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Last Updated: Wednesday, 24 March, 2004, 12:27 GMT
Save the polling booth?
By Brian Wheeler
BBC News Online political reporter

The polling booth - that traditional cornerstone of British political life - is fast becoming an endangered species.

Matthew Parris
Nobody's life is so busy that they can't make a slight detour to vote
Matthew Parris
This year's European and local elections will see the biggest experiment in postal voting ever attempted in the UK.

Postal voting has boosted turnout - or, more correctly, participation - nearly everywhere it has been tried.

Clearly, the electorate seems to prefer making their political choices in the comfort of their armchair, rather than in a draughty church hall.

Despite concerns in some quarters about the potential for electoral fraud, postal voting will be the only option for voters in four regions of Northern England on 10 June.

'Cathedrals of democracy'

But some commentators fear democracy will be damaged if the traditional polling station is consigned to history.

"They may only be village halls and local schools, but they are only 10 minutes walk away, and they are like small cathedrals of democracy," writer and former Tory MP Matthew Parris told BBC Radio 4's Today programme.

John O'Farrell
There is not much point in joining up if you are not going to see any action
John O'Farrell
"There is a kind of solemnity about making the effort to walk there...you feel you are part of a community and part of a democracy."

If turnout at elections is falling, it is the fault of politicians, rather than politics, he argues.

"If people can't be bothered to vote it's because people are not bothered to vote.

"And making it easier to vote will not solve the problem. Nobody's life is so busy that they can't make a slight detour to vote."

Rite of passage

Writer and one-time Labour party candidate John O'Farrell - who starred alongside Mr Parris in BBC2's Grumpy Old Men - argues the British electoral system "actually works quite well" as it is.

And the excitement and drama of polling day is an important rite of passage for "young political activists".

"To get people interested in politics they need to see action. They need the excitement of polling day, and you have young people coming along and joining a political party during a campaign.

"On the day it is a very exciting sort of programme - chasing around cars with loudspeakers, knocking on doors, persuading people to vote and actually seeing that you as a political activist can make a difference."

He added: "There is not much point in joining up if you are not going to see any action."


Are polling booths "small cathedrals of democracy" or inconvenient anachronisms with no place in modern life? Here are some of your views:

To quote the BBC's own article Today 4th May "Postwatch estimates 14.4m letters are lost every year - and of these 60% are just put through the wrong letter box." And we're meant to trust these people to deliver our votes? Not a chance, I'll be walking mine down to the returning officer myself.
Red Hillian, Preston, UK

Postal votes may be necessary for those people who may be out of the country due to work commitments at the time of voting. Just because they are out of the country for a few days shouldn't mean they are not allowed a vote.
Andy, Bexhill, UK

I find it amazing that people are accepting this fundamental change to our democratic ways. The secret ballot, with sealed ballot boxes emptied under the scrutiny of all interested parties and usually counted on the election night is simple, reliable, transparent and trustworthy. Those who cannot be bothered to participate do not need the system changing to accommodate there apathy.
Kevin Gee, Yorkshire

I can understand the benefits of new forms of voting and that it does make it easier for some to vote and encourage people who otherwise may not have done, however I do have to agree at some levels that democracy is being damaged by the experimentation that's going on. Here in Corby it will be the second time in a row that we've had all postal voting and to be honest I don't fully trust the system because of how easy it is for one household member to vote on behalf of others. We were not consulted on this change at all and we have no option of going to a poling station in person. The closest we can get is to hand deliver our ballot papers to the council offices! This isn't democracy!
Alex Bailey, Corby, Northants

People are quite stupendously lazy if they can't see a direct cause-effect and I think that quite a few of the apathetic - "what difference will my vote make" - bunch would be more likely to exercise their franchise if they didn't have to exercise their legs. Voting should be made easy for all by internet, post *and* polling station. Interest in politics however, that which would encourage *everyone* to vote, would require a big change in the way the media and the parties present issues to us. Reasoned, concise, debates would make it understandable to everyone as opposed to the playground slanging matches (in parliament and on Question Time) and unbearable, stifling amounts of spin that promote a lack of trust and feeling of disaffection. Who can be bothered to decipher the veiled comments that the parties answer questions with? Why should I trust people that jeer and mock their opposition in a high level debate? It makes politics look like some kind of game that only the players understand.
Pete, New York, USA (ex-Derbyshire)

