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By Mark Smulian ...
By Mark Smulian

The effectiveness of the government's massive experiment in postal voting hung in the balance today, as polls closed in the local and European elections.

Problems with late or wrongly delivered ballot packs continued this week, though returning officers said the majority had reached voters without incident.

Their daily reports in the postal pilot regions - the north-west, east midlands and Yorkshire and the Humber - suggested it was uncertain whether the government's objective of significantly increased turnout would be met.

Voting took place for the London mayor and assembly, whole council elections on new boundaries in the 36 metropolitan authorities and whole council elections in Wales. There were also polls in 108 other English councils.

The worst postal voting problems were in Bolton MBC, where deputy returning officer Peter Wilson was forced to erect conventional polling stations after 3,000 ballot packs went missing, mostly in the Rumsfield ward. Turnout across Bolton was around 30% by Tuesday, slightly below the rate achieved in its postal pilot last year.

In neighbouring Wigan MBC, Royal Mail failed to deliver 1,000 ballots, a spokesperson said. Turnout by Tuesday was 27%, compared with 22% last year.

Kingston upon Hull City Council suffered a mix-up in ballot papers between two wards owing to a 'misfeed at the printers', said elections officer Sandra Holder.

By Tuesday, 22,000 papers had been returned giving a low turnout 'nowhere near normal', she said.

In Oldham MBC, where all ballot papers had to be reprinted and hand delivered (LGC, 4 June), turnout had reached 27%, against almost 38% last year.

In the north-east, regional returning officer Ged Fitzgerald said: 'There are inevitable problems of logistics when you consider the size of the operation, but I'm not aware of any issues with print or delivery.'

Sunderland City Council, where he is chief executive, had a 34.6% turnout by Tuesday, compared with 47.5% achieved in its postal pilot last year. 'I think we might not top that,' he admitted.

Across the north-east, turnout was running at 30%, against 19.5% in the 1999 European elections.

Recriminations over the postal vote problems continued, with affected councils blaming printers or Royal Mail, who in turn have blamed the government. De La Rue, the largest security printer, warned in March that the deadlines were too tight.

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