Shops to have polling booths

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The Independent Online
JACK STRAW is to rush through legislation to make it possible to vote over several days and at supermarket polling stations - a move that he hopes will encourage turn-out and combat voter apathy

Only 24 per cent of people turned out to vote last week in the European elections, beating the record lowest turn-out in any national election. The next worst was in 1984, when only 33 per cent cast votes - also in a Euro poll.

Around the country, the Conservatives had, on average, a 10 per cent better turn-out than in Labour strongholds, where only 20 per cent cast their vote.

In the south-west of England, traditionally Lib Dem territory, 28 per cent went to the polls.

The Home Secretary, shocked by the record low ballot, will this summer act on proposals to set up an expert body to reform the voting system.

The influential Working Party on Electoral Procedures is expected to recommend that voters have a choice of where they vote, with mobile polling stations introduced in post offices and shops.

Mr Straw also wants to encourage voting by introducing telephone polling and voters' identity cards, which will enable people to choose their polling station. There are also plans to extend election day to up to three days to boost voter turn-out.

But the group of experts, from each political party and town halls around the country, has rejected calls for weekend voting, for fear of offending the churches. It wants to mirror voting systems in Texas, where the public can cast their vote in public places, including shopping malls, over several days.

"They are looking at extending the time for voting so that you don't have to go to your polling station on one particular day," said one source close to the Working Party.

Mr Straw will also end restrictions on postal voting, at the moment limited to people going away or those unable to travel to a polling station.

Pilot schemes throughout the country will test which methods of voting work best in elections. The report of the Working Party's final recommendations will be prepared in the late summer; the new system is expected to be implemented before the next election.

"He is modernising the system to bring it into line with people's lifestyles whilst ensuring that the integrity of the system is not affected," a Home Office spokesman said. "We are planning to make it more user friendly."

The dearth of voters is expected to boost the Conservatives, who have put in their best performance in any poll since the 1992 general election. The Green Party could also outperform expectations, capitalising on a "protest vote" against Labour, although that may not be enough to deliver their target of three MEPs. The Lib Dems are expected to gain around 10 MEPs in their best showing in the Euro-elections to date.

Labour has launched an enquiry into the party's poor showing. Some senior MPs last night called for Peter Mandelson, who masterminded the 1997 election victory, to be brought back to oversee campaigns.

Senior party members are urging Mo Mowlam, the popular Northern Ireland Secretary, to assume a powerful new position overseeing party and government strategy. The cabinet office is already making preparations for the new super-job, which would involve liaising with Labour's Millbank Tower.

But Dr Mowlam has indicated that she does not want to leave the Northern Ireland Office unless the peace process is safely on track.