Postal Voting (HC 400-ii)
ODPM Committee 16 Mar 2004
Evidence given by Richard Price QC OBE, Management Committee Member, H. S. Chapman Society, and Ken Ritchie, Chief Executive, The Electoral Reform Society; Metropolitan Special Police Branch Representatives; Ruth Scott, Campaigns Manager, SCOPE, and Mr Martin Fuller, Director Service Personnel Policy Service Conditions, and Colonel Don Kent, Deputy Chief Executive, British Forces Post Office, Ministry of Defence/Armed Forces; Mike Lloyd, Director of Government Services, Royal Mail Group plc, Simon Hearn, Head of Ballot Department, Electoral Reform Services, Keith Brown, Director of Business Development, De La Rue Security Products Division, De La Rue Security Products, and Jon Sanders, Managing Director, Document Technology Ltd.
Q147 Mr. David Clelland: At the moment people have a choice as to whether they vote by post or go down to the polling station. In an all-postal vote that choice has been taken away. Some people have argued that that choice is important, whereas, on the other side, there is the question of the costs of managing the different systems. How important do you think choice is?
Mr Ritchie: Certainly for us it is a factor. We know there are many, particularly members of the older generation, who do feel quite strongly about doing what they see is their duty: going to the polling station to cast their vote. Even people who would under existing regulations be allowed to apply for a postal vote still prefer to make the arrangements to be ferried by car or to be aided to get to the polling station to vote in person. Whether that is something we would put a great deal of weight on, I am not sure, because certainly when it moves to much younger people I do not think they see it in the same way. The other thing that needs to be considered, of course, is that where people do go to vote at the polling station, there is somebody there who can give advice and guidance on how to vote, which would not be the case if they were voting at home. Even if there is postal voting, we would like to see a facility whereby votes, instead of being posted, might be collected from the town hall or public library, a place where they could go where there would be an official present to whom, if they had questions to ask, they would be able to put these questions.
Q148 Mr. David Clelland: In the pilots we have had so far, that facility has been available, there have been collection points and people have used them. A number of people have actually voted on polling day itself at some of the collection points. You feel that would be sufficient in order to provide choice.
Mr Ritchie: I feel that would be the minimum that should be provided.
Q155 Mr. David Clelland: Do you think the secrecy of the ballot is compromised by all-postal elections?
Mr Price: Yes.
Q156 Mr. David Clelland: Are there any human rights issues involved?
Mr Ritchie: I believe there are. I mean, there have been references to whether this actually contravenes human rights. I am not certain we would regard it as going that far. I would look at it purely in terms of the consequences for the ballot. The danger of the secrecy ranges simply from the type of household where there might be a dominant member who is going to give a little bit more than just advice on how the members of the household should vote. I see that somebody has given written evidence referring to the differences in turnout by household in cases where there has been all-postal voting that suggest that perhaps it is an organised household effort. It may be that all members of the household had an equal interest in voting; it may be that there was a particular individual in the household who felt it was their job to make sure that people cast their votes and perhaps cast their votes in a particular way, but it goes to the other end of the scale, where if you can demonstrate to somebody how you are voting then your vote becomes almost a saleable commodity. There is no point in somebody bribing me on how to vote if I can then go into the privacy of a polling booth and double-cross them and take the money but cast my vote in the way that I would have wanted. But if somebody can actually see how I am using my vote, then that is something that makes bribery worthwhile. We have seen bribery, in Germany a couple of years ago in elections there. There is no reason to expect that it will not happen here.
Q157 Mr. David Clelland: Was that in postal voting in Germany, in the example you have given?
Mr Ritchie: I am not aware, but I do not think it was in a situation in which the person who was doing the bribing could guarantee or the person voting could guarantee that the votes were going to be cast according to contract. If they could guarantee that they were going to be cast according to contract, then I would have thought that the value of the vote was going to go up somewhat. I think in local elections you sometimes do not need to increase your vote by a huge number to be fairly sure of success, and if you are successful there are financial rewards of success that run into thousands of pounds and you can see that the temptation there could become quite great.
