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Last Updated: Friday, 27 August, 2004, 10:34 GMT 11:34 UK
Red faces after postal voting trials
By Nick Assinder
BBC News Online political correspondent

The Electoral Commission's report into the government's postal voting experiment has been greeted with predictable cries of "told you so".

Opposition parties lost no time in seizing on the findings to claim they proved they had been right all along when they attacked the government over the way it was running the experiment.

Postal votes being counted
Ministers are counting the cost of taking the all-postal vote plunge

It will certainly prove highly embarrassing to ministers - notably Deputy Prime Minister John Prescott, who ran the pilot scheme - because their opponents had indeed warned them they were rushing into the experiment, possibly for political motives but more likely out of desperation to increase turnout, and were likely to muck it up.

And that is pretty much what the Electoral Commission has found.

There is no suggestion in its report of gerrymandering, although there is still the unresolved question of just how much fraud played a part in the experiment.

But it does paint a pretty clear picture of chaos, rush and confusion. And it concludes that all-postal voting is no panacea.

And its wider conclusion that voters should be offered a choice in the way they vote is likely to receive widespread support.

So the answer to the question about turnout is, unsurprisingly, more complex than simply changing the voting system

It certainly seems that many MPs, possibly most, now believe the time is right to look at alternative methods of voting.

The desperately poor turnouts in recent elections sparked a mild panic among politicians who feared they were in danger of losing legitimacy.

But the report probably shows one thing more clearly than ever - that the problem does not primarily lie within the voting system.

The all-postal experiment did indeed improve turnout by around 5% in those areas where it was used - good in itself but clearly no revolution.

And it is impossible to tell just how much of that was due to the novelty value which might quickly wear off.

At the same time it actually annoyed those voters who prefer the traditional, some say more engaging, method of visiting a polling station.

Re-engaging voters

And there will now be a debate about whether voting is so important that it should require some effort, or some more symbolically significant action than simply filling in a form.

So, leaving the looming regional assembly vote aside, it seems highly unlikely there will be much more of this in the near future, at least this side of the next general election.

The overwhelming finding is that any future proposals should be approached with caution and detailed planning.

Meanwhile, politicians will have to address the other, far more important part of this voting equation - their part in it.

If the question is: "why are people not voting any more?" - then the answer is clearly not simply because of the voting system.

Offering the electorate a variety of ways of voting is probably no bad thing.


But the bigger question remaining is about what politicians need to do to re-engage with voters.

There appears to have been a significant shift in recent years in the way politicians, as a class, are viewed by the electorate.

The issues of sleaze and trust appear to have played a part in this change, along with the old complaint that "there's nothing to chose between them".

And all the parties accept they need to address those issues if they are to change voters' habits.

At the same time, there is evidence that when electors believe there are big issues at stake or that they can make a real difference then they are as willing and eager as ever to go into the polling booths.

The recent European elections appear to have been a good example of that.

So the answer to the question about turnout is, unsurprisingly, more complex than simply changing the voting system.

And, rather than answering that question, the voting experiment may have served to concentrate minds on that bigger question.

Vote report sparks North East row
27 Aug 04  |  Politics
Regional assembly votes postponed
22 Jul 04  |  Politics
Watchdog rejects all-postal votes
27 Aug 04  |  Politics

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