Along with many activists from all political parties, yesterday I was out on the doorsteps campaigning for votes with a special emphasis on targeting postal voters. For me that involved trips to Streatham and Haringey, both places where – as is common across London – postal ballot papers have been hitting people’s doormats on Friday and Saturday.
Many postal voters fill in their ballot papers promptly, so by this evening a noticeable chunk of the London electorate will have cast their votes. The same is true in many other parts of the country too, but I mention London in particular as something else happens tonight: Andrew Neil is hosting a Mayor election debate on the BBC.
Good on the BBC for televising such a debate, but scheduling it for after so many people will have already voted is an unfortunate choice of scheduling. The BBC is not alone in this for much of the schedule of election campaigns is still run in the basis that everyone votes on the Thursday polling day. Yet in fact more and more people are voting well in advance of that, before many of the TV and radio candidate debates, before all the party election broadcasts have been aired and so on.
This year is no exception, and in 2010 the election timetable even just allowed for postal votes to reach people before two of the three TV debates. But with the long-term increase in the number of people voting by post, it is an issue that is getting bigger year by year.
There are various ways of dealing with this, ranging from restricting postal voting to only those who really need to, to bringing forward some campaign events, to discouraging early return of ballot papers or even allowing people to post their ballot paper back on polling day itself (something done in other countries and which works well at providing a clear deadline for posting, as long as you are happy for the counts not to be concluded until after postal ballots have all come in).
Although none of the solutions are perfect, they do all have one thing in common: the idea that this is a problem which needs fixing is being comprehensively ignored.
Instead we are left in a world that is like trying to run an election by regulating hansom cabs and telegrams. They are of a long-gone age and elections needs to be run in a way that reflects the modern world. So too with postal votes: polling day is no longer polling day for increasing numbers of people and the way we run elections should react to that.