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Wednesday, 6 June, 2001, 14:47 GMT 15:47 UK
Voting by post - open to abuse?

As much as 20 per cent of the electorate may be voting by post in this election. At the last election it was only one per cent.

It has become easier to vote by post. New legislation has effectively allowed postal votes on demand.

The relaxation of the system has brought warnings from the Electoral Commission about the greater possibilities for fraud. Reporters for the BBC Radio 4 Today programme have obtained postal votes for dead people in a marginal seat in Devon.

Do you think it is too easy to abuse the current system for postal votes? Do you think we should be subject to more stringent checks? Or do you appreciate the convenience of postal polls?

This Talking Point is now closed. Read a selection of your comments below.

I cannot vote in person, being an ex-pat, but, thanks to the internet, I can vote as many times as I like in opinion polls!
Adam Spearpoint ,UK, living in USA,

With all these cries about the potential abuses of the postal voting system, one might begin to think it would be possible for the loser of Thursday's election to be named the next PM. Oops! Wrong country.
Cassandra, Moses Lake, WA, USA

My son is at Loughborough University and I applied for a postal vote and had it sent to him. He also has a vote at the university, which he did not apply for, on the electoral register. Does this mean that all university students have two votes? I wish I did.
Dave Blackborow, Truro, Cornwall

How many people in the UK have died since these cards were delivered?

John McConnell, Newcastle upon Tyne, England
What is the problem with postal votes? My voting card was delivered to my door weeks ago. How many people in the UK have died since these cards were delivered? Probably thousands, meaning that the possibility for some form of fraudulent voting has always been there. This smacks of scare mongering from a press already over-obsessed with sleaze. There will always be a certain amount of corruption in all walks of life and it does need to be rooted out, but a sense of proportion needs to be applied. If we are to believe the predictions regarding turnout at this election, it may have been better to sit on this story until Friday instead of encouraging further antipathy in the electorate.
John McConnell, Newcastle upon Tyne, England

I asked my Mum to get me the form for a postal vote and she was told I was not allowed to vote since I was not living in the country. I thought I was, and am still unsure whether I should have been allowed a postal vote or could nominate someone as a proxy. Could someone tell me what the deal is so I can exercise my right to vote at the next election. I'm still a British citizen and have been studying/working in the US for less than 3 years.
Rachel, Brit in USA

I'm currently overseas on a temporary basis and applied to have a postal vote. The form duly arrived late last week at my home in Hertfordshire. Upon receipt, my wife realised that I could only vote providing (i) I could receive the form in time (ii) it has to be witnessed - this point is open to fraud from the outset, and (iii) presuming I get the form in time, that I could actually get it back to Hertfordshire for Thursday. Unless I was prepared to have the form the couriered to me and couriered back to the UK it seems that I will not be able to vote. On querying the fact that I was overseas and had not arranged to vote by proxy I was told hard luck you cannot vote. The interesting fact is that the forms are not allowed (or so I'm told) to be sent out earlier than 10 days before the election.
Andrew Amstutz

This is a typical "Today" non-story. As a number of contributors have already said, there are a whole variety of ways the electoral system could be abused if people set their minds to it. There can be no doubt that on Thursday there will be a number of votes abused by accident or design in many constituencies. What there will not be is systematic vote rigging, not least of all because it is almost impossible to achieve. This story was based on the premise that the Torbay constituency vote could be altered by a handful of postal votes. But that was 1997! One prediction that can be made is that the 2001 result will be different. The swingometer will swing and the most marginal seats in the country will be somewhere else. In addition I trust the returning Officer in Torbay will be initiating legal proceedings against the BBC. On the form your so-called journalists have signed, it states "Each person has to sign their own form. It is an offence to make a false statement on this form - maximum fine 5000." Now there's a good story for "Today".
Cllr Laurie Williiamson, Bolton UK

The postal voting system is a shamble

Rachael Barker, Newcastle, UK
The postal voting system is a shambles, and because of it I am unable to vote in this election. I am currently studying in Spain so voting by post was my only option. Although I applied for a postal vote weeks ago, I will not receive my form until Wednesday, leaving me unable to return it in time. I live in the Hexham constituency, where the Tory MP has a majority of only 222 over Labour, so my vote really would have counted. The Labour party complains of voter apathy being its biggest enemy, yet I want to vote Labour and am unable to do so.
Rachael Barker, Newcastle, UK

