Why postal voting doesn't deliver an honest election

If you go and vote today you will certainly be in a minority. And if you don't vote today, how do you know someone has not voted for you? Certainly if you never bother to vote it's a doddle to vote in your place. The recent government belief that postal voting is the cure for all democratic ills has created a field day for the manipulation of elections. An application for a postal vote can be made in your name; the ballot paper can then legitimately be sent to a different address to your own and then completed and despatched by a party official. Hey presto, you've voted! I am not a bit surprised to read that 480 postal vote applications arrived on the last day in a single Leeds ward. The rules invite such manoeuvres.

If you treat election literature as as the equivalent of the local pizzeria flyers, you'll sweep it all into the bin and no question will ever be posed. Once the ballot paper is let out of the polling station the election result cannot be guaranteed. It is attendance at a designated polling station and the marking of a ballot paper in secret that underpins the integrity of the whole electoral process.

Some absentee voting is unavoidable. Electors like me who regularly work overseas need a means of voting, as do refugees forced out of their homes, but the vast majority of postal votes are for individuals resident in their home electoral area and these individuals most certainly do not need the dubious benefits of the Royal Mail to participate in the democratic process.

In the course of forty-eight electoral missions to thirty-five different new and emerging democracies, I have never recommended postal voting on demand as now exists in Britain. Many of these countries use instead a very simple procedure which could easily be adopted in our own, apparently backward, if ancient democracy. They have the mobile ballot box!

All voters unable to get to the polling station, with or without transport, can request the mobile ballot box. Two members of the electoral staff, accompanied by party observers, take a ballot box and a portable screen to the elector's home, or to the hospital or care home. The screen is set up on a bed or a table and the elector votes in secret. If able-bodied would be postal voters are excluded the logistical challenge is nowhere as massive as one might imagine, and the financial investment is well worthwhile. More to the point, the manipulation of postal ballots is stopped in its tracks.

What is the alternative? Under the present system even legitimate - as opposed to unnecessary - postal voters can be traduced. In West Leeds I used to have to write to postal voters to warn them not to give their ballot papers, completed or not completed, to anyone they did not know, ie to Labour party workers who went round the day the votes arrived offering to witness the unsuspecting and often vulnerable voter completing the ballot paper and then to post it for them.

All parties are guilty. In another town the matron of a care home was a keen Liberal and I fear that she "assisted" the completion of ballot papers. On one occasion the Conservatives got their cars to the home first to transport the more able-bodied electors to the polling station. "Don't worry," she said, "I only let the Liberal voters go - I said the others were too ill to be allowed out!"

The impersonation of individual electors is far from being the only fragility of postal voting. It is not widely realised that some multiple voting is legal in Britain. It is, for instance, perfectly legal for an individual to register for each residence he or she possesses. Thus a London voter can also register for a second home in Cornwall, Snowdonia or wherever. It is, however, illegal to vote more than once at a general election, and the official marked register, publicly available, showing who has voted, is a key deterrent.

However, at local elections, an individual can legally vote in each separate municipal authority for which he or she is registered, and legal but indiscriminate postal voting contributes to a dubious legitimacy which can skew voting influence away from those who reside permanently in a town or village.

Even in the unlikely event of technical innovations being developed which would cut off most or even all of the logistical fraud, there is a further key weakness of postal voting that no rule or regulation can prevent: the pressure and influence on family members by a dominant family head. The scenario is very clear. Postal votes for all family members arrive through the post. They are then seized or demanded by the head of the family who completes all the ballot papers and insists that the individual family members sign the form that has to accompany the ballot paper in the separate envelope that has to be mailed with the ballot paper.

The reality is that, although there are still patriarchal families within some working class communities, it is, alas, within the Asian community that this situation is prevalent. It is simply not acceptable to those of us who have spent decades fighting racism and discrimination to have electors within ethnic minorities inhibited from casting their votes individually.

All this comes back to the role and powers of the Electoral Commission. It is the Commission that should control and be responsible for elections. In Britain we have the worst of all worlds with an Electoral Commission which is legally prevented from having members who have experience of party politics and which has only an advisory rather than authoritative role. None of us who work on the international scene with new and emerging democracies would ever accept such an impotent constitutional role for the Electoral Commission. We know that only a Commission fully independent of government, and with the power to determine the conduct of the electoral process, can guarantee the legitimacy of that process.

Go and vote today, whether in person or by post. You may well be entirely honest and committed, but do realise the dangers of absentee voting. The death of party politics is not inevitable. The decline of participation in elections is not inexorable. In France last month 86% of the electors went to vote because they realised how crucial are their presidential elections. If voters in Britain felt the same way we would see the same revival of voting. The political parties are far more vital to electoral involvement than are electoral gimmicks. We need to tackle the disease, not the symptoms.

1 May 2007