All-postal ballots help to raise turnout, but what about secrecy?by John Morrison / December 20, 2003 / Leave a comment
Published in December 2003 issue of Prospect Magazine
Like mains drainage and the national railway timetable, voting by secret ballot is an example of “what the Victorians did for us.” But unlike other legacies of the 19th century, the secret ballot’s days are numbered if changes to the law on how Britons cast their votes go ahead. Introduced here by Gladstone in the 1872 Ballot Act, the system of sealed ballot boxes, voting slips and polling stations is so familiar that we take it for granted. But abolition is moving closer, and we shall miss it when it is gone. The next general election may be the last chance the British have to vote in a truly secret ballot. Under the European parliamentary and local elections (pilots) bill, which is likely to become law in December, the government will have the power to order all-postal ballots in three out of the 12 constituencies used to elect UK members of the European parliament in June 2004, and in local elections on the same day. In one of the three constituencies the government is keen to try out electronic voting too, although the electoral commission will probably advise it not to take the risk. After three years of small-scale pilots of all-postal voting and other methods in local elections, 2004 will see up to a quarter of the electorate denied access to a traditional polling station. Next year is a point of no return. In the words of the electoral commission’s report “The Shape of Elections to Come,” (July 2003) the pilots programme has “irreversibly changed the electoral process: the door has been opened to methods of voting that are inclusive and convenient. The commission does not wish to see this door closed, especially at the risk of participation declining to 2001 levels.” Although the next general election in 2005 will be held under the traditional system, the government has said that referendums on regional government across northern England will be held under an all-postal system. And the goal is to hold an “e-enabled” general election after 2006. The reason for the rush to all-postal voting is not that voters are demanding change. The opposite is true. Mori researchers for the electoral commission found that 74 per cent are satisfied with the traditional voting process, compared to 14 per cent who are dissatisfied. Of those who voted at polling stations last May, 94 per cent said it was convenient. The reason for change is that local election pilot schemes have shown all-postal voting to be the one method that delivers a significant rise in turnout, now the overriding priority of Westminster politicians who worry that declining turnouts are stripping them of legitimacy. The commission has warned the government that the root causes of disengagement from politics go deeper than the method of voting, but postal ballots are still seen as a means of ending the spiral of decline. In all-postal experiments, turnout has jumped by between 10 and 20 points, (although electronic voting has had little or no comparable impact). Some analysts say the rise can be explained by the extra publicity, but the commission believes the improvement is sustainable and has recommended that all-postal voting be used for all future local elections. The trouble is that alternatives to the polling booth are deeply flawed and possibly illegal under European human rights law. Researching this article, I began by looking up the original Commons debates on the Ballot Act. What I discovered in the yellowing pages of Hansard for 1871 was an exhaustive argument over the secret ballot. Before 1872, electors voted in public, exercising what was seen as a trust on behalf of the majority excluded from the suffrage. But the widening of the franchise in 1867 meant that voting was increasingly seen as an exercise in individual conscience, a change which persuaded Gladstone to accept a change in the law. He argued that reform was inevitable to protect the weak and the dependent. Secrecy meant that the state would now protect the rights of newly enfranchised tenants and employees to keep secret from their landlords and employers how their ballots had been cast. Above all, the reform was designed to destroy the corruption inherent in the open voting system. “We do not believe that the disposition to bribe can operate with anything like its present force when the means of tracing the effect of the bribe are taken away, because men will not pay for that which they do not know they will ever receive,” Gladstone told the Commons. Gladstone and his contemporaries understood the paradox of the secret ballot. The integrity of the election process can only be guaranteed by giving individual voters the chance to lie about how they have voted. The drift away from the Ballot Act began in the late 1990s when a low-profile home office working party was set up to look at ways of increasing voter turnout, which fell to 71.4 per cent in the 1997 general election. It failed to carry out any research, but its work led to legislation allowing local authorities to experiment with pilots of alternative voting methods, and permitting voters to apply for postal ballots on demand. By the time the new electoral commission had issued its first report in 2001, the opportunity to vote from the sofa was already available. In the words of commission chairman Sam Younger, “Any patriarch who wants to guarantee that his family votes the right way can do it now. He certainly doesn’t need an all-postal ballot to do it. The patriarch fills in the household registration and can sign up his family for a postal ballot without them having any say in it.” In 2000, 32 electoral pilots were held, including the first tests of all-postal voting and electronic voting kiosks. Two years later, 30 pilots were held, covering 2.5m local electors, and including