Tony Greaves writes… Abolish postal voting on demand

I want to abolish postal voting on demand, which was introduced in 2000 with the best of intentions. It has proved to be wide open to electoral fraud, corruption and fiddling, and is a thoroughly bad thing.

Ministers have talked about the “convenience” of voting. This is the word the Government used in the Electoral Administration Bill in 2006, when I was ploughing the same furrow. They talked about convenience and increasing turnout. Unfortunately there are unintended consequences, many of which are unavoidable.

The Electoral Commission report in August 2004, following the last European election – Delivering Democracy? The Future of Postal Voting – includes a table entitled ‘People’s priorities for voting arrangements’.

In answer to the question, “Thinking generally about elections, which one of the following would you say is most important to you when you vote?” the result was as follows:

  • “My vote being private”, 33%;
  • “My vote being safe from fraud or abuse”, 30%;
  • “Voting being convenient”, 20%;
  • “Voting being easy to use”, 15%.
  • In the over-55 age group, the proportion that thought that voting being either convenient or easy to use was important was down to a combined figure of 24%.

    I guess that a similar survey would now be more biased towards voting being private and not open to fraud, as a result of the press publicity about the scandals that have occurred—notably the case in Birmingham, various cases in East Lancashire and
    the recent case in Slough from the 2007 local elections.

    In Slough, a Tory Councillor was jailed for 3½ years for registering ghost electors and then sending in applications for postal votes for them, which were then used. The prosecuting counsel Charles Miskin told the court on Friday the action of the
    convicted vote-riggers was like a virus that needed to be eradicated.

    He was quoted by the Daily Mail as saying:

    This week the newspapers are full of what has been called the swine fever pandemic, but there has been another epidemic that has been working its way across the United Kingdom in recent years. Not of course a threat to life and limb but one that attacks, affects, and corrodes the roots of our democracy.”

    The 1872 Ballot Act was passed to abolish the fraud and bribery before then when votes were open and people knew how they were cast. If you don’t know how someone has voted, all the bribery or intimidation in the world will not work because
    people can say, “Yes, we have done what you told us to do”. In the privacy of the polling booths, people can do what they want. Postal votes destroy this vital safeguard.

    Last year’s Rowntree Reform Trust report The Purity of Elections quoted Salma Yaqoob, a Respect councillor in Birmingham, talking about votes being stolen from
    women in Asian families:

    Postal votes are filled out in the ‘privacy’ of one’s own home. But it is not private when family members, candidates or supporters, can influence subtly or otherwise, the way you complete your vote. A secret ballot means that loyalties to families and friends can be maintained in public, but political arguments can still win out in the real privacy of the voting booth.”

    Those are exactly the same arguments that Mr Gladstone made in 1872 in relation to bribery.

    It’s time to abolish postal voting on demand.

    * Lord (Tony) Greaves is the Lib Dems’ Spokesperson for Communities and Local Government in the House of Lords. This is an edited version of part of what he said in the Lords Grand Committee on the Political Parties and Elections Bill (13 May 2009.

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    25 Comments

    • Toby D'Olier 19th May '09 - 11:43am

      Lord Greaves, I would like to know what you would propose for someone in my situation where I work in London and am still in the process of selling my flat in Bristol (where I have lived for the last 10 years). I wish to vote in Bristol as I do not yet have a permanent residence in London.
      If it were not for the current postal registration system I would be unable to vote, shy of actually skipping work to travel to Bristol, something I’m sure no government would approve of.
      I value the ability to vote at all, well above anything else.
      In a time where people are incredibly disenfranchised with the political system surely making the system any harder to engage in will have only a negative effect?

    • We could go back to the old system where people got a postal vote not on demand but for good reason (and Toby, your situation would be covered by this.) But the other thing that would need to be tightened is the proxy voting system.

    • I agree with Lord Greaves entirely – the premise of a secret, individual ballot is compromised the moment that votes are cast in private spaces unregulated by electoral officials. Anyone voting under duress at a polling station can lie about the way they voted, with some confidence that no one can trace what they actually did. But postal voting provides no such assurance, and as such it should be used where it is necessary, not just where someone prefers it.

      Whether or not that would include Mr D’Olier’s situation I don’t know – I guess we need to strengthen our local authority electoral staff so that the guidelines are absolutely clear. I understand his concerns about being disenfranchised, but I suspect that the postal system has created too much disenfranchisement already.

    • Tony did say “Postal voting on demand” which I think means a return to the old (pre about 2001) system where you had to give a reason for wanting a postal vote – such as ill-health or work commitments.

      Under the old system you would have qualified for one then.

      My preferred option is to allow early voting where people can vote over an extended period. It was common in the US in the Presidential election for example.

    • (sorry for the spelling mistakes)

      What needs to change now is voter registration – this is where all the fraud starts. Postal vote fraud is a simptom of the lax system of registration. Best deal with the cause not the symptom.

    • Andrew Duffield 19th May '09 - 12:30pm

      Sunday voting NOW!

