smaller regions rather than the larger regions. There
are, I understand, very small local elections in the those regions
in the north east; I think there are a lot more in Yorkshire Humberside
than in the north west.
Q305 Mr Sanders: You have introduced
something I do not think we have heard about before about people
going to a church to vote collectively. Can you tell us more about
Mr Forse: Yes. I did not give
this submission; our election agent did. He submitted an overall
paper and then he submitted reports from various places based
on all-postal votes as opposed to the postal votes in line with
normal voting which was the case in Leicester West, so we had
Hackney, and Brighton where there was a problem picked up by a
letter that went out from the leader of the Labour Party there
to say that they hadnot "proof", I forget the
word exactly, but that in some wards it was very close
Q306 Mr Sanders: I am interested about
this allegation that people came together and were in a room where
they all filled in their ballot papers, because that goes right
against the whole concept of our electoral system.
Mr Forse: Absolutely.
Mr Sanders: If you have that, it needs
to be on the recordif it happened.
Q307 Chairman: It is in the evidence
that we have.
Mr Forse: It is.
Q308 Mr Sanders: Do you have any concerns
about the scale of the pilots in June, particularly given the
slow progress of the European and Local Elections (Pilots) Bill?
Mr Croucher: Our feeling is that
the postal voting pilots in these regions, particularly for the
European nations, are unlikely to make the differences we have
seen in previous elections where postal voting has increased the
turnout. There is a general disenchantment amongst the voting
public plus an almost complete disinterest in the issue of the
European elections. Any turnout increase this time round will
be rather less than we have seen in the past from postal voting
Mr Thoms: Going back to your original
question about the additional two more regions and the Electoral
Commission's recommendations, it does question why the government
put the Electoral Commission to look at this in detail, analyse
it and then make clear recommendations on which regions are capable
and should be selected for electoral pilots, and then for the
government to go over and above that without any further analysis
that we are aware of. It does seem to question the process of
people bothering to go to the Electoral Commission in the first
Q309 Mr Sanders: General elections still
tend to have higher turnouts than local or European elections.
Does that suggest that the issues that are at stake, the importance
of the election and perhaps the quality of candidates or indeed
the campaigning that is undertaken by the parties, deters the
electorate rather than the voting system itself?
Mr Thoms: Research has shown that
people feel more motivated to vote in an election depending on
how powerfully they believe the legislature is going to affect
their lives, and the reality is, because the powers of the United
Kingdom Parliament are greater than any other devolved assembly
or government, that it will always have a higher turnout.
Q310 Mr Sanders: Surely, from the UKIP
point of view, in a European election the power is with Europe,
is it not, not with Westminster, so why do more people not turn
out in a European election?
Mr Croucher: Our feeling is that
broadly people see the European Parliament as an expensive talking
shop with limited powers. It is an assembly and not a parliament
in the sense of the Parliament of which you are members. Also
people do not see the relevance of the European Parliament to
their daily lives
Chairman: I understand those arguments.
I want to keep us on postal votes, if I can.
Q311 Chris Mole: The Metropolitan Police
say that concerns about security with postal voting are isolated.
Anecdotal evidence can be produced but do any of you have accumulative
statistical evidence of problems arising from security, administration,
postal glitches and so on?
Mr Croucher: I would argue that
is one of the problems with the postal voting system; that it
is very difficult for these concerns to be proved. There have
been in a number of constituencies and a number of elections issues
raised over the fraudulent use of postal voting, but where you
go to your local polling station you are likely to know or be
known by at least some of the people there, and the chances of
fraudulent use of a vote at a ballot box when you turn up in person
is much lower than with a postal vote, because, if you made a
decision in a postal election that you are not going to vote,
how do you know whether your vote has been cast or not? You have
no means of finding out. Purely anecdotally I suspect that in
areas that have a very low turnout anyway
Q312 Chris Mole: But you have no way
of proving that the ballot box gets to the election count?
Mr Croucher: That is not strictly
true. The ballot boxes are supervised by the police on the way
to the election count.
Q313 Chris Mole: So the police are okay
but the Post Office is not?
Mr Thoms: The ballot box is sealed,
as I am sure you are well aware, when it leaves the polling station
by the presiding officer, and then broken at the time of the count
so I do not think that should be an issue.
Mr Croucher: Indeed, and at the
polling station itself you might have anything up to nine or ten
people all of whom are fairly local to the polling division where
people are casting their ballots, so there are no opportunities
for identity fraud and anyone who is proposing to do that is taking
a fairly significant risk that somebody at the polling station
will know they are not who they claim to be.
Mr Thoms: It goes wider than that.
If you look at the review of elections, particularly in 1997-2001,
the police certainly in Scotland said at one point that no electoral
offences had been committed in total, never mind for postal voting,
and part of what came out of that process was that nobody understood
how to report electoral offences. There were lots of stories going
through all the parties about what had happened, but it was very
difficult to make a very clear case and know who to report it
to. A lot of people think the returning officers have the power
to investigate and do not understand the police do, and out of
that process for the 2003 elections in Scotland there was new
guidance given to the police on how to record it, and we were
then able to advise our activists, candidates and agents on how
to record it, and for the first time we had formal complaints
made over a number of issues to the police. Some of them are still
being investigated so we cannot even tell you what the outcome
Mr Forse: I had a case in my own
local election last year where, though it was not about postal
votes, we did question the validity of one of the candidates standing
but the cost of complaining was so expensive that we got frightened
off, and that would apply to postal votes as well.
Q314 Chris Mole: The Electoral Commission
has called for individual registration as a way of more clearly
identifying who the electors are. Do you think that is a necessary
precondition for a wider extension of all-postal elections?
Mr Thoms: I think it would be
very useful. In terms of the development of individuals taking
responsibility for their part in the democratic process, one of
your questions for the submissions was around voter participation
and, if postal voting is just about increasing turnout, then you
could take it further and say, "Why not have compulsory voting?"
Making people vote and encouraging them to vote is what is so
important, and I think it is more important for people to engage
with the democratic process because they want to and of their
own volition, and one of the ways is by individual registration.
Q315 Chris Mole: Can I ask then about
the proposals to modify the declaration of identity and do away
with witness attestation? EROs have told us that nobody ever checks
them so what is the point of having them?
Mr Thoms: None whatsoever.
Q316 Christine Russell: Do you have any
postal voting within your own party organisations, and have you
had problems there?
Mr Forse: We have postal voting
for certain positions on our National Executive.
Q317 Christine Russell: Any difficulties?
Mr Forse: To my mind, no, but
we are talking about only 4-5,000 voters as opposed to millions,
so I think the comparison is not valid.
Q318 Christine Russell: So the Post Office
has never let you down?
Mr Forse: I have not complained
about the Post Office. I have complained about the Post Office
on free postal units but that is a different issue. One of the
submissions does say, and I think it was Hackney, that the envelopes
need to state clearly that there is a ballot.
Q319 Christine Russell: I think there
is another question coming on that. What about the SNP and UKIP?
Mr Thoms: In internal elections
we use postal ballots for island communities and, again, we get
more postal votes returned by fax which is permissible under the
rules than to rely on returning it by the mail. If you live in
the Western Isles or up near Shetland and rely on Royal Mail to
get your vote anywhere!
Mr Croucher: Yes, similar to the
Greens we use postal voting for internal elections, and when we
had the change from people turning up and voting at party meetings
we did see a temporary increase in the turnout but that has now
dropped back, although we are a little larger than the Greens
but the numbers we are talking about are relatively small.