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June's elections are a massive test of all-postal voting. Mark Smulian asks how the system - and the Royal Mail - w...
June's elections are a massive test of all-postal voting. Mark Smulian asks how the system - and the Royal Mail - will cope

Why keep a dog and bark yourself? Opposition parties are posing this question over the government's decision to reject the advice of the independent Electoral Commission and impose all-postal ballots in four regions for 10 June's multiple elections.

These are a massive administrative operation for councils, especially as all-postal voting has never been tried on this scale.

Election officials face votes for the European Parliament, all-out elections in metropolitan councils - most on new boundaries - voting for the London mayor and assembly, for all councils in Wales, for many shire districts and unitary councils, plus the odd local by-election.

It is the largest exercise outside a general election, and until almost the last minute returning officers in the north-west and Yorkshire and the Humber did not know if they would have to contend with all-postal ballots.

The commission said that only the east Midlands and north-east met the government's criteria for all-postal voting, while the other two regions and Scotland only did so 'potentially'. Commission officials were somewhat startled when ministers then went for four pilots, and the government eventually had to face down a long campaign for two pilots waged by opposition peers.

Now the dust has settled, returning officers are quietly confident that despite huge logistical problems councils will deliver a smooth voting process in June.

Across the south and in Wales and Scotland, elections will be conducted normally. But in the north-east, east Midlands, the north-west and Yorkshire and the Humber, there will, amid the usual bills, birthday cards and bank statements, be 35 million extra letters generated by the postal voting exercise, according to the Royal Mail.

The decision on the latter two regions came only just before parliament's Easter recess, when Tory and Liberal Democrat peers finally backed d own.

They cited concerns about security and practical issues, but fear that Labour will benefit most from residents of its northern heartlands being offered the chance to vote by post.

Security of voting was a factor in the commission's concern about the government's decision to have four regions vote by post.

In a letter to constitutional affairs minister Chris Leslie, commission chair Sam Younger referred to his concerns that tougher measures to prevent impropriety were needed before postal voting should be extended.

He said: 'In our view pilots that cover over a third of the English electorate in June go further than we think necessary, especially in the absence of the underlying legislative change we consider necessary.'

Mr Leslie dismissed opposition claims that having four pilots was a plot to benefit Labour, and said the government wanted more pilots and so had simply taken the next two regions judged potentially suitable, Scotland having been ruled out due to returning officers' concerns over practicalities.

The Liberal Democrats chief executive Lord Rennard said he was prepared to accept two pilots and claimed the government had gone for four 'because Labour councillors are very fearful of low turnout in northern cities'.

Jonathan Evans, leader of the Conservatives in the European Parliament, said: 'The government has chosen four regions where it judges an all-postal ballot will be most likely to benefit the Labour Party, not the electorate.'

Returning officers warned a parliamentary select committee in March that the delay in the decision on postal votes meant problems loomed with the procurement of paper, envelopes and print capacity in good time.

They operated on the assumption that all four regions would vote by post, since it was easier to do this and then revert to traditional practice if necessary, rather than to attempt the reverse.

East Midlands regional returning officer Roger Morris, former chief executive of Northampton BC, says his region alone might require 10 million envelopes to send out and return all ballots in proper secrecy, with secure printing and bar coding.

Each voter needs both outgoing and return envelopes, plus separate ones in which to place the ballot papers.

Mr Morris has appointed contractor Opt2Vote to handle arrangements, except for Chesterfield BC, which has its own supplier from an earlier pilot.

He says: 'We have been assured that the contractor has capacity. There are a very large number of envelopes, paper and print needed.

'It was all decided so late in the day that it is a seller's market now for production of materials.'

The north-west has taken a different approach, says deputy regional returning officer, Andrew Scallan, with councils banding together by counties to procure supplies.

'If you run elections you have to be prepared to do so at very short notice as a general election can be called at any time, so there is capacity to do it,' he says.

'But the decision on whether we would be postal went close to the wire.'

Mr Scallan said that special measures against fraud were in place following talks with the police.

It will no longer be possible for a party worker, or anyone else, to simply demand several copies of the form which authorises someone's ballot paper to be sent to a different address. 'There will be strict controls on the forms and we will know where they all go to.'

Voting packs will be hand delivered to houses with multiple flats and to student accommodation, where the post cannot be guaranteed to reach recipients personally. There will also be checks to see if large numbers of witness statements are in the same handwriting, a sign of possible fraud.

'The police will engage with local authorities to prevent fraud and one big deterrent is to let people know the police will be actively looking for it,' Mr Scallan said.

All concerned have a lingering fear over whether the Royal Mail will cope, but a spokeswoman pointed out that it routinely handles large direct marketing campaigns that involve m illions of items of post.

Come election night, council staff will verify the number of votes and separate them for the local and European election counts.

Local election results will be declared overnight, or the next day according to local practice, and those for the European election put away until EU-wide results are announced on Sunday 13 June.

Returning officers, who carry personal liability for the conduct of elections, will be hoping fervently that it will be all right on both nights.

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