Thursday, May 30, 2019

#DeniedMyVote - Postal votes

In a further post I'll be looking at the problems EU citizens residing in the UK had with voting in the European elections last week but for now a quick look at the other reported element, postal ballot papers arriving too late to be returned in time.

Postal voting has been around for a while but has steadily grown over the years, particularly after 2001 when postal voting on demand was introduced. (Previously it was only available to those with good reason for being unable to get to their designated local polling station, such as employment, education, ill health, holidays or living on an island without its own polling station.) Note that provision is more restricted in Northern Ireland. It is very unlikely that the on demand provision will be curtailed again, not least because many political activists spend general election polling days outside their own home area and postal voting allows them to still vote with ease.

At the same as postal voting has increased, postal services have continued to decline. Long gone are the days when a person could receive a letter at the breakfast table inviting them to afternoon tea somewhere in town and have the time to compose and send a reply that would be received by the host in time to prepare. Collections and deliveries are less frequent, such that it now takes longer to send something out and get a reply back in time.

Elections are run on a surprisingly tight timetable, with just four weeks between the close of nominations and polling day, with a further requirement that all votes must be with the local Returning Officer's team by the close of polling. There is limited time in which to get the ballot papers printed and sent off.

Postal votes are normally dispatched around eleven working days before polling day, which is generally enough time domestically although it would help if election services across the country aimed for better consistency of expectations. There have been many cases of people asking for one due to a holiday but it doesn't arrive before they go away despite their social media being full of others casting their postal votes.

However international postal services are another matter and the situation is not helped by election services that use consolidation services to send a whole bundle to a remailer to send on at cheaper local rates. There are countries that no longer have universal daily collections and deliveries (if they ever did), and indeed many such countries only require their own postal votes to be sent & post marked by the close of polling, not received. Reply envelopes may not have the quickest postage option on them. As a result many people have reported receiving their postal vote packs far too late to be able to return them in time to be counted and some have even reported receiving their votes after the declaration of results.

The short amount of time from confirmation the European elections were taking place to polling meant that many were caught unprepared (and as very few local government ballot papers are sent overseas there weren't off the shelf contracts in place for the council elections that could be adapted) and the length of the ballot paper would have added to delay because of the limited number of printers that can handle it, but reports of overseas postal votes arriving too late have come up in other elections and referendums that have had rather more time to prepare. However they haven't received so much attention but this is not something can be easily ignored or dismissed as a one-off problem.

It is possible that the UK's postal services will be further curtailed in years to come, placing greater pressure on the tight election timetable if postal votes can't be sent out and returned in good time. Various solutions exist, ranging from internet voting to a longer period between nominations and polling to allowing postal votes to arrive after polling day at the cost of instant overnight final results, but all bring their own drawbacks and would provoke resistance.

The overseas votes are already facing this problem and again some solution could be found, but it's hard to see the timetable being extended or more radical solutions such as internet voting being introduced purely for them. Some countries have overseas voting at embassies, but they often don't have the requirement for all ballot papers to be in with the local Returning Officer by the close of poll. Perhaps embassies could be given the task of printing and dispatching ballot papers locally as a means to cut down on the transit time (and maybe even receiving them, though I don't know how workable a solution that is).

Longer term a number of problems with overseas voting may be better solved by introducing dedicated ex pat constituencies (as already happen in other countries) that could have their own timetables and arrangements rather than being at the mercy of the domestic timetable.

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