Early Voting

Part of the debate – in Westminster Hall at 4:56 pm on 11th February 2009.

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Photo of Michael Wills Michael Wills Minister of State, Ministry of Justice, The Minister of State, Ministry of Justice 4:56 pm, 11th February 2009

I accept the first point that the hon. Gentleman makes: there are always local factors, especially in local elections, where turnout is particularly low. We accept absolutely that there are methodological problems in that, and that is why, in answer to his second question, we have an open mind. I am not committing to that at all, as there would be considerable problems in so doing.

We are taking a breath on further pilots for the time being, but we will publish our electoral strategy by the summer, which will set out a vision of how we want electoral policy to develop for the next 10 years or more and for at least two Parliaments. At the heart of that policy will be the overriding imperative for elections to be not only legitimate, but perceived to be so. Central to that legitimacy are precisely the concerns that my hon. Friend has voiced in this debate about participation and making voting accessible to every voter who wants to vote, targeting dedicated, routine and habitual voters and also opportunistic voters who will perhaps only vote if it is convenient.

With that quest in mind, in June 2008 the Ministry of Justice launched a consultation on whether turnout would be likely to increase if elections were moved from the traditional polling day of Thursday to one or both days of the weekend. My hon. Friend rightly drew attention to the conservative—with a lower case "c"—habits of election policy in this country. We have got into the habit of holding elections on Thursdays for no obvious reasons other than tradition. We also asked people what they thought about other forms of voting, including advance voting.

We have not yet completed our analysis of the responses, as we received nearly 1,000, but we will publish the report soon. I would like to share some of the findings today because they are informative. The consultation asked whether greater access to advance voting in polling stations should be made available alongside weekend voting. Although the question referred to advance voting in conjunction with weekend voting, the vast majority of respondents chose to address the issue on its own merits. Unfortunately, the results suggest that there is not a huge demand for advance voting.

Obviously, the consultation is not a statistically representative reflection of the views of the public as a whole—the views expressed were those of people with a particular interest, and the sample was self-selecting—but it is valuable evidence none the less and we should not ignore it. In all, 240 respondents gave their views on advance voting. Overall, 31 per cent. were in favour, because they felt that it would provide increased accessibility and voter convenience, but a quarter of those were not strongly in favour. They argued that it should be introduced only on a limited basis and only if it proved to have a significant impact on turnout.

There was some support for making advance polling available at centrally located polling stations rather than at all of them—that relates to the points made by both hon. Members who have spoken. Some respondents suggested making advance voting available in non-traditional but well attended places such as train stations, town centres, supermarkets and shopping centres. However, about 60 per cent. overall were opposed. Many local authorities and electoral administrators noted that it would be likely to add significantly to the cost and complexity of running elections, as the cost of staff, premises and security would almost certainly increase depending on how many polling stations were open in advance of polling day and for how long. One would expect the local authorities responsible for funding to be deeply concerned about that, particularly at the moment.

Nearly a third of those opposed noted that it was already possible for those unable or unwilling to attend a polling station on election day to vote by post. However, that does not deal with the fundamental point that I made earlier about the importance for many people and for our democracy that one should be able to affirm one's vote in public in a polling booth. There are also security issues.

In considering any move towards advance voting, we would also need to consider the impact on the election timetable and party political election campaigning. If polling stations were open in advance, it would bring a profound change—maybe a welcome one—to the way that political parties approach election campaigning. They are used to doing things leading up to the key polling date on Thursday, so there would be problems for them too.

One potential electoral innovation that attracted support among respondents to the consultation was remote electronic voting. We have conducted trials in which it appeared to have a positive impact on turnout, although there were other issues from which we must learn lessons. Remote e-voting clearly has potential advantages. For example, we must make an extra effort, perhaps now more than ever, to ensure that our armed forces serving overseas can vote, and people with disabilities could certainly benefit from it.

However, there are issues of security and of public confidence in elections. Although we are increasingly becoming an online nation, many people are still uncomfortable with online operations, and we do not want a significant section of our electorate to be suspicious of the means of voting. One great advantage of voting in a polling station is that it is physical and can be seen, so it inherently still commands more confidence.

The Government recognise that we must ensure that our electoral processes put the elector at the heart of the system. I will publish a strategy and vision that will include our view on how best we can do so. Fundamentally, though, as my hon. Friend rightly said, the electoral system must be beyond partisan dispute, and all measures need to be developed on the basis of cross-party consensus. I believe that that consensus exists on these issues. I do not believe that the matter is a party one at all; I agree completely with her.

Although the evidence does not support my hon. Friend's proposition at the moment, we remain open-minded. I am delighted that she has engaged so vigorously with it. In the context, I can assure her of a wider electoral strategy. We will continue to explore whether advance voting should be part of that. In the shorter term, I understand that she and I have a date in the diary for about two weeks from now, when we can discuss these important issues further.

Question put and agreed to.

Sitting adjourned.

Annotations

Jason Kitcat
Posted on 16 Feb 2009 10:37 pm (Report this annotation)

How sad that the Government still continue to trot out the turnout argument in favour of electronic voting. At least the minister acknowledges some of the other problems with e-voting. But this turnout argument is just a distraction if not completely untrue. Further details: http://www.jasonkitcat.com/?be_id=317

A healthy, competitive, open democracy with many parties, proportional representation, an elected upper house and democratic regional government is what is needed; not technoratic twiddling with the voting process.