The polling station is hardly an anonymous way to vote, every time I hand them my registration slip they write my number on the ballot paper before they give it to me.
Dave, Cardiff, UK

In response to Lisa Johnson's point, why not make election days public holidays, as they are in many other countries? This would endear people to the political process as well as depriving them of a reason not to find time to vote.
Hinesh Rajani, Oxford, UK

Personally I rarely vote anyway - especially not in European elections. There are two reasons for this. Firstly I believe that you should only vote if you have a secret ballot and as our ballot papers are numbered this means that the ballot is not truly secret. Secondly I believe that it is up to the candidates to make their case for my vote. In the last elections I did not receive one manifesto from anybody standing for election. If they can't be bothered then why should I. While the right to vote is important so is the right not to vote. When you have very low turnouts you need to look at the reasons behinds them - these two I think are important ones. Postal votes will probably help; but it is only treating the symptom and not curing the problem.
James Snowsill, Woodford, UK

I have been a Presiding Officer (in charge of a Polling Station). The Poll Clerk (my assistant) and I had to follow strict rules about the conduct of the ballot - security of all materials, confidentiality of the vote, provision of ballot papers to those claiming them, and accompanying the ballot box to the count. If all these precautions are followed, and all voters turn up to claim their ballot papers, then it is extremely difficult to introduce fraud into the process, and much easier to detect it and identify culprits when it is attempted. Introducing two journeys by post for the ballot paper blows most of these precautions completely out of the water, and (given the recent revelations about the Post Office) leaves many people with no confidence that their vote has any influence on the election at all.
Clive, Middlesbrough, UK

I cant see how postal voting will make any difference. If people cant be bothered to get up and walk to the polling station, why is getting up and walking to the post box any different?
Lee Sutcliffe, Bradford, Yorkshire UK

Just to say that we're quite lucky compared with some parts of rural Scotland - our voting station is only a 15 minute drive away. The way forward has to be flexibility, allowing everyone to vote in the way that suits them best, while ensuring that all voters are allowed to vote (once only) and that all votes are counted...
Alan Giles, Whitecairns, Scotland

Why has this become an either / or argument? Surely the best way to maximise turnout is to give people as many voting options as possible. Personally, I would always prefer a polling station in order to be absolutely sure that my vote was delivered in time and untampered with. And I agree that there is no excuse for failing to vote; for all the gloom about our political system, we are amongst the most fortunate nations in the world in terms of our rights and standards of living. It's not too much to expect people to respect that by taking the trouble to learn about the issues and the policies affecting our country.
John, London, UK

I am amazed at the number of people opposed to postal voting. The whole point should be getting people to vote - irrespective of how their vote is actually cast. Note also that Local Authorities (well, mine anyway) still have ballot boxes in named locations for those worried about postal votes going missing or who still like to see it hand delivered.
FR, Manchester, UK

It's alright for moneybags like Matthew Parris who's able to go by car or taxi to his Polling Station, but not so good for people without such wealth and who have caring responsibilities. Some of my electors had to cross a teeming dual carriageway to get to the Polling Station. Now they can just go along to the Post Box, in any of 14 days (or nights) of their choosing.
Andrew Dundas, Ilkley, UK

Postal voting seems far to open to abuse to be a secure method. There's no guarantee that the vote will ever be counted. If they want to make voting 'easier', why not have the polling stations at supermarkets, and town centres, and have voting over Thursday, Friday and Saturday. Not in a stuffy Church in the middle of nowhere on an inconvenient day of the week!
Martin, Leeds, UK

Damn the postal vote - now where am I supposed to hold the political protest I was planning for this year?! At the sorting office?
Michelle, Halifax, UK

As someone who has been involved in about 25 election campaigns, at all levels, both successfully and not so successfully, for the Green Party, I have found that polling day gives the local campaign a focus and target. With people potentially voting for several days before the election the local campaign becomes less focused, and more centred on the TV and national media. A set day for voting allows healthier local democracy. With postal voting, believe voter apathy, and separation from their local candidates will increase.
Steve Barker, Rushden, Northamptonshire