I've heard a story about someone registering their whole family of six adults for a postal vote - none of whom existed. However the real question is not how many postal votes are requested, but how many are actually validated and counted.
Chris Ransom, Colchester, Essex, UK

Could all this talk of obtaining votes for dead people be the start of politics going underground?
Andy McConnell, York, UK

For your information John, students have always been entitled to register to vote both at their parents' homes and at their term-time address. However, they are only allowed to vote in one constituency or the other, not both. Does anyone check that nobody votes in both, though?
Dave Riley, Cambridge, UK

In two successive elections I have been left without a vote. I am a service voter, and at the last (local) elections when I lived in Milton Keynes I did not receive a postal vote (although I was registered). I queried why and was told that it was tough luck - I was at the bottom of the list and they hadn't had time to get to the service voters at the bottom of the list! For the current election I went on holiday on 23 May - I hadn't received my voting form by that time. I am disgusted at the disregard I've been given by the incompetent administration of the postal voting system.
S Potterill, Lincoln, UK

I very much hope that the illegal application by a member of staff of the BBC in the obtaining of postal votes will be taken up by the police. This sort of headline seeking brings the BBC to a level that some third rate nations would not sink to.
Dave Camm, Stroud, UK

And we laughed at the American fiasco in Florida

Mark Rowan, Llanwrda , South Wales
My daughter at University has applied and voted by postal ballot. She was informed she could also vote in the University ward, and has received a poll card from her home constituency for June 7th. I wonder if the bright spark who instigated this ease in the voting system realised they could be giving lots of people who are alive, let alone the dead ones, more than one vote? And we laughed at the American fiasco in Florida.
Mark Rowan, Llanwrda , South Wales

To eradicate electoral fraud in all its forms, why not abolish the secret ballot? It might have had its place in the nineteenth century when voters were vulnerable to the intimidation of landlords and employers, but surely such days are past. If each individual could trace their vote, it would be possible to ensure that no double ballots or ballots of the deceased were cast.
Dan, Cambridge, UK

So Nick Wilson thinks any fraud will be discovered later. How? Does he really think someone is going to check with each "postal voter" how they voted? I think not. Even if such checks were made, even on a random basis, how could we detect that a ballot paper had been completed under pressure from a dominant person?
David Askew, Chislehurst, UK

I was amazed this election at how simple the procedure was for obtaining a postal vote. As a frequent traveller with work, I opted for this system - however we always need to ensure that the voting system is as inclusive as possible to ensure democracy. It is my belief that we should look into ways of making voting legally compulsory, even if voters are allowed to vote an "abstention". As to the possibilities of fraud, these will always exist, no matter which party and people are involved.
David K, London, UK

The BBC's news reports today have discussed the work that would be involved for electoral registration officers to check that applications are not being made for dead people as though this would have to be done as a manual task. In fact the process of registering deaths has been computerised for several years now. The NHS receives details of death registrations electronically (weekly!) and uses them to ensure that appointment letters are not sent to dead people. As electoral registers are also computerised it is a question of writing some software to put these sources of information together.
Howard Dews, Leeds, England

I am totally disgusted that the system is so open to abuse. I know people that have got two postal and one polling station card. This is not democracy, this is out and out fraud.
Sarah, UK

The "fraud" is not proven

Lionel, London, UK
The "fraud" is not proven: it is clearly more efficient to check only those postal votes returned. More will be requested than actually used, so wait and see. And if it is very easy, then it is likely that some dead people will be used by more than one fraudster - blowing the gaff.
Lionel, London, UK

Like most English people living abroad, I was unaware for a long time of the fact that I was able to vote by post in UK elections. This is my first - and probably last - vote. The government is trying to stop people voting after an absence of 20 years - does this mean I stop being British, with a Briton's rights?
Jane Murphy, Pyrgos, Greece

It is my opinion that postal voting will cause even more corruption in this country of ours as it has done in all others that have used this system. More corruption we do not need.
P E Nicholls, Birmingham, England

It's time we had electronic voting with pin numbers, available at home, work, polling stations and supermarkets. This would encourage more young people and workers to vote. Any voting abuse could more easily be detected and corrected. Counting would be quicker and more transparent. Peter Snow would have a field day with a live feed into the studio.
Allan, Leighton Buzzard, Beds

I come from Italy where electoral cheats have always been widespread even without the postal vote

