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Last Updated: Sunday, 11 May, 2003, 14:51 GMT 15:51 UK
West: Voting, which way now?

The Politics Show investigates voting in the West; turbulent turnouts, new-fangled methods and the push for proportional representation.

Person voting via telephone
Telephone voting is an innovative method used in the West

Innovation or idiotic?

It was an easy way to get rid of 1m. Swindon Borough Council had impressed the government in recent years with various alternative voting methods. So when it put forward ambitious plans for this year's poll, a large grant was forthcoming.

The result was that turnout fell below 30%, back to where it was before the council ever tried out new fangled ideas like internet, phone and even cable TV voting.

More people than ever voted electronically, but fewer than ever went to polling stations.

Deputy returning officer Alan Winchcombe said, "We're delighted with the way e-voting has taken off, and are getting lots of positive feedback from people who used it."

"But overall the fact that turnout fell is disappointing."

Old-fashioned favour

Look a little closer and it seems success comes from rather more old-fashioned ways.

Deputy returning officer Alan Winchcombe
Alan Winchcombe is "delighted" with e-voting

When three years ago Swindon tried all-postal votes in several wards, turnout rose sharply. So too this time in South Somerset, where polling stations were closed on local election day.

There too the council wrote to voters telling them of internet and telephone options. But they could also mark their ballot papers straight away and send them back. That's what lots did, and there was a healthy rise in turnout.

Politicians' beliefs

Many politicians think it isn't just a matter of making it easier to vote.

They believe people need to know that their vote will count. Many, especially from smaller parties, believe the 'first past the post' system is at fault.

Take Bristol, a fiercely fought contest which saw Labour lose control after 19 years in charge. Yet in half the wards there was very little election activity as these were considered safe seats. The main efforts were concentrated on the marginals. In these turnout was consequently higher.

Proportional preference

The Greens feel especially aggrieved about the 'first past the post' system. They picked up 7% of the vote, and got no councillors.

They look enviously north of the border where their party increased its seats in the Scottish Parliament from one to seven, thanks to proportional representation.

Within five years we may have a proportional representation pilot
Mary Southcott, Labour campaign for electoral reform

It could be on its way to the West, where there is already proportional representation for European elections. It's expected that it will eventually be extended to council elections.

It's not just the smaller parties who want it. Mary Southcott leads the Labour campaign for electoral reform in the region.

Mary says, "There's a strong possibility that within next five years we could see a proportional representation pilot for local elections and it could be here in the West."

But whether the change in the voting system will lead to a change in voter turnout is yet to be seen.

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