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VOTER CHOICE IS KEY TO PARTICIPATION, SAYS ELECTORAL COMMISSION

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Electors should have a choice of convenient, secure ways to vote, The Electoral Commission announced today, followi...
Electors should have a choice of convenient, secure ways to vote, The Electoral Commission announced today, following its evaluation of the June electoral pilots in the north west, north east, east midlands and Yorkshire and the Humber.

In its independent report, Delivering democracy? The future of postal voting, the elections watchdog reports that despite the delivery of a successful set of elections and improved levels of participation, all-postal voting pilots were marred by problems. It cites the timescale imposed, complexity of the voting method, logistical issues, and reports of abuse, which resulted in a lessening of public confidence.

While it has previously supported all postal voting for local elections, the Commission acknowledges that based on the evidence gathered in these pilots, and in particular, the strength of public criticism of a single voting method, all-postal voting should no longer be pursued for use at UK elections. Instead a new model should be devised that allows voters to go to polling stations if they wish, while retaining the best features of all-postal voting.

Sam Younger, chairman of The Electoral Commission said: 'We remain committed to a goal of multi-channel elections, provided that levels of security and confidence can be maintained, working towards true 21st century democracy where electors choose the method, day and time to vote. However, the law and policy supporting remote voting methods need further reform before secure and convenient elections can be delivered.

'The Commission believes that when it comes to voting, it is essential that we exploit the opportunities new technologies provide, and respond to new expectations about consumer choice and service by providing a range of equally secure and accessible voting channels. Voting methods aside, it is important not to lose sight of the need to persuade electors that the democratic process is relevant and important, and that voting provides an opportunity to influence political decisions that affect peoples lives. That is the responsibility of politicians at all levels and, arguably, the media.'

Key findings

- Turnout increased in the European Parliamentary elections to 42.4 per cent across the four pilot regions, over 5 per cent higher than the non-pilot regions (37.1 per cent), and nearly 4 per cent above the UK figure (38.5 per cent).

- Take-up of postal voting per se increased outside the all postal voting pilot regions. There was a doubling of take-up since the 2001 general election in three English regions - London (8.4 per cent), the West Midlands (8.7 per cent) and the South West (10.5 per cent).

- Despite convenience being cited as the main satisfaction factor for voters in the pilot regions, a significant minority was strongly opposed to all postal voting exacerbated almost certainly by negative media reporting.

- There was strong public support for a choice of voting channels, all equally secure as traditional methods.

Based on its evaluation, the Commission is recommending a new way forward for the future of voting, building on the positive elements of postal voting providing choice, convenience, security and accessibility. It should be underpinned by a robust new legislative framework (including individual registration), have wide political support, and rebuild public confidence.

Key recommendations to Government

- The Commission will develop a foundation model for voting, offering electors both choice and security, in consultation with government officials, electoral administrators, political parties, and access and security experts, which it will report by 31 March 2005. In the meantime there should be a moratorium on any further piloting.

- Voting by post is increasingly popular and should remain part of the UK electoral system. However, the process, security and capacity of electoral administrators to manage the volume of postal votes must be improved.

- The legislative framework underpinning postal voting methods is archaic, and to ensure it is fit for purpose, must be urgently reformed particularly provisions for secrecy and security.

- To enhance public confidence, primary legislation should be introduced urgently to give effect to an updated offence of undue influence, and a new offence relating to the fraudulent completion of postal vote applications.

- The Government must replace current household registration with individual electoral registration, and the declaration of identity with an individual security statement.

- The law requiring Returning Officers to use the most efficient means of despatch for ballot packs available should be revised, accompanied by commitment by local and central government to meet the costs of using first class post for the use of postal ballots. The Commissions report widely hails the performance of election staff and Royal Mail as a success factor in delivering the regional pilots.

- All remote voting methods should require the provision by Returning Officers of a pre-election information card like the traditional polling card - as well as home visits, helplines, assistance email addresses, and suitable provision for disabled electors to vote independently.

- Responsibility for electoral policy and law should rest with a single Government department.

Implications for the North East referendum

The Electoral Commission believes the North East referendum on an elected regional assembly and local government restructuring should go ahead as planned on 4 November.

In a statement published today, the Commission reaches the conclusion that the referendum in the North East should proceed as an all-postal ballot. The Commissions evaluation of the all-postal pilots at the June elections highlights the need to provide voters with a choice of voting methods. However, the Commission believes it would not be right to abandon the all-postal ballot in the North East as this late stage. Making significant changes to the process now would increase the risks and the Commission is of the view that the referendum should proceed as planned.

* There were a number of high profile allegations of fraud reported in the media during the election period and the Commission is aware of only two allegations that have proceeded to arrest across Great Britain. Similarly, Returning Officers who have conducted integrity checks after the close of poll report that no evidence of fraud or other irregularities have been found. However, in pilot areas prosecutions may be brought up to two years after the close of poll (the time limit remains 12 months in other areas of Great Britain), and many Returning Officers have yet to complete their post-election audits. As a result, the Commission is not yet able to conclude whether the increased use of postal voting across Great Britain has led to an increase in fraud or malpractice.

The full report is available from the Electoral Commission website.

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