Most seem to think that infrequent trips to the polls is the sum total of democracy. I'm guilty of it too sometimes. The real democracy and power to change things actually requires participation. Getting off our comfy chairs and devoting real time to seeking the changes that we think are right. If we expect it all to go how we want from just the infrequent paper in a slot we get what we deserve, someone else's solutions!
alext, UK

Anything that encourages and makes voting easier should be welcomed. It is ironic that unelected Lords are trying to block this - or at least unelected Tory and Lib Dem Lords.
Neville Bann, Liverpool

Let's keep things the way they are. After all, if you can't even be bothered to go to a polling station once every five years, are you likely to have put much thought into for whom you will vote or why?
Gerald Davies, Wales

Wansbeck District Council had all-postal elections in 2003, and as an experiment turnout did appear to be improved. What do we do next however when turnout at repeated postal elections begins to fall? If we look at voting in South Africa or Eastern Europe, they have healthy participation often queuing for hours to be able to vote. A cornerstone of our democracy is the requirement to vote in person at a secret ballot - postal elections do not guarantee either. I think the most telling comment I heard about postal elections came from a local clergyman who said that not going to vote on a specific polling day along with your friends and neighbours is contributing to a loss of sense of community.
Simon Reed, Ashington, Northumberland

Making the small effort to actually go to the polling station makes one remember what democracy is all about and how lucky we are to have the opportunity. Standing in the booth, before marking one's ballot paper, always makes me have second thoughts about my decision, however firm it was before arrival. Filling in a form at home will remove this sense of responsibility.
Stuart, London

The system we have now is far and away the most secure, transparent and trusted system we have. It's a bit antiquated but it works. Every vote is a tangible piece of paper with an X on it, the votes are counted in and out of the box, there is very little room for corruption. If you post a letter in a post box - would you be sure your vote actually got to its intended destination? The answer is, quite simply, "No."
Dave, UK

As a deputy returning officer in Canadian elections, I have heard some men complain when they were not allowed to accompany their wives, mothers, or sisters to the polling booth. "They won't know how to vote," they would say. Polling booths may be the only way in which some women (and others in subordinate positions) can exercise real freedom in their electoral choices. Voting by post, from home, means that the domineering man in the house controls multiple votes, not just his own. Don't abandon polling booths!
Paul Kopas, Toronto, Canada

But people will still have to walk to the Red Royal Mail Box to post their vote, which could be lost or delayed or get stuck in some royal Mail strike or manipulated if required. It is better to walk to the polling booth and cast your vote. If required, all the voting should be computerised and people should be allowed to vote from the nearest or most convenient polling booth to vote. For example the one outside their workplace or one near to their temporary place of residence. Or even better, give them a 0800 Free phone number or Internet ... but definitely not by Post.
Uday, Dorset, UK

Postal voting might mean a short-term increase in voter turn-out, but all the evidence from across the globes suggests this would only be a blip. Why risk losing what is basically a trusted, safe, anonymous system for the sake of increased turn-out for the next vote? And why does Tony Blair hate old-age traditions in this country?
Hephzibah Taylor, Cheadle

Those who make the effort to walk to the polling booth are generally those who will make the effort to inform themselves about the issues on which they are voting. Allowing postal votes merely dilutes down the informed with the votes of the ill-informed. Without some sort of pre-qualification to vote based on knowledge of the issues the ballot box should remain to ensure that the Government is chosen by those who have the knowledge to make an informed choice.
Matthew Knowles, Loughton, UK

Simon Reed's first point is the most important one. Only voting in person at a polling station guarantees a secret ballot, and greatly reduces the risk of coerced voting (although video phones are a new problem with this). There is no reason not to use new methods to speed up counting, but the booth at the polling station is essential to the integrity of everyone's vote.
HE Elsom, Cambridge, UK

