All-postal ballots help to raise turnout, but what about secrecy?by John Morrison / December 20, 2003 / Leave a comment
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.…