Fred Gangemi, London
I come from Italy where electoral cheats have always been widespread even without the postal vote. I think that this BBC enquiry is an offensive and dangerous attempt to undermine the high civil and moral level of the UK and of its people.
Fred Gangemi, London, UK

I sincerely hope that postal voting isn't open to abuse as so many people will be using it. Whoever wins the election will be making decisions over what is possibly the most important five years in our history. If we find out that the winner won because of the abuse of the voting system, it will be a bigger shame to this country than that of the US fiasco.
John, London, UK

I have personal experience of questionable voting events. I stood against a Labour candidate and on the night both sets of supporters thought that the Labour candidate had lost. News then circulated that some votes had been misplaced and all of a sudden the returning officer declared the Labour candidate was the winner. Complaints were made and brushed aside by the returning office (he was an employee of the Labour Council). My point is that I understand that the postal votes will only be looked at if there is evidence of fraud and that may require losers to spend substantial sums in going to court to get access to the voting papers to prove such fraud.
Stephen Hunt, London, England

It's one way to increase the turn out, by giving everyone two chances to vote

John, Lincolnshire, UK
I'm a student and I've ended up with two polling cards even though my housemates and I filled in the correct forms saying we were all registered to vote elsewhere. But yet six polling cards arrive anyway. That's an extra vote for all six of us. I suppose it's one way to increase the turn out, by giving everyone two chances to vote.
John, Lincolnshire, UK

There is one section of the community that has been overlooked in the fuss about postal votes. They are the people who may be too busy to vote in person. They are up to their necks in things to do on Thursday. They are the politicians themselves!
John Abbott, Hull

I have had a postal vote in the past for the Scottish Parliament to allow me to vote from England. It was very convenient but I had to fill in a form to justify my request. I now have a postal vote for the general election that allows me to vote while abroad on placement. This was much easier to arrange and it is bound to encourage people to take up the opportunity and result in greater voter participation. I think people should be allowed to vote by post for convenience as well as medical or other reasons restricting their ability to reach a polling station. Keeping the electoral register up to date should be seen as a priority in order to avoid abuse of this system, but should not destroy the postal voting system.
Fiona Dane, Edinburgh, Scotland

The system is a shambles. As a student in 1997, I was registered in two places. I organised a postal vote for my home constituency and planned to vote just in the local elections in my university town. However, when I attempted to refuse the Westminster ballot paper I was told by the polling station official that it was perfectly legitimate to vote in two separate constituencies. All very confusing.
VR, London, UK

Well you can't accuse the dead of political apathy. Look at how many of the departed are voting by post in this election.
Mac, Dundee, Scotland

There have been allegations that postal voting is going to be abused in Stevenage, since 25,000 postal votes have been requested from the 70,000 voters in the town. As a resident, I can't see what the fuss is about. The local council (which was involved in a recent trial about postal voting) offered it to everyone in the town and they took it up. This town has a large number of commuters and mobile workers in it, so the uptake shouldn't be much of a surprise.
Lewis Graham, Stevenage, UK

I am not convinced that the reason for changing the postal system was non-partisan

Gary Ramsay, Manchester
I am not convinced that the reason for changing the postal system was non-partisan. I am also not convinced that any challenges will be successful. The Florida experience shows that when there are divisive electoral issues the outcome of any challenge may be surprising to many neutrals.
Gary Ramsay, Manchester, UK

Many people overseas still do not qualify for a postal vote and have no way of organizing a trusted proxy voter. Although every effort should be made to prevent fraud, to deny someone their vote is a far worse crime.
Simon Dicker, UK living in Philadelphia, USA

Unless the electoral register is marked to indicate that a person has already had a postal vote, there is nothing to stop anyone with a postal vote voting in person as well. Are we really expecting local authorities to have the resources to go through their entire electoral register to check if anyone has had 2 ballots papers?
Christopher Anton, Birmingham, UK

Postal vote fraud could be reduced by the simple measure of preventing candidates and agents from signing postal vote witness forms. I agree with Peter Balcombe, and know of at least one care home where the manager is a councillor for one of the major parties. Would you want this person witnessing resident's postal votes? Would you want the agent for a candidate witnessing postal votes?
Andrew Ircha, Cambridge, UK

I have voted by post this year as I moved up from London recently, and didn't have time to change my polling station. I wish there was a way that I could check whether my vote is being counted. This would however show crevasses rather than cracks in the system.
Chris, Birmingham