    • Tony Greaves 19th May '09 - 4:41pm

      Hywel wrote: My preferred option is to allow early voting where people can vote over an extended period. It was common in the US in the Presidential election for example.

      I agree. The US elections were a revelation. I would abolish all postal voting other than for illness and infirmity. What I think we should do is work out a practical policy on advance voting. But it would mean extending the timetable for (Westminster) parliamentary elections (something that is needed anyway) and last week I was trying to keep it as simple as possible.

      I think proxy voting should be abolished for people in this country (again the old rules).

      Modern IT systems ought to allow for a system where people can vote in advance wherever they are in the country by simply specifying one of the advance voting points.

      Tony Greaves

    • Tony Greaves 19th May '09 - 4:43pm

      I should have added that I am A spokesperson on CLG – the lead is Sally Hamwee.

      Tony Greaves

    • Postal voting for illness and infirmity could in most cases be replaced by bringing the ballot bozxes to the ill and infirm.

      Why can’t the old people’s homes, nursing homes, hospices and hospitals each be visited by electoral staff and run a polling station on the premises for the people resident there?

      For others, couldn’t there be a mobile ballot box that visited people in their homes pre-election.

    • Martin Land 19th May '09 - 9:57pm

      And I want to abolish the House of Lords, but we can’t all have what we want can we, Tony?

    • “I think proxy voting should be abolished for people in this country (again the old rules).”

      Eh? Proxy voting was definately allowed under the old rules – though very restricted. I recall voting twice for David Chidgey in 1994 🙂

      I would rather see it virtually abolished – probably only allowed for those people for whom early voting (or voting in a different place) was not an option (on duty armed forces, scientists working at the South Pole etc)

    • David Boycott 19th May '09 - 11:25pm

      You are quite right to wish to abolish postal voting on demand. You are generous to suggest it was introduced in 2000 “with the best of intentions.”

      It has certainly been retained by this government – in the face of evidence of its widespread abuse – for party political advantage. Its continued existence is disgraceful and an affront to democracy.

    • Replacing postal voting (except for the ill or infirm) with advance voting sounds like a pretty good winning policy line to me. Simply opposing postal voting runs up against the opposition of those who like convenience and those who want a big turnout. Advocating advance voting in its place should largely get rid of the opposing voices.

      How about a survey to find out (anonymously of course) just how many people’s postal votes get “stolen” by their families, whether female, Asian, or anyone else? I suspect there may also be quite a lot of white twenty-year-olds whose votes get conscripted by Mum and Dad (along the lines of “since you aren’t bothered about voting, let us do it for you”). How would it look if we were able to demonstrate that, in (say) the 100 most marginal seats, the majority was lower than the stolen vote?

    • I agree with Andrew Duffield.

      Weekend voting now! In other countries where turnouts are a lot higher, they hold them on at least one day at the weekend, if not two. How about a Friday into Saturday morning election, so we can get votes counted by the evening and you capture both the ‘at home after work’ and ‘going away for the weekend voters’. This reform seems totally obvious, so why is no-one shouting about it?

    • Tony Greaves 20th May '09 - 11:36am

      Martin Land writes: And I want to abolish the House of Lords, but we can’t all have what we want can we, Tony?

      What a strange posting. The purpose of political activity is to campaign for what we want.

      Tony Greaves

    • Mark Pack: Sorry, could you point me to that research, because it seems to run directly counter to what common sense would suggest? It seems obvious that if you hold an election during the working week, then people will find it difficult to get to the polling booth. Why would it not be so? And where have we in the UK actually tried weekend voting? It’s worth a shot.

    • Malcolm Todd 20th May '09 - 2:38pm

      I’d like to add my support for Tony’s argument. I was appalled when on-demand postal voting was brought in. I don’t think party advantage is the important issue – it would be very hard to prove that any one party had an advantage from this sort of fraud overall. But all parties are influenced in their policy and approach by the demands and interests of the people whose votes they are competing for. (The Tories would never support the NHS or comprehensive state education if the working class still had no vote, for example.) It’s the most vulnerable people – especially women, young people, elderly people, and the least powerful members of hierarchical/traditional communities – who effectively lose their voice and become mere ammunition in other people’s block votes.

    • Peter Chapman 21st May '09 - 4:52pm

      If I remember the trial for weekend voting took place on the weekend after evryone else in the country had voted and there had been all the media coverage of results

      No doubt this dampened enthusiasm and urgency and cretaed an ‘after the party’s over feel’

    • Terry Gilbert 21st May '09 - 5:10pm

      Toby should get his vote because he’s working away from home, and can state this on his application for a postal vote. But for the rest of us who don’t have a good reason not to toddle off the local polling station for 15 mins, there is no excuse. I save 15 mins by using PVOD, but would still vote without it. If you can’t be bothered or forget, then my vote will be more important than yours – simple as that.

      (Unless you are campaigning of course – I wonder if anyone ever got a postal vote on that basis – i.e. ‘working away’ in a target seat, either as a party employee? Or as a volunteer?!)

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