Q158 Mr. David Clelland: You mentioned about having a strong person in the household convincing everybody else how to vote. What is your view on compulsory voting? Should everyone be compelled to vote?
Mr Ritchie: This is an issue that our society is debating at the moment. Generally the position that we have taken in the past is that, if people do not go out to vote, we need to think why it is that they do not go out to vote. It is not that voting has become more difficult; it is that for some reason people do not think that their vote is likely to influence the outcome of the election, or, if there is going to be a different outcome from the election, that the outcome will have a great impact upon their lives. You will not of course be surprised to know that our society will say that you need many things, including a change in the voting system. But even if that is not on the agenda, we think there are other things that ought to be done so that people feel that they want to vote rather than taking the step of making voting compulsory. Having said that, it is a debate which we are now having, it is an issue that we are now considering, but we still recognise that it is not a black and white issues, that there are many who would say that there are democratic arguments for saying that voting should be a right but not a duty. There are also democratic arguments for saying that everybody must have the responsibility to vote.
Q177 Mr. David 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. David 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. David 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.
Q180 Mr. David Clelland: You paint a very confused picture there but what was situation for the preponderance of returns? Was confusion the norm?
Mr Price: There were dozens and dozens of differently formulated papers that came back. There was no consistent pattern. It would seem to those of us who were there that that particular design needed looking at whatever happened because it just did cause confusion.
Q181 Mr. David Clelland: Who should pay the extra costs which are implied? The taxpayer or government?
Mr Ritchie: We do not have a view.
Mr Price: I think that is a matter for the politicians.
Q195 Mr. David Clelland: Would it be useful to have that information - who has returned their postal vote - as the election is progressing? Would it be more useful to have it at that stage than waiting until after the election was all over?
Representative B: Yes, that would be useful, sir, but the problem is that the recent postal vote offences that we have investigated tend to be mostly in the Asian communities, where the head of the household has persuaded the rest of the family to apply for postal votes and therefore vote for a particular candidate. The family structure is very patriarchal anyway and therefore it is very difficult, and even if we had a register it probably would not make any difference to that.
Q219 Mr. David Clelland: The City of Newcastle, of which my constituency is a small and significant part, held an all-postal pilot and they had to reject 6,000 returned ballot papers because people had not filled in the forms correctly. They were 6,000 people who clearly wanted to vote, but who were disenfranchised, so how can that be avoided?
Ms Scott: I think we are concerned that the security measures, such as the declaration of identity and a witness statement, are balanced with ease of use and convenience of postal votes for voting. Obviously postal votes are supposed to make voting more easy and more convenient, but if large numbers of people are actually spoiling their ballot paper or filling it in incorrectly, then that is an issue that we do need to address. We actually support the Electoral Commission and the DCA in asking that the requirement to have your ballot witnessed is actually removed.
Q220 Mr. David Clelland: This is the proposed security system?
Ms Scott: That is right, yes, because we feel that it adds an unnecessary additional layer of complexity to the voting process and does not add significantly to the security of the ballot. It is particularly problematic for disabled people and people who live alone or who are isolated. We have had a number of people responding to our surveys who said that they just could not find anybody who could verify who they were, which is not a reason why somebody should not be able to vote. We also think that making the system any more complicated than it already is when this matter as it stands is already very complicated for a number of disabled people, adding to that does not help. In fact actually providing a witness, having to have a real ballot witnessed does actually mean that many disabled people are going to have to show their ballot paper to somebody else which I think brings it then into some of the issues around coercion which we are also very concerned about in terms of postal voting.
Q221 Mr. David Clelland: Do you think the instructions given to postal electors are clear enough?
Ms Scott: No, in a nutshell.
Q222 Mr. David Clelland: How could that be improved then?
Ms Scott: Through plain English, through making sure that the instructions are as short, concise and clear as possible. We would also like to see the inclusion of pictograms used to help people who have low literacy understand the process. We saw some good examples of this in the pilots over the last couple of years, as well as some examples which used words which were not very helpful.
Q242 Mr. David Clelland: Acknowledging at the moment the problem of timing, which I will come to in a second, can we just talk about the sheer scale of the all-postal voting in June this year, and do you envisage any problems with the scale of the voting system?
