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Last Updated: Tuesday, 1 June, 2004, 10:43 GMT 11:43 UK
Q&A: Postal voting problems
North West region ballot paper
Ballot papers are starting to arrive for some voters

Millions of people have yet to receive postal ballot forms for 10 June's local and European elections after printing delays - prompting fears some could lose their vote.

BBC News Online explains the controversy.

Where is postal voting taking place?

All voters can choose to vote by post, instead of the traditional polling booth.

But in four regions - the North West, North East, East Midlands and Yorkshire and the Humber - voters will have no option but to choose their MEPs and local councillors by postal ballot.

How is it meant to work?

By the middle of this week all voters in the four pilot areas should have received a "ballot pack", with voting forms, instructions on how to vote and two envelopes to return the completed votes.

The Royal Mail has advised people to get their ballot papers in the post by Wednesday, 8 June.

If you miss that date, you can cast your vote at special "assistance and delivery points". Details of where to find these centres - open from 1 June - will be printed on your polling card.

As a last resort, voters can hand in their completed forms to the returning officer until 2200 BST on 10 June.

Sounds simple, so what's the fuss about?

There are serious delays in some areas in getting ballot papers to voters.

Ballot packs for the polls were meant to be with the Royal Mail by 1 June so they can be sent out to households, but this deadline has been missed in some areas.

The Secretary of State for Constitutional Affairs, Lord Falconer, says "97%" of the 14 million papers are now with the Royal Mail or already delivered to voters.

This suggests 420,000 ballot papers will not be posted by the midnight deadline.

The postal Royal Mail had originally intended to get most ballot papers to voters before the Bank Holiday weekend.

What has caused the hold-up?

"Technical issues" were blamed for delays at one of the 12 printing contractors, Opt2Vote, affecting the East Midlands especially, while the illness of a managing director has been blamed for delays at another company.

Is the government to blame?

Ministers are insisting all deadlines will be met and people will have plenty of time to cast their vote.

But the government struggled to get the pilot plans through Parliament in the face of opposition parties' claims that the scheme was being run on too big a scale, involving 14 million voters.

The Tories claim the larger than recommended trials were "politically-motivated" to boost Labour votes.

The situation has been branded a "democratic disgrace" by Lib Dem leader Charles Kennedy.

But Lord Falconer is insisting the voting trial is "something of a success".

What impact is all this having on the elections?

Critics of the system say it means that anybody who went on holiday for a fortnight at the weekend will now simply be unable to vote.

And they claim safeguards against bias to prevent one party's official election literature landing on doormats on the same day as ballot papers are now at risk.

But Constitutional Affairs Minister Chris Leslie accused his opponents of "hysteria" and said the printing problems were the kind of "normal difficulties" experienced in all elections.

Contingency plans were working well, he told MPs, and he was confident the 1 June deadline for getting ballot papers to Royal Mail would be met.

Could the elections be postponed, or even cancelled?

Critics fear the elections in the four regions could have to be put back to a later date or even re-run if people do not receive their ballot papers in time.

But the Electoral Commission says the election would not be cancelled unless the government brought in emergency laws to do so.

A spokeswoman said: "What could happen is that after the election, an elector or candidate could challenge the result of the elections."

That would involve action at the election petitions office at the Royal Courts of Justice.

The Tories have said some candidates are already taking legal advice on how to challenge the election results, in the event of widespread disenfranchisement.



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