Thousands OF British military personnel in Afghanistan risk losing their say in the impending general election because of massive problems in getting their postal votes back in time.
The possible "disenfranchisement" of many among the 9,100-strong force could have a crucial impact on marginal constituencies in what is expected to be a very close contest.
Under electoral laws, postal votes cannot be issued until the close of nominations, 11 days before the election date. They must be returned to the constituencies by the close of polling to remain valid. The timeframe for this – with Gordon Brown widely expected to set the election for early May – comes at a particularly busy time in Helmand for British troops.
The process of sending out the postal votes and getting them back would coincide with replacement of the present brigade in Helmand by the next one, a huge undertaking in moving personnel and material when aircraft are in short supply and the "airbridge" between the UK and Afghanistan is under increased pressure.
Most of the aircraft used in Afghan-istan are pooled between the various Nato partners, with the US providing the bulk of the supply. But British military commanders on the ground say they are unsure whether foreign helicopters can be used to help in a British election at a time of heavy demand for military operations against the Taliban.
There are also major difficulties in ensuring troops in the frontline bases in areas such as Sangin, Babaji and Musa Qala, which often come under daily Taliban fire, get an opportunity to take part in the ballot.
Getting out the postal votes to these places – infrequently served by air, and with land convoys running a gauntlet of roadside bombs – and getting them back to the headquarters at Lashkar Gar and Camp Bastion, then returning them to the UK and to constituencies within days, would, say defence officials, be an incredibly difficult task .
A straw poll in the unofficial military website, ARRSE, showed that 57 per cent of the troops said they would vote Conservative, with 7 per cent saying they would opt for Labour.
A cross-department government body is considering how to deal with the problem. During a recent House of Lords debate, the Under-Secretary of State at the Ministry of Justice, Lord Bach, said it was possible to set up a scheme to deliver ballot papers to and from Afghanistan using supply flights but conceded: "I have to emphasise that operational priorities must prevail at all times and we cannot guarantee success."
The chair of the Electoral Commission has been pessimistic about the prospect of postal ballots and has urged Service personnel to use proxy votes. Launching a campaign aimed at the Armed Forces, Jenny Watson said: "You can register to vote by post. But the tight timescale and logistical challenges involved in getting a ballot paper to you and back home again may make this an unrealistic option. You put your lives on the line for our country so make sure you have a vote on election day."
A Ministry of Defence spokesman said: "We have had successful campaigns getting Service voters to register and we are working closely with the Ministry of Justice to make suitable provisions, including fast-tracking postal voting forms. Due to operational priorities, no plan we can put in place will be infallible but personnel still have the option of voting by proxy."
A defence official said that there had been "no great desire" among Service personnel to take up the proxy vote offer, and making the postal ballot work "somehow" remained the best option.Reuse content