By Jenny Matthews
Almost anyone in the UK can apply to vote by post nowadays, and this year it seems to be more popular than ever.
Applications for postal votes have shot up by almost 500% on 2001 in some areas, according to the Times. Estimates are that about six million people - about 15% of all voters - may vote by post in the 5 May elections.
Yet the postal voting system has been dogged by vote-rigging scandals, fraud fears, claims of political party interference - and even concerns that electoral officers will be overwhelmed by the sheer number of votes coming in. Postal voting is undoubtedly convenient - but is it safe?
Two vote-rigging scandals involving postal voting in Birmingham and Blackburn led to some strong statements about the security of the system.
Postal voting is available in England, Scotland and Wales on request, for all elections
In Northern Ireland, you must meet certain criteria
The deadline for applying is 26 April (not NI)
The deadline for changing details on your form is 19 April (not NI)
19 April is also the deadline for cancelling your postal vote to vote in person instead
A judge investigating the Birmingham case branded postal voting "hopelessly insecure" and "wide open to fraud" - although there, the council and police have drawn up special measures to prevent any repeat.
The Electoral Reform Society says although it agrees with the concept of postal voting, the system as it stands is a "cheat's charter", and only those really in need of a postal vote should apply for one.
On top of that, there is disagreement over whether it is right for political parties to get involved by, for example, drawing up their own postal voting application forms, and encouraging people to return them to the party, rather than to the returning officer.
'Just say no'
It appears that some of the steep rises in postal applications in the most close-fought marginal constituencies could be down to parties taking around application forms in attempts to maximise their vote.
The parties say this is simply to encourage people to register to vote - but others say it would be better if the parties did not get involved at all.
TWO VOTE-RIGGING SCANDALS
Ex-Labour councillor Muhammed Hussain was jailed on 8 April for fraud in local elections in Blackburn in 2002
He had arranged for campaigners to ask voters to hand over blank voting papers
During local elections in Birmingham in 2004, police found councillors in a warehouse handling unsealed postal ballots
Six councillors were forbidden to stand at the next election. All deny wrongdoing, and no criminal inquiry is under way
The Electoral Commission - the independent body which promotes the integrity of elections, among other things - reluctantly accepts that the parties can get involved in sending out and collecting application forms.
But no activist or worker should even touch a completed ballot paper, and any voter should "just say no" to an offer to take it for them, said a spokeswoman.
The commission says that while the Birmingham and Blackburn scandals have "definitely had an impact on public confidence", it remains happy with postal voting, on the whole.
"The perceived problem with it is probably bigger than the actual problem," the spokeswoman said.
"Whilst there has been some really high profile and very serious cases that have been brought to light recently, we don't think there's any evidence of widespread fraud."
Some say the scandals may, ironically, have served to make the system more secure.
"This time we are confident that there are a number of extra things that are in place, and people generally will be more vigilant - particularly the authorities involved," the spokeswoman said.
Malcolm Dumper of the Association of Electoral Administrators agreed that overall the system had been working "very, very satisfactorily".
He was concerned about confidence in the system being potentially undermined by the involvement of third parties - ie, political parties - "which really shouldn't be the case".
But he insisted returning officers would be vigilant and able to cope.
"Overall, every returning officer the length and breadth of the country will be
looking closely at the postal voting process to ensure that every
vote that he issues to a postal voter comes back in a proper manner
and will land up on the counting tables on 5 May," he said.
The Electoral Commission recently produced a range of guidelines - to which all the major parties have agreed to adhere - which spell out clearly to party activists and candidates what they can and cannot do.
- Don't help voters fill in their postal ballot papers
- Ensure voters complete ballot papers in secret and seal them personally
- Encourage voters to post or deliver ballot papers themselves
- If asked to take a completed ballot paper, make sure the voter has sealed it first. Post or return it to the returning officer immediately
- If you develop your own postal voting application form, the local electoral registration officer's address should be the preferred address given
- If an intermediary address is given, forms should be passed to the local electoral registration officer within two working days
The commission, although broadly satisfied with the current system, nonetheless still wants to see some changes in the law - to protect confidence in postal voting, as much as anything.
It has passed to the government a package of changes which it would like to see introduced in future - such as registration by individual rather than household.
The government, in turn, defends the current system, although last week local government minister Nick Raynsford told the Commons most of the commission's recommendations for legislative changes had been accepted - and the government was "committed to introducing legislation" that needed to be made.
HOW TO VOTE BY POST
A postal voting package will arrive about a week before election day
Mark the ballot paper in secret. Put it in envelope A and seal it
Sign the declaration of identity in front of a witness, such as a partner, who also signs it
Put the declaration of identity and envelope A into the larger envelope B
Seal that, and return it by post or in person. Forms must be returned by close of voting on election day
The Conservatives and Lib Dems also both support postal voting in so far as it encourages voter turnout, but are both concerned about the security of the system and have both accused the government of complacency in not having tackled potential problems beforehand.
But the electoral commission is keen that, among all the rows about fraud and culpability, the benefits of postal voting are not overlooked.
"Generally [it] has been very successful - it's improved turnout... There are lots of really good things about it, and people also really appreciate the convenience of it," said the spokeswoman.
Perhaps the answer this time around is for postal voters to take action themselves to protect their right to a secret ballot - making sure they fill it in in secret, return it in person if they have concerns about the mail, and so on.
The commission spokeswoman said: "They have a right to a secret ballot, so they need to be vigilant and to make sure they protect their vote."
And any voter that is still concerned has time to change their mind. The deadline is 5pm on 19 April to cancel postal application forms and visit the polling booth in the old-fashioned way instead.