The Independent View: Is it time to rethink postal voting?

Allegations emerged recently of voters in Rochdale being asked to hand postal ballots for the local elections to party representatives to complete and submit to the Returning Officer. A decade ago, this might have made the national news, but now such stories are probably too familiar to make the headlines.

While electoral fraud is not rife in the UK, the scale of the problem is almost impossible to estimate. One thing is for sure – the Rochdale case does not represent an isolated local difficulty.  Based on joint reporting by the Electoral Commission and the Association of Chief Police Officers since 2008, we can expect anywhere between 50 and 150 separate cases to be reported to local police forces in 2011.  In 2010, a general election year, a total of 232 cases were reported to police in Great Britain and allegations of fraud made to four-fifths of the UK’s 52 police forces.

These figures suggest accusations of electoral fraud have become ‘normal’ – a tendency exemplified by Baroness Warsi’s recent suggestion that the outcome of the general election in at least three seats had been determined by fraud and that the Conservatives may have been denied a majority as a result.

While Baroness Warsi’s subsequently toned down her claims after being challenged to produce evidence, it is impossible to deny that fraud is present to some degree in UK elections.  More than 100 people have been found guilty of electoral malpractice in the UK since 1994. The vast majority of convictions have involved postal or proxy ballots, often in conjunction with attempts to manipulate the electoral registers by registering bogus electors or adding electors to the register at empty properties.

Almost all the convictions since 1994 relate to local elections.  However, following a lengthy police investigation and two re-trials, five men were eventually convicted in September 2010 for electoral fraud offences in the Bradford West constituency during the 2005 General Election. These are the first convictions relating to fraud in a UK general election for almost one hundred years.

The re-emergence of electoral fraud in the UK cannot be divorced from the recent ‘modernisation’ of the distinctly Victorian legal foundations for British elections – which had been introduced to eradicate genuinely widespread malpractice in the nineteenth century. Provisions for proxy voting were opened up in 1989, while postal ballots became available ‘on demand’ after 2000.  Both measures created obvious opportunities for malpractice, particularly since applications to appear on the electoral register are largely taken on trust.

When problems began to emerge, politicians and police played catch-up. The Electoral Administration Act of 2006 introduced a requirement for applicants for postal ballot to supply ‘personal identifiers’ (their date of birth and signature), as a basis for the subsequent verification of their postal voting statement submitted at the time of voting. There have also been substantial improvements in the guidance provided by the Electoral Commission to electoral administrators and police forces and in the recording and monitoring of fraud allegations reported to the police.

A clear decline in convictions since 2007 suggests these efforts to safeguard the system have been at least partially successful. Figures for convictions point to a very clear peak in 2004, when 22 people were found guilty, with half of all convictions for electoral malpractice during the 2000s relating to elections in the period from 2003-05.  Yet, wider evidence also hints at significantly more malpractice than is captured by the number of convictions. From 2008-10, around one-tenth of cases examined by police resulted in the police issuing either formal cautions or providing ‘informal advice short of a caution’.

Since 2004, the Electoral Commission  has consistently argued for the introduction of individual voter registration, in place in Northern Ireland since 2002,  whereby all electors are required to provide their date of birth, signature and national insurance number when registering to vote.

However, it was not until Labour’s Political Parties and Elections Act 2009 that provisions were made for a phased introduction of individual voter registration in Great Britain over a period of five years. The coalition’s Programme for Government has since made the commitment to “reduce electoral fraud by speeding up the implementation of individual voter registration”.

While reform of the registration system is to be welcomed, individual registration carries a genuine risk of depressing overall registration levels. And it will do little to guarantee the security of postal votes.

Although the Electoral Commission’s code of conduct specifies, in fairly strong terms, that party representatives should not to handle postal ballots, it is not illegal for them to do so. Indeed, the code of conduct renders the handling of postal ballots something of a grey area by suggesting that there are legitimate circumstances in which a voter may ask a party representative to collect and return their ballot paper.

It is important to note that the Commission does not make the law and that political parties have tended to resist any suggestion that handling postal ballots by party members should be defined a criminal offence.

Perhaps, then, it is time for all parties to re-visit the consensus they reached in 2000 that postal voting on demand was necessary to increase turnout. A decade on, there is no evidence at all to suggest that postal votes increase electoral participation, but plenty of evidence to suggest that they undermine public confidence in the electoral process.

Dr Stuart Wilks-Heeg is Director of Democratic Audit, and co-author (with Stephen Crone) of Funding Political Parties in Great Britain: A Pathway to Reform.

The Independent View‘ is a slot on Lib Dem Voice which allows those from beyond the party to contribute to debates we believe are of interest to LDV’s readers. Please email [email protected] if you are interested in contributing.

Read more by or more about , , or .
This entry was posted in Election law, Op-eds and The Independent View.


  • End postal voting on demand now.

    It devalues and demeans polling day.

    If people can’t be bothered to get off their backsides and walk to the polling station, then that’s their loss.

  • Bugger (the Panda) 4th May '11 - 12:15pm


  • Widespread postal voting also makes it very difficult for political parties to have sensible schedules for distribution of literature. Postal vote ballot papers arrive with voters about 10 days before Election Day so in the last 10 days some people will already have voted. The later literature is wasted on them. I came across many people recently for whom postal voting was simply a convenience and not a necessity.

    I would be in favour of restricting postal voting to just those who can show that they need it (as opposed would like it).

  • Richard Gadsden 4th May '11 - 12:51pm

    @Tabman, ideally, I’d like to end postal voting entirely.