It is not possible to devise a voting system that does not depend on a great deal of trust

Andrew, Burnley, UK
The possibility has always been there to fiddle election results. I remember in the 1970s seeing my local Labour party going round the old folks' homes to collect postal votes. This was to save the voters the trouble of going to the post box. Nothing sinister was going on since they lost the subsequent election to the Tories! It is not possible to devise a voting system that does not depend on a great deal of trust. The voters have to trust the integrity of the organisers, and the organisers have to trust the honesty of the voters. The system falls apart without this, as could have happened in the US presidential elections if certain people had lost their nerve.
Andrew, Burnley, UK

I personally have a Westminster polling card for one constituency and a Westminster postal vote in another, just because of a cock-up.

The postal voting system is open to abuse in such areas as retirement homes. In the past a party may have bussed a group of pensioners to the booth to make sure they voted. Now that it is even easier to post the vote, it would seem that large concentrations of people such as these, could receive the votes by post and one person could 'handle' them to ensure they are returned. The average pensioner in such a home is usually very vulnerable and there is no check on the environment in which their vote is cast. They may not even be aware of what they are signing. At least they will understand a trip to the booth and there is a greater chance that they will exercise free will.
Stephen Hunt, London, England

It's easy, I've already voted by post 69 times...even my great-great grandfather has voted, and he last saw the light of day in 1897!
Geoff, Melton-Mowbray

After I had voted at the mayoral election a representative of one of the main parties asked to look at my polling card so he could tick off the address. I suppose this is so they can call on those who haven't voted before the day's end. It would be very easy to see which addresses hadn't voted at the end of the day and to use their votes
Simon B, UK

I am worried that my vote will not be counted

Tony Roberts, UK, working in Germany
I am working abroad for three weeks over the election period, and have realised that the postal voting system raises more concerns than merely fraudulent voting. Indeed, I am worried that my vote will not be counted! The blank ballots arrived late on Friday, less than a week before the election. There is a bank holiday in Germany on Monday so there may not be enough time for my vote to reach the returning officer. I cannot see how people living in more far-flung parts of the world can use the postal voting system. The system seems open to abuse, and may well disenfranchise voters who live further than 5 days post away. An integrated voting system, where each person has a unique voter number would be better. In this way people can choose to vote in numerous ways: on a paper ballot at the polling station, by a secure automated telephone line, by post, or even by the Internet. The current voting system seems antiquated and ill thought out.
Tony Roberts, UK, working in Germany

That a reporter lied to obtain seven votes in the most marginal constituency in the country is really not worth such a headline. With 650 MPs, and the fact losing candidates in the most marginal 20 seats will inevitably apply to the courts to review the ballot counts, I really don't see what you are fussing about. The truth will come out a month or so later. And imagine the humiliation of those red-faced candidates exposed as cheats. Please, let's focus on a bit more of substance
Nick Wilson, London

To vote they will have to fill in the forms and post them, providing written evidence of their fraud in addition to the applications that they've already sent. A serious electoral fraudster would have used the same information to vote in person, all they have to do is give the person's name without even having to sign anything. So the postal vote is actually more secure.
Andrew, Liverpool, UK

This is typical anti-deadist propaganda

David Patrick, Reading
This is typical anti-deadist propaganda. I see no good reason why someone should be prevented from voting purely because they are slightly dead. I thought this was supposed to be a country of equal opportunity.
David Patrick, Reading, UK

The previous contributions have overlooked a key point. The widespread use of postal voting undermines the principle of the secret ballot. In a voting booth I mark the paper in secret and then, under the eyes of the polling station staff, put the ballot paper in the box. Since it is impossible to guarantee that postal votes are cast in secret it would be possible to offer a vote to the highest bidder. This is an attractive possibility in somewhere like Torbay; a typically half-baked New Labour idea.
Chris Klein, Chandlers Ford England

This year I received two voting cards, one to my old London address and one to my parents' house in Leicester. Also, at the last election my university friend, a Kenyan national, received a voting card even though he had only entered the country to study that year. Apparently there has always been a problem!
Chris, Birmingham

Someone in the BBC must have sanctioned this reporter and the person who witnessed the applications. What action is being taken by the BBC and the authorities to see that these people are brought before the courts.
George Mitchell, Newcastle upon Tyne