I have to confess that since working full time I have missed voting on more than one occasion due to just not having the time, or the inclination after a hard days work, or before I leave. This may change now that I work closer to home and don't have the 2 1/2 commute a day to contend with! I think that the traditional approach of the polling station is out dated and well in need of a re-vamp! We should eventually be able to vote on line!!
Lisa Johnson, Harwich, England

The existing system whereby a voter exchanges their registration slip for a blank ballot paper and then places it in the box under supervision has many safeguards, and ensures that any electoral fraud would be extremely difficult without several people being involved. Postal voting has none of the above checks - it would be fairly straightforward to intercept outgoing voting papers and a single postal worker could damage or destroy dozens of returned ballot papers. Computerised voting is even worse - in the event of a dispute there isn't much that can beat the fallback position of counting pieces of paper with an X pencilled into a box.
John B, UK

This question really misses the whole point. Voting is not only a right, it should also be an obligation. All Britons qualified to vote (ie on the electoral register) should be required by law to cast a vote in some way (postal, polling station, internet, e-mail or whatever other scheme is dreamt up) Democracy is too important to allow voter apathy to become the norm.
Andrew Taylor, Long Eaton, UK

I want to be 100% certain that my vote has been counted and the only way to ensure that is to see it go into the ballot box. Royal Mail loses far too much of my mail for me to have any faith at all in a postal vote.
Shelagh, Rotherham, UK

Compared to the "hanging chad" fiasco in Florida, that may have affected the overall result, surely blunt pencil stubs are a better voting solution. Long live lo-tech democracy.
Anthony, London

One result of not having voting in polling stations is that it will become impossible for candidates to chivvy voters on polling day. I've seen council wards won and lost by how well each side does at winkling voters into the polling stations, be it by loudspeaker vans, last minute leaflets or knocking on people's doors and driving them to the polling station. At the very least this activity brings the election alive, and I believe the ability to influence outcomes by this sort of hard work is healthy. By contrast, all postal votes will effectively sterilise the process.
Dunstan Vavasour, Rugby, Warwickshire

I agreed with Matthew's point about "Nobody's life is so busy that they can't make a slight detour to vote.", but then I thought about my life. I leave for work at 6am, and often don't get back until 6 or 7pm. That would leave me with a couple of hours to vote - and that's before I have to get through everything else that needs to be done (like helping to raise a family). So yes, my life is busy, and I couldn't find the time to vote in the last local elections. Although, saying that, being in a new area at the time, I couldn't find the polling station, which didn't help. So in the end, I agree that new methods should be explored which would give me the time to get out and vote.
Lee Bumstead, Farnborough, Hampshire

If it's not broke why try to fix it? Or is this just a cynical move so Labour can try and minimise its losses in regions like the North West, where they are set to loose big councils like Trafford and Bradford?
Andy Stephenson, Macclesfield

It annoys me that while new ways of voting are being experimented no one has thought to give people a choice of where to vote. For me, voting is an inconvenience - I have to go out of my way to do it. I have to tick a box on the electoral register form to say that I do not want the local council to sell my details to junk mail companies. Why can't there be a box asking me to indicate which polling station I wish to use? Preferably one outside the pub (or in it!).
Richard, Leeds, UK

With Labour's obsession with culling the Post Office network and services, it will soon be harder to find a post box to vote by post than it would be to walk to the nearest polling booth.
Nigel, Cardiff, Wales

In a democracy decisions are made by those people that turn up. I am a politician and I work hard to do my work as a politician, delivering leaflets, canvassing, doing casework, attending meetings and trying to make a difference to peoples lives. I don't think it is asking that much that the people who decide my fate at the ballot box are asked to make the effort to go to the polling station once a year or so.
Richard, Liverpool, UK

Can I say hello to Matthew Parris and welcome him to the 21st Century. Perhaps he has shares in the stubby pencils which we all have to vote with, but his support for the archaic and faintly ridiculous ritual that is voting is difficult to understand. Voting should be compulsory; a duty to match the rights we as citizens claim, but it needs to be as accessible as possible. Going for a wander on a wet Thursday is not the way most of conduct our lives - we use phones, computers and post letter and so we should for voting. I'm just off to my Cathedral of Sleep (AKA bed)
Steve Palmer, Watford, UK

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