Postal voting was in the news again last week. Not because of its association with increased opportunities for electoral fraud, but because of a perceived threat to a much-loved British institution - the all-night general election results programme, swingometer and all.
Under the terms of the new Electoral Administration Act those applying for postal votes must supply both their date of birth and an example of their signature. When they cast their vote, these details are again required so that they can be cross-checked. With many postal votes being returned at the last moment - in some cases actually being hand-delivered to polling stations on the stroke of the polls closing, electoral administrators are concerned that proper scrutiny of postal ballots will delay their being able to begin the count proper.
four million votes (some 15% of the total) were cast by post at the 2005 general election, the majority are likely to have been returned some days before the official election date. At the all-postal referendum on an elected assembly in the north-east in November 2004, for example, over a quarter of all votes that would be cast had been received by two weeks before the close of poll, and more than two-thirds by seven days before. General elections work to a tighter timetable, but it is a fair bet that early votes will still heavily outnumber very late ones.
There are differences between councils and constituencies in the extent to which postal voting has been taken up. Postal votes accounted for a third or more of the total in 14 constituencies in 2005, yet there were nearly 150 constituencies where fewer than one in 10 votes were cast by post.
Evidence from the 2006 local elections further suggests that the number of postal voters may be beginning to plateau. In Stevenage BC, for example, the proportion of electors with a postal ballot actually dropped from 53% in 2004 to 46% last May, whereas in Ealing LBC it has been stuck at 7% in each of the past three years. Given public concerns about the security of postal ballots, the more stringent requirements of the new Act, and the unlikely occurrence of any more all-postal experiments, it would be surprising if the proportion of votes cast by post at the next general election exceeded that recorded in 2005.
So, while there may be some places where counting may have to be postponed until the Friday, it is likely that the political parties, the media, and those councils who have noticed the publicity that Sunderland has won from its record early declarations, will all be in place and raring to go.
Although postal voting may have the potential to cause havoc with counting arrangements, it has clearly played an important part in halting the decline in turnout. Three cases from last month make the point (see below). At each contest more than half of people with postal votes used them, whereas less than 30% of other electors could be bothered to go to the polls.
We are familiar with the argument that those applying for postal votes are precisely the kinds of people more likely to vote at an election in any event. It is still probably the case that the convenience of a postal vote will have meant that a number of even these electors were not deterred from voting by other pressing matters in their daily lives.
For the political parties increased postal voting poses a new and interesting challenge. The focus has shifted from making sure as many of your supporters as possible turn out on the day to a more rolling form of campaign. It is now crucial electors receive leaflets and key issues are highlighted coincident with the arrival of postal vote forms.
And campaigning really does still matter. Several of last month's turnovers can be put down to vigorous activity on the ground. Plaid Cymru in Conwy CBC, the Conservatives in Dover DC and the Liberal Democrats in New Forest DC all claim that it was leafleting and canvassing that won the day. These days electors won't vote, and they certainly won't vote for you, unless you ask them to and provide convincing reasons why they should do so.
Colin Rallings and Michael Thrasher Directors, LGC Election Centre, University of Plymouth