Saturday, 2 May 2015

We must address confusion over postal votes.

This post is not meant to be a criticism of any of our local councils or their 'election teams' but rather a general complaint about the system and its lack of clarity. 

This week my office has been almost paralysed by calls and emails from confused or concerned voters regarding late or missing ballot papers. By Wednesday we stopped logging the calls as the number had reached 200. I am sure the local councils were inundated, too. 

The main problem seems to be where council and parliamentary boundaries are not co-terminus and where one authority is responsible for issuing local government ballot papers and another for the parliamentary ballot papers.  

For example:

Tonbridge & Malling Borough Council is responsible for issuing postal vote packs to all residents for the Borough Council election as well as those in the Tonbridge and Malling Parliamentary constituency. Voters in the Tonbridge & Malling constituency therefore received two ballot papers, one for the Borough election and the other for the Parliamentary election. However, a resident in one of the eight Tonbridge & Malling Borough wards which fall within the Chatham & Aylesford parliamentary constituency, you would have only received one ballot paper (for the local election). The second (parliamentary) ballot paper came almost a week later from Medway Council, who are running the parliamentary election in Chatham & Aylesford.

This issue alone has caused endless confusion and concern:
  • Residents swamped the office with calls and emails concerned that their parliamentary ballot paper had forgotten or left out of the envelope
  • Others wanted to know why Tracey Crouch's name was not on the ballot paper
  • Some were angry over the additional cost of sending two ballot packs
Then there was the anger that many people had applied for a postal vote as they were going on holiday, but the later than expected delivery meant many had left home before the ballot pack had arrived and had been effectively disenfranchised. 

I am now receiving concerned calls and emails because many postal voters (a high number of whom are elderly or housebound) have sent both ballot papers back in the same envelope or accidentally sent them in the wrong envelope. 

It is interesting to note that we have received almost no complaints whatsoever from areas where the same council is handling both elections; these problems only seem to occur when one council is dealing with residents in a neighbouring borough. 

There must be a  better way of doing this for the benefit of all concerned, especially the voters who are at the end of the day the "customers" and whose democratic rights are being affected. 

For example:
  • I do not see why the same authority cannot issue both district and parliamentary ballot papers then simply transfer the parliamentary ballot papers to the relevant parliamentary authority at 10pm on polling day. After all, the same process happens in reverse when the parliamentary authority verify the local government ballot papers and transfer them to the borough after the verification.
  • It would also help if the much maligned Electoral Commission set a mandatory date when all postal ballots must be posted by 1st class mail.  This would enable residents planning a holiday to know exactly when the postal ballot would arrive and avoid hundreds of people being disenfranchised by late delivery. 
After the election I will be pushing as hard as I can for some degree of national standard regarding the issue of postal votes, in particular a set day when all councils must post out their ballot packs. Such clarity would (or should) be welcomed by political parties, Returning Officers and the public - and I can see no logistical or administrative reason not to do so.  Most importantly, it would enable residents going on holiday to opt for a proxy vote rather than finding their unopened ballot papers on the doormat when they return from holiday on Saturday 9 May, as will be happening to hundreds of local residents in my part of Kent. 

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