Mr Sanders: Yes, I think it is over the top and we have no experience of handling such a large-scale postal vote.
Mr Brown: I would just say that given the timeframe with which the documents have to be produced, it will be a major challenge, particularly for the print and finishing capacity.
Mr Hearn: Adding to that, I think the format that the election takes, the exact design and format of the ballot papers and envelopes determines a great deal of the capacity of the industry, so a simple format is probably achievable and more complex is almost certainly not achievable.
Mr Lloyd: Whilst I acknowledge that there could be issues around printing, in particular, and capacity, I think as far as the four regions are concerned, we have been working very closely with them in terms of the actual volume of mail we feel confident we can actually deal with.
Q243 Mr. David Clelland: So turning to the question of timing, you have all raised, or at least two of you did, this whole problem of the question of timing, that we do not know as yet exactly what the legislation is likely to look like, but do you all still intend to bid for contracts at this stage?
Mr Brown: In our written evidence, we put forward the view that time is already tight. We took the view subsequent to that, early in March, that we have withdrawn from this year's pilots on the basis both of potential lack of print capacity, but also in terms of procurement lead times for key pieces of equipment, so until the legislative framework is fully complete, we cannot finally specify, and some of that specialist equipment has ten to 12-week lead times, so for anybody who needs to acquire equipment, it is probably now already too late, in our view.
Q244 Mr. David Clelland: The same?
Mr Sanders: Yes.
Mr Hearn: Certainly we are looking at the contracts very hard to see whether we can deliver on them, and concerns on timescales and decisions on formats are things that are putting us in doubt as to whether we would go forward.
Q245 Mr. David Clelland: So are you all saying that the last possible date has already passed or is there some flexibility there?
Mr Sanders: The jury is out.
Q261 Mr. David Clelland: Would it help if the returning officer was to publish a list of those people periodically during an election who had voted?
Mr Lloyd: Obviously that is not a decision for Royal Mail to take.
Q262 Mr. David Clelland: Would it help in the verification so that people could see if their vote had not arrived?
Mr Lloyd: Yes.
Q271 Mr. David Clelland: When you have produced the electoral material, presumably it is true that you have to accept responsibility for storing it and securing it until it is time for it to be delivered. Can you tell us a bit about the systems for security and are you happy with that responsibility?
Mr Brown: From a De La Rue point of view, we make plans for this as well, so yes, and frankly, from a security point of view, I would prefer not to go into our specific systems for that.
Q272 Mr. David Clelland: Yes, I appreciate that, but the system in terms of your having this responsibility is something you are happy to live with?
Mr Brown: Yes.
Mr Hearn: Yes, absolutely. Regrettably, we do not make bank notes, but security probably in our premises is as high as it would be in all local authority premises that are storing the ballot papers for traditional elections, if not more so. We certainly have CCTV, locked cages, sign-in entry, identification, all the sort of processes you would expect in a professional organisation.
Q273 Mr. David Clelland: The submission from Document Technology referred to, "2003: two councils returned a large number of unsigned declarations of identity, but retained the ballot papers pending return of the signed declaration". If that is an unacceptable practice, which I assume Document Technology believes it is, what should be done to try and overcome that problem?
Mr Sanders: I think the reason for my comment is more that if you are going to send back a declaration for signature, you really should be sending back the ballot papers as well because the declaration says, "I received these ballot papers". If you are going to hang on to the ballot papers, as is the proposal this year, then you cannot actually truthfully say, "I received these ballot papers", unless there is a letter generated which says, "We have sent these ballot papers. Please confirm you have actually received them and you have voted on them". The actual administrative cost of doing an extra letter is far greater than sending the whole pack back and saying, "Please complete the declaration and send the ballot papers back to us".
Q274 Mr. David Clelland: Is there anything in the design of the material which might facilitate it and overcome this problem?
Mr Sanders: The potential material we have designed would actually facilitate that very easily, yes.
This is an uncorrected transcript of evidence taken in public and reported to the House. The transcript has been placed on the internet on the authority of the Committee. Neither witnesses nor Members have had the opportunity to correct the record. The transcript is not yet an approved formal record of these proceedings.
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