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Last Updated: Tuesday, 14 February 2006, 16:14 GMT
Text votes 'are like Big Brother'
Postal voting
Postal vote registration has proved controversial
Government plans for a shake-up in the electoral system, such as allowing supermarket and text message voting, have come under fire in the Lords.

Lib Dem Baroness Scott of Needham Market said they would mean "reducing democracy to the level of Strictly Come Dancing or Big Brother".

The Electoral Administration Bill would also reduce the minimum age people can stand to be an MP from 21 to 18.

The government said change was needed to encourage more people to vote.

'Post offices'

Councils are piloting various "alternative locations" - such as shopping centres - for voting in May's local elections.

They are also looking at electronic counting methods, but are not testing voting by text message.

Lady Scott told peers: "We are told that we are going to be able to vote at the post office or indeed in Tescos - which is probably just as well because you are more likely to find a Tesco open than a post office these days.

"We are going to be able to vote by text or by computer.

"We are talking about reducing democracy to the level of Strictly Come Dancing or Big Brother."

She added: "Although I did reflect that in the case of Big Brother since the public actually threw George Galloway out, they actually showed more discernment than his electorate."

Conservative Baroness Hanham said constituency boundaries were "a mess". The number of electors ranged from 21,000 to 107,000.

These issues are of great importance to the well-being of democracy
Lord Falconer

She added: "It's all very well for the government to claim it wants to improve voter participation but the electoral system is not adequately supported by constituency boundaries.

"This bill, of course, does nothing to address these problems."

The Lord Chancellor, Lord Falconer of Thoroton, said: "The legitimacy of our democracy depends on three things: firstly all those who are eligible having the right to vote, secondly, everyone wanting to vote, and finally nobody abusing the vote."

He added: "These issues are of great importance to the well-being of democracy and we all agree on the need for a democratic system which, in the way that it works, has the confidence of the people and is the envy of the world."

The Electoral Commission estimates that 3.5 million voters in England and Wales are not registered to vote.

Lord Falconer said: "This is a shocking statistic. It means that almost 10% of the eligible electorate in Great Britain is disenfranchised.

False applications

"Furthermore, it is clear that it is a problem which affects some groups more than others."

The government's proposals also include creating an offence to prevent postal vote fraud.

Currently, voters are registered by one member of the household.

Instead of demanding individual registration, the government is suggesting an offence of falsely applying for a postal vote, and wants people using polling stations to sign for their ballot papers.

The rules were changed in 2000 so anybody could ask to vote by post.

Ministers promised new laws on the issue following the general election after a judge said postal voting was "wide open to abuse".

The Electoral Commission wants each voter to have individual identifiers - perhaps their date of birth and signature - so election organisers can better check voters.

Such a system operates in Northern Ireland, where people have to give their national insurance number as well.

The bill received an unopposed second reading, as is customary in the Lords.


SEE ALSO:
Election changes 'will boost BNP'
25 Oct 05 |  UK Politics
Watchdog against all-postal vote
20 May 05 |  UK Politics
New postal vote safeguards urged
06 May 05 |  Election 2005


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