    People who are physically unable to go to a polling station should be able to get in touch with their local authority and have a ballot box brought to them (ie two officials come out with a box and a ballot paper, and they can then cast a vote with the security of a secret ballot, perhaps a few days before polling day – this will help especially with residential and nursing homes; you could have a temporary polling station in the home for a couple of hours the day before the normal polling day).

    People who are away from home (for work, or on holiday) can inform their local authority and ballot papers would be sent to the nearest polling station to where they actually are, or to the UK consulate if they’re abroad. Alternatively, they could vote at a central polling station in advance before they left.

    Forces abroad would again be supplied with ballot papers for each soldier and they’d set up polling stations in each military location. Anyone who would actually go out into combat on polling day would vote in advance.

    That should cover the vast majority of those who use a postal vote for any reason other than not wanting to go to the polling station.

  • George Potter – “And what about those out of the area on polling day? Or the housebound and disabled? Or those whose working hours mean that they’ll be unable to attend the poll without missing work?”

    “On Demand” means for those who are lazy, unlike those who have valid reasons such as those above. Basically, a return to the old system before Labour gerrymandered messed with it.

  • Richard Gadsden 4th May '11 - 2:39pm

    @George W / Tabman

    Rather than postal votes, why not have a system where you notify the elections office of your council and they make an arrangement whereby you can vote in a proper polling booth.

    If you’re house-bound, then someone comes to visit you, sets up a temporary polling booth and you cast a vote – each council could have a small team doing visits Monday-Wednesday before polling day.

    If you’re in a residential or nursing home or in hospital, then the council could set up a polling station for an hour or two in each home in their area. Nursing homes were notorious for dodgy postal votes years before postal voting on demand – owners would supposedly collect all the postal votes and block vote for their preferred party (usually the Tories in the story that went round).

    If you’re out of the area but in the UK, then a ballot paper could be sent off to a polling station near where you are.

    If you’re abroad, then most countries that allow ex-pats to vote do so by making them attend the consulate or embassy – why not do that, and the same for people abroad on business or on holiday?

    For those working very long hours (and really: 7am-10pm is a long time; there aren’t many who leave that early and arrive back that late), there could be a polling station open in your council town hall 24 hours a day for a few days in advance so people can vote in person.

    For those in the services, there could be military polling stations in each barracks – home and abroad – and the returning officers would dispatch a pack of ballot papers to each barracks for the servicemembers to vote.

    A little bit of imagination can cover just about everyone without needing postal votes and without endangering the secrecy of the ballot.

  • Postal voting is not a secret ballot. So it’s a terrible idea.

    It should only be available to the disabled and in other very exceptional cases.

  • George Potter – All the people you mention can show that they NEED it as opposed would like it.

    We need a system where people who find that they cannot vote at short notice, such as businessmen who have to be out of the area, can go and vote in person a day or two before election day. It should be possible to devise a secure system that has the confidence of everyone.

  • Tony Greaves 4th May '11 - 5:37pm

    The point is indeed that the secrecy of the ballot cannot be enforced under the postal vote. It fatally undermines the foundation of the Victorians’ Ballot Act. The question was thoroughly discussed in Paarliament at the time and better understood than it is now. It is vital to maintain secrecy even if the voter wishes to show someone their ballot paper. Or perhaps particularly in that case.

    There are other means of catering for the vast majority of those people who cannot vote on polling day in their usual polling station.

    Electoral fraud is certainly rife in certain parts of Britain. For example, postal vote rigging is widespread in areas with large Asian communities. Personation is more prevalent in big cities.

    I am at the moment watching apparent attempts to rig two wards in the council elections (wards we are not contesting). I shall observe the Town Council counts in these wards with interest because they are multi-seat wards (4 and 5 seats) and the spread of the votes will be very revealing.

    Tony Greaves

  • John Fraser 4th May '11 - 11:22pm

    Full agree with this article and most of the comments .#

    lets getback to something akin to the old system where postal votes are the exception.

  • I’d support voting in person but being able to vote up to say – 1 month before the election. I had to use a postal vote this time being away with work, but I’d rather lose the anonymity than lose the vote altogether.

  • Andrew Wimble 6th May '11 - 8:49am

    The Secret ballot was introduced for a very good reason. If nobody can know how you voted nobody can secure your vote by payment or intimidation. The postal vote breaks this protection so should only be allowed in cases where it is not possible for the voter to physically attend a polling station, never as a matter of convenience,

Post a Comment

Lib Dem Voice welcomes comments from everyone but we ask you to be polite, to be on topic and to be who you say you are. You can read our comments policy in full here. Please respect it and all readers of the site.

To have your photo next to your comment please signup your email address with Gravatar.

Your email is never published. Required fields are marked *

Please complete the name of this site, Liberal Democrat ...?


Recent Comments

  • Tom
    Yue He - I echo what others have said. It would be a crying shame if someone thought that they couldn’t be involved in our party or our parliament because of ...
  • Cassie
    @Jenny, 'the government has spent...' Indeed. But that doesn't answer the question: 'what have repeated strikes achieved for rail workers?' Which so far is 'n...
  • Joe Bourke
    The Conservatives have already raised income taxes by freezing personal allowances and increasing corporation tax from 19% to 25%. Neither the Conservatives or ...
  • Tristan Ward
    The political reality is that in the vast majority of our target seats, even if all the voters of non- Conservative parties voted Lib Dem, we would not win. To...
  • Joe Bourke
    Peter Martin, debt in the form of money is created when a promissory note is accepted in the form of a loan or currency is issued (that is state spending as ...