The government is grappling with options on what to do following two fundamental defeats to its Bill paving the way for all-postal ballots to be piloted in selected English regions for this year's European and local elections.
During report stage of the Bill, peers inflicted hefty defeats on the measure by supporting Conservative and Liberal amendments. The effects of these would be to reduce the number of pilot regions to two, as recommended by the Electoral Commission, and to require witness confirmation of signatures of those voting by post.
But time is running out, with the elections to be held in June. Meanwhile, returning officers and electoral staff in the north-west and Yorkshire are in limbo, pondering, among other things, whether they will have to set up hundreds of polling stations across their regions.
Proposing the amendment limiting the pilot schemes to the north-east and east midlands, and any local authorities in those regions due to hold elections on the same day as European elections, Conservative Baroness Hanham said it would be irresponsible to hold a pilot scheme in nearly half of all the regions holding combined elections in June. They formed such a large part of the electorate, it was tendentious to describe them as 'pilot'. Pilot schemes were designed to generate evidence on a system of voting that was new and that was by no means guaranteed as secure.
'We have conceded that there may be merit in trialling all-postal voting on a regional basis in combined regions. It has already been trialled on a local basis in other schemes. However, we draw the line at a trial in four regions,' she declared.
The government was also disregarding the evidence in the independent Electoral Commission's report, which concluded only two regions - the north-east and east Midlands - could be recommended as ready and able to undertake the pilots. No satisfactory explanation had been given for the government's disregarding the recommendation, or why the commission had not been involved in any discussions with government over the inclusion of the north-west and Yorkshire and Humber.
Baroness Hanham said:'I find this baffling. We have moved from a situation where the government asked the Electoral Commission to put forward up to three best regions for piloting. The Electoral Commission said it could only positively recommend two regions. Now there are four regions.
'The two additional regions are Yorkshire and the Humber and the north-west where there were issues with the unwillingness of the returning officers and the complex nature of some of the elections. They still remain ... The strongest possible objections remain to all-postal pilots in these regions.'
She added: 'There is deep concern about fraud and security issues. In committee, (Liberal Democrat) Lord Greaves drew our attention to the problems experienced in previous piloting. It is against this background that the government are proposeing to bludgeon two unwilling regions, and many unwilling local authority chief executives, into running a pilot vote.'
Baroness Hanham concluded: 'Despite what the minister may feel about this, we are not trying to cause trouble. We feel that the government are taking a big risk that is not justifiable in terms of a possible increase in turnout. We need to balance innovation against security and the safety of our democratic process'.
Liberal Democrat Lord Rennard said there were concerns about lack of secrecy and privacy in postal voting, which some believed undermined the principles of the Secret ballot Act 1972. There were also considerable co ncerns about potential fraud with all-postal voting, especially relating to homes in multiple occupation. There were also concerns about the timing of the all-postal voting process.
For the all-postal pilots in June, the ballot papers will be delivered between 25 and 29 May, two weeks before the official polling day and two weeks before many people had made up their minds, considered the arguments put by the parties, seen the television news and newspapers. 'I am concerned about people voting so far ahead of proper examination of the issues,' he added.
Lord Greaves said he had talked to local authority staff and political parties in the north-west.
'I have talked to election staff in the different authorities who have expressed great concern. I am referring not only to those authorities which will have all-out elections in new boundaries, where the whole process will be difficult, but to authorities such as Pendle, where we shall have ordinary local elections using the old boundaries,' explained Lord Greaves.
'There is great concern that the region as a whole is not ready for such an experiment either administratively orin a practical way.'
Constitutional affairs minister Lord Filkin, defending the decision to have four pilot regions, said: 'So far, pilots have been small-scale; we have always said that the Bill is about scaling up. The combined electorate of the four regions is more than 14 million people. The evidence that we shall gain from making pilots available on that scale will enormously help the government and all parties that have a legitimate interest in the issues, including the Electoral Commission, in informing future decisions about whether to go further with postal voting.'
He said ministers, led by constitutional affairs secretary and lord chancellor Lord Falconer, had met returning officers from the north-west and Yorkshire and Humberside to discuss whether they could deliver successful pilots.
'Both saidthat if they were chosen they could deliver successful pilots. It is true to say that the degree of enthusiasm differed between the north-west, which was very keen, and Yorkshire and Humberside, which was much less keen. Nevertheless, a key test from Yorkshire and Humberside's point of view was whether a successful pilot could be delivered,' the minister added.
However, by 169 votes to 110, peers voted to restrict the pilots to the north-east and east Midlands.
By 157 votes to 110, they supported Lord Rennard's amendment which requires that all postal ballot papers must be accompanied by a declaration of identity, signed by the elector and by a witness, and containing in legible form the name and address of the witness. In addition, each elector who returns a postal ballot must be sent an acknowledgment by the returning officer.
Lord Rennard acknowledged there might be problems for deaf-blind or other disabled people, but suggested that postal voting with a witness signature was still easier for many than going to a polling station.
'If you apply to vote by post in the London elections in June and receive a postal vote, you will have to obtain a witness signature to say that you are the person voting in that way. I see no reason for suggesting that if an all-postal pilot takes place, in the east Midlands or the northern region, for example, that requirement should be abandoned,' he added.
Hansard 23 Feb 2004: Column 13 - 29; 42 - 86