Postal voting is a godsend for people wanting to abuse the electoral system

Bilal Patel, London, UK
Imagine if postal voting took place in a Middle Eastern country like Iraq. We'd be the first to point fingers and accuse the Iraqis of corruption. Postal voting is a godsend for people wanting to abuse the electoral system, and a wonderful excuse for politicians trying to justify their existence by pointing to high 'turnouts'.
Bilal Patel, London, UK

No system is foolproof unless we all start providing DNA samples. A postal vote needs the signature and address of a witness to verify the person voting. I have three votes this year, my own and two proxies. There are others who would trust me with their vote but the law only allows two non-family votes per proxy. All electoral systems rely on a certain amount of trust. There should be high penalties for anyone abusing this trust.
Pauline, London

Before my son went overseas for six months he applied for a proxy vote. Since returning home he applied for a postal vote which he now has. He also received a voting card for his home polling station and one for his constituency in Bristol. That's three votes!!!
Robyn Gray, Ross-shire

Postal voting is not any easier to abuse than any other system

Randal Smith, London
Voting is remarkably easy to abuse. But there is little abuse of it in most democracies. Postal voting per se is not any easier to abuse than any other system. Arguably the previous system that required forms to be signed by doctors or other professionals was disenfranchising working class people with limited access to professional people. Universal postal voting in New Zealand has led to a 20% jump in electoral participation. I think that it is worth the risk as long as the system is effectively policed.
Randal Smith, London, UK

Oh dear me. The talk of postal votes was made to seem revolutionary, especially in light of the foot and mouth crises. Now we hear that a little validation should have been in place and I wonder who exactly, was supposed to organise this? I wonder who's using my postal vote?
Colin, Netherlands

It sounds like its too easy to cheat the new postal vote system, but this is also true of the turn up and vote system. I know of three people who will not be voting, I know their names and addresses, I can turn up at their local polling station and cast their vote - easy. The whole system needs greater checks. It should be fairly easy to check if a person has been registered dead! Turn up & vote should require you to hand over your polling card before being given a ballot slip. The authorities should come down very hard on anyone even attempting to gain more than one vote - including the BBC journalist.

I live nearer to the polling station than the post box. Perhaps I should require the system to collect my vote to save me the arduous trip of 80 yards.
Barry, Havant, Wessex

If dead people voting was good enough for JFK, it's good enough for us. Is there anything to stop someone walking into a polling station with a dead person's polling card? At least this way the fake voter's postal address is on record.
Dave Riley, Cambridge, UK

The much-maligned national identity card could be used with computer voting to limit abuse

Al, UK
Of course the system is open to abuse. The current electoral system contains no checks to see if you are who you say you are; nor is there any system in place to ensure you do not vote more than once. I am not advocating the US system, as this has also been shown to be open to abuse, nor am I suggesting voter marking at the polling station, but if abuse is to be stopped or limited, some change must be introduced. The much-maligned national identity card could be used with computer voting to limit abuse, but how would this work for postal votes?
Al, UK

Working for an organisation that provides care for people with learning disabilities (and coincidentally a candidate at County level in the forthcoming elections) I am deeply worried about just how easy it would be for an unscrupulous operator to gift votes to the party of his or her choice. Scrupulous homes will be very careful to avoid dubious practice but when you are dealing with people whose understanding is limited it would be very easy to obtain votes wrongly.
Peter Balcombe, Norwich UK

There was no really good reason for allowing postal voting on demand for other than the traditional reasons

Gus Swan, London
I find both the report itself and the government's laconic response alarming. The result of the Hackney electoral fraud trial shows that even one or two people can pervert the democratic process. Just think what a systematic abuse could result in? When people are already supposedly apathetic and cynical of the democratic process, this revelation is hardly going to improve matters. There was no really good reason for allowing postal voting on demand for other than the traditional reasons of holidays or working trips. We should make strenuous efforts to register people without fixed abodes and get those who have difficulties to polling booths. Common sense tells me that wide-scale postal voting with our lax electoral scrutiny in this country is a recipe for abuse and fraud.
Gus Swan, London, UK

John Humphries made a ridiculous comment on the Today programme about some postal votes being sent from outside constituencies. This is inevitable if someone has moved away since registering at their previous address.
Keith Crane, York, GB

It's highly convenient for those of us living abroad.
Alex Banks, UK, Living in Holland


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