Monday, September 20, 2010

Rethinking postal voting

There was a good piece recently over on ConservativeHome by Tim Archer on Why we need electoral reform – and it's got nothing to do with AV. It covers three areas - registration, postal voting and the ease of fraud at polling stations - and there are good suggestions in both the piece and the comments afterwards. I'll address each one in turn, today starting with postal voting.

Tower Hamlets issued 24,898 postal ballots, that's 25% of all the votes cast. Why? For a few, a postal vote makes the difference between being able to cast your vote and not. But a postal vote can also facilitate fraud and intimidation. It's hard to intimidate someone in a secret ballot where you can't follow them into the polling booth. It's much easier though to turn up mob handed at someone's door the day their postal vote has arrived and 'help' them fill it in. Postal votes go missing in the post, take longer to count, are more expensive and increasingly, because of their complexity to complete, disenfranchise the very people who want to cast their vote in the first place. My experience in Tower Hamlets has led me to conclude that we need to revert to the pre-2000 system of needing a reason to have a postal vote, something that Northern Ireland has already re-adopted.
When I first applied or a postal vote I had to jump through quite a few hoops, made harder by the fact I was a student away at university and not contactable by phone (yes there was a time when not everyone had mobiles). Nowadays I am permanently registered for a postal vote and it's a simple process of ticking a box on the annual registration form. I find it convenient, especially as it means I don't have to make sure I'm around my home between 07:00 & 22:00 on polling day (and there are often days when work and/or research trips and/or evening functions mean I'm not).

But it's a system that's easily open to fraud. I used to have to get someone else to "witness" my declaration statement when sending back my postal vote; I no longer have to do that. All that is required is my signature. It's also worrying just how many postal votes can go astray, especially in places with communal letterboxes. Then there's the intimidation mentioned above.

Something needs to be done to tighten up the system but it also needs to be compatible with modern lifestyles. A lot of members of the public find voting on Election Day inconvenient, especially given the awkward location of some polling stations, whilst it's also more common these days to find oneself away at short notice. The old system of having to have one of a strictly limited set of reasons and make various calls and postal applications was incredibly inefficient and I'm not convinced that simply switching back to it will improve matters.

But what about a system of "early voting", as practised in other countries? There they set up advanced polling stations in central locations - town halls and the like - covering multiple polling districts and over the course of a couple of weeks voters are able to visit at their leisure and cast their vote. It requires the same level of checks as at polling station on Election Day itself and also when done right can cost a lot less than huge numbers of postal votes. It also makes it easier to ensure both that the early voter gets their ballot paper and that it makes it back in time.

And it's an idea that has precedent in this country. In past centuries elections were not carried out on a single day. Instead the polling station would open for days on end and voters would turn up over a longer period - especially helpful in an era when travel was more limited.

The other system used abroad that has possibilities is allowing votes to be cast at any of a number of polling stations. In most of these jurisdictions voters are assigned an individual polling station but those who are elsewhere in the constituency/city/state/country on polling day can go to any polling station and have ballot papers for their own constituency printed & stamped on demand; these votes are then placed in an envelope, sealed & signed, then transported to the count in the original constituency where they are verified against the election register to confirm the voter has not voted more than once, then added to the count.

(One side-effect of this is that votes can take some time after the close of polling to arrive, and so the final declaration takes longer. It's this system, plus a requirement that postal votes only be sent, not received, by polling day that means the election count in countries like Australia seemingly go on for weeks. But is it really essential to have a final result declared within five hours of polling closing?!)

Both of these would be a very useful alternative to postal voting on demand and would make it easy to limit the latter to just the cases where voters are out of the area for a protracted period - people on holiday, students away at university and so forth. They deserve serious consideration as means not only fight fraud in the system but also to making voting more accessible.

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