Our broken electoral timetable – or why Andrew Neil is too late

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.

* Mark Pack is Party President and is the editor of Liberal Democrat Newswire.

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This entry was posted in Election law and Op-eds.


  • Tony Greaves 22nd Apr '12 - 1:53pm

    A better solution would be to abolish postal voting which is wide open to corruption and seriously undermines the fundamental principle behind the Ballot Act of c 130 years ago -the secrecy of the ballot.

    Tony Greaves

  • Sadie Smith 22nd Apr '12 - 2:48pm

    Tony has the right starting point.
    Election turnout is falsified if some voters cast or influence multiple votes.

  • Jayne Mansfield 23rd Apr '12 - 9:40am

    Postal voting is too open to abuse and therefore should be abolished.
    It is a blot on our democracy.

  • James Clarke 23rd Apr '12 - 12:23pm

    The reason we had very few declarations of result before 4-5am on the General election night was that people can and do hand in their postal votes at the Polling station right up to the close of poll. If postal voting is to continue the deadline for these to be posted should be at least 2 days before the poll otherwise we aren’t going to see the results until days after the election.

  • I’m not sure that holding onto your postal vote to wash Andrew Neil’s utterly appalling chairing of the Mayoral debate would have helped much.

    Postal votes had landed with most people I knocked up in Sutton over the weekend on the Saturday although mine hadn’t arrived.

  • As the current postal voting system (introduced by New Labour) is only fit for a banana republic, it needs urgently to be replaced:

    1. Postal voting should only be available if it is be unreasonable to expect a voter to go to a polling station on polling day as a result of employment, disability (including ill-health) or education restrictions. (Ie. the system that is used in N.Ireland)
    2. Voting in advance available at council offices for those going away.

    I suggest in terms of importance this trumps reform of the Lords.

    As for the delay in announcing the results, I see no problem in fact if there wasn’t a delay many media people would be out of a job.

  • There is another tried and tested method used in many countries. It’s the moving ballot box. Under that system the returning officer’s staff take ballots to those unable to vote in person – with representatives of candidates if they wish – and people vote under the supervision of the electoral staff the same as in the polling station.

    This would put an end to postal vote factories or people being coerced into voting for someone, because only the voter is allowed to handle the ballot paper and put their mark on it with no-one else present except a presiding officer.

  • I remember years ago hearing Michael Meadowcroft speak on going to somewhere (Azerbejan ?) to supervise elections, and the electoral staff going round the hospitals and old people’s homes with the ballot box so that they could vote in person – and with an independent person watching, not a relative or matron infulencing them.
    Bit extreme maybe, but an idea.

  • Stephen Gould 24th Apr '12 - 10:20pm

    You can’t abolish postal voting entirely. What about the sick and the disabled? Businessmen? Military staff not in camp? People who work in one area but live in another?

    Let’s not be stupid, postal voting is an important and essential part of democracy. The solutions are simple: analyse the number applied for and follow up any that don’t come under the above criteria. And, I don’t know, check up on areas like Tower Hamlets which seem claim more than the rest of the country put together!!

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