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Last Updated: Tuesday, 25 July 2006, 09:52 GMT 10:52 UK
Election night could be no more
By Ollie Stone-Lee
Political reporter, BBC News

David Dimbleby on the BBC election programme
Could the all-night marathons be over for David Dimbleby and co?
The traditional election night could come to an end because of new voting laws, the elections minister has said.

The new laws mean election officials have to check signatures and dates of birth of postal voters - something they say cannot be done in one night.

Democracy minister Bridget Prentice said there were good arguments for delaying the counts until the next day.

There was "ongoing discussion" about the idea but candidates also had strong reasons for wanting results quickly.

New checks

Delaying counts would mean the end of the "did you stay up for Portillo" moments. (referring to the surprise defeat of the then high flying Tory MP Michael Portillo in 1997)

And the Dimbleby brothers would miss out on the usual all-night televised results marathon.

Mrs Prentice said: "The swingometer may have to have a decent night's sleep and be fresh and bright on Friday afternoon."

Bridget Prentice, Democracy Minister
Bridget Prentice says fraud in the UK is relatively low

The Electoral Administration Act was passed earlier this month after a protracted battle between the government and the House of Lords.

The new checks on postal voting follow cases of fraud in 2004 - when an elections judge said he had heard evidence which would disgrace a banana republic.

The new system means people voting by post will have to give their signature and date of birth both when they register to vote and when they send in their ballot.

Malcolm Dumper, executive director of the Association of Electoral Administrators, says it will take an "inordinate amount of time" to check the signatures and dates of birth in many constituencies.

While some postal votes can be counted ahead of polling day, some people just hand in their postal ballots at traditional polling stations.

Mr Dumper says the new checks meant the prospects of a Thursday night election countdown will go "out of the window".

In Southampton, there were more than 30,000 postal votes - and in other areas there were many more, he said.

Counter arguments

In an interview with the BBC News website, the democracy minister said talks were taking place about whether counts should be delayed.

Mrs Prentice said there were already areas of the UK where counts did not happen on the Thursday election night.

And in European elections counting did not begin until Sunday, to keep in line with the rest of Europe.

Ballot papers being counted
Some election officials want to be fresher for the count

"I know there is a group amongst the [election] administrators who would be keen for us to move all counting to the Friday," said Mrs Prentice.

"They have put up good arguments about people being fresh and having done a 15, 16-hour day at polling stations and so on.

"There is an equally strong argument by candidates and the agents saying 'actually we would quite like to get the result'."

2007 test

Many signatures could be checked before polling day as the vast majority of postal voters returned their ballots two or three days after receiving them, said Mrs Prentice.

"We need to see how it pans out in 2007 when there will be local elections... it's not the size of a general election so we will be able to see if there are problems," said Mrs Prentice.

New criminal offences for supplying false information or failing to give details to election officers
Signature and date and birth checks for postal votes
Laws on "undue influence" on voters revised
Minimum age for election candidates cut from 21 to 18
Parents and carers allowed to take children into polling stations

Returning officers would decide on the day when they wanted to do the count - the law says they must do it as soon as is practicable.

But Mrs Prentice said she wanted general guidelines on the best way of doing it.

The postal votes checks are part of a raft of new measures designed to improve confidence in the security of the voting system.

There are two new criminal offences against voting fraud - for supplying false information or failing to supply information to election registration officers.

Voters will also have to sign for their ballot papers at the polling stations in a move "to deter fraud".

Mrs Prentice said the police were being more proactive: "They never really saw elections as part of their remit and they have now given it a much higher priority."

But she stressed there was relatively little in voting fraud in the UK.

And new security measures put into place after the 2004 criticisms meant cases of alleged fraud last year had been quickly picked up.

Head of household

The government has so far decided not to adopt the individual registration system recommended by the Electoral Commission.

That would have meant all voters, postal and otherwise, would have their signatures and dates of birth checked.

Mrs Prentice said she was in favour of the idea in principle but wanted to see how it worked for postal voting before deciding whether to roll it out for the whole system.

Some election officials were worried it could see fewer people registered to vote, particularly in big cities where there was a transient population, she said.

Mrs Prentice accepted the current system - where the "head of the household" registers everyone in their home to vote - sounded "a bit old fashioned".

But young people said there were less likely to be on the register if they had to apply individually.

Loans controversy

Mrs Prentice is particularly worried by Electoral Commission research suggesting that 3.5m people are missing from the voting register.

"I think that undermines the democratic process in a similar but different way from the possibility of the system being insecure," she said.

Lord Levy
Lord Levy was arrested as part of the police loans probe

There were ripple effects - for example constituency boundaries being set on inaccurate data.

The new laws would give the Electoral Commission more power to promote voting, she said. But the style of politics was also a factor in people staying at home, she said.

Mrs Prentice landed the elections brief after Harriet Harman stepped down from the post when her husband, Labour treasurer Jack Dromey, said he had not known about the party's secret loans.

Police continue to investigate claims of "loans for peerages". All involved deny wrong doing.

Mrs Prentice said there seemed to be a growing view that there should be less money spent nationally and more spent locally by the parties.

"I think the controversy has been damaging right across the board to all political parties," she said.

"On the other hand, there is a contradiction. The public don't want more state funding but they equally don't like the idea of large loans being paid to the different political parties."

Political parties were "fundamental" to the UK's democracy and had to be financed, she argued.

"It's about finding a way that is acceptable and is transparent and that people feel is fair and that no individual rich donor can shower thousands of pounds in one area to the detriment of the other parties in that area," she said.

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