remote electronic voting. Average turnout at all-postal elections was around 47.5 per cent, compared to a national average at traditional polling stations of around 33 per cent. Postal voting and electronic voting by telephone, internet or digital television weaken the secret ballot by taking the act of voting out of range of the supervised polling station and into the private surroundings of the home, where a completed ballot paper can be inspected by others before it is placed in its envelope. On the internet one person can look over another’s shoulder, or even vote on behalf of other family members. In the words of Sarah Birch of Essex University, “Bringing voting into the home might have the effect of reversing over 100 years of ‘modernisation’ in voting norms, by turning voting into a collective family activity.” Some voters could be caught between competing value systems, forced to choose between family ties and political loyalties. “What happens when your son-in-law, in whose house you are living, announces that he is going to vote online for the whole family because he doesn’t want anyone else ‘messing with’ his computer?” Birch and her colleague Bob Watt argue in an article in Political Quarterly that home voting is incompatible with the secret ballot, one of the key pillars of the European convention on human rights (ECHR). European case law in this area is scarce, but Watt points to a 1972 ruling by the Irish supreme court as evidence that Britain would be vulnerable to a challenge. Sam Younger acknowledged to me that in taking voting out of the polling station, “you lose that greater guarantee of secrecy.” But he believes that the loss is outweighed by the greater convenience and higher turnout that all-postal voting brings. He says voters who distrust the postal system will still have the right to take their voting slip to an access point in every constituency on polling day and hand it over in person. He also wants the government to impose stiffer penalties for abuses, and offer returning officers the chance to opt out of postal voting if they have serious worries about it. Younger admitted to me that though the commission had carried out extensive opinion research, it had never asked postal voters the obvious question: how many of them had filled out their ballot papers in secret? Events, he accepts, may prove him wrong: “If we go an all-postal route and we find that a significant proportion of people aren’t filling in their ballot secretly, then I will have to eat my hat and we will have to look again at it.” But unless the commission abandons focus groups and opinion polling for real empirical research on how voters behave, the evidence will never be found. Under the leadership of Younger, a former BBC executive, the commission has won plaudits for its vigour, but in its drive to raise voter turnout, it has become less of a neutral referee and more of an agency delivering government policy. In early November the election pilots bill completed its Commons committee stage, with only seven out of 13 clauses being debated in a week of superficial and ill-informed argument. Previously, at the second reading on 21st October, it was clear that a lobby of Labour MPs from Scotland and the north of England was pushing for their areas to be chosen for all-postal voting next June. Some of them argued openly that a boost in turnout in Labour’s northern heartlands would favour the ruling party. Veteran electoral expert David Butler of Oxford University believes that postal voting in Scotland, the northeast region and the northwest region could add up to an extra 1 or 2 per cent for Labour nationally in the European parliament election. He is, however, worried about the all-postal ballot. Another word of caution comes from electronic democracy specialist Stephen Coleman of Oxford University. “There is all sorts of potential for pressure to be put on people… But I’m not sure I can see the clock being turned back.” Even the Labour party’s own solicitor Gerald Shamash, who has long experience of fighting court cases over disputed elections, is worried about where things are heading: “I am raising concerns about what we are doing in our quest for turnout.” Similar views were expressed by a range of experts, including Malcolm Dumper, a Southampton city official and an executive director at the Association of Electoral Administrators (AEA). He told me that postal fraud was largely uninvestigated, and he was worried about the ability of the Royal Mail to deliver and collect ballots on time. Despite these worries, the government is determined to push ahead. Christopher Leslie, the junior minister in the department of constitutional affairs responsible for the bill, looked uncomfortable for a moment when I told him he was dismantling one of Gladstone’s great reforms. He argues that elections have to be adapted to match the lifestyle choices of the generation whose only voting experience is for reality television programmes. “The reason why Pop Idol and Big Brother get large numbers of people voting is not just the subject matter but the fact that people do not have to put on a coat and walk for ten minutes to the polling station.” Leslie’s view is that secrecy is a right, but not a compulsory guarantee, and voting by post is a long-established practice. He told me that the risk of a rise in undue influence through home voting was a theoretical issue, not a real one. “The nature of families has changed… partners and older children are quite capable of getting hold of their ballot and making sure they cast it in the right way.” With the government confident that it can avoid a legal challenge, the road map for the modernisers is clear. A rollout of all-postal voting at regional level in 2004 will lead to higher turnout and a groundswell of support. After the next general election, Gladstone’s fuddy-duddy ballot boxes can be put on display in museums.