Phone and e-mail voting may boost election turn-out

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Voters may may be able to choose their candidate over the telephone or the internet at the next general election, under a scheme designed to increase turnout.

Voters may may be able to choose their candidate over the telephone or the internet at the next general election, under a scheme designed to increase turnout.

The Electoral Commission, which regulates and monitors elections, is planning to launch a pilot telephone voting scheme which will enable more absent voters to participate in polls.

A report published yesterday by the Commission concluded that "the single most important issue arising from the 2001 general election is the need to address, urgently and radically, the decline in public participation".

The Commission also pledged to explore whether an American-style head-to-head debate between party leaders would help fight public apathy. This comes as an embarrassment to Tony Blair, who refused requests from William Hague and Charles Kennedy for such a debate in the run-up to the last election.

Voter turnout on 7 June fell below 60 per cent, after a 71 per cent turn-out in 1997.

The Commission's root and branch review of elections will also look at establishing a national register of voters and the use of cable and satellite channels in party election broadcasts. Advertisements during the election campaign may be regulated for the first time, with a code outlawing personal attacks on party leaders.

The Commission will also look at setting a top rate for political donations and will consider arguments, promoted by smaller parties such as the Liberal Democrats, for the introduction of state funding of political parties.

At the last general election, Labour and the Tories had budgets of around £15m each, while the Liberal Democrats had less than £3m and the Green party only about £30,000.

New rules covering the conduct of trade unions and other organisations that play a political role in elections may be drawn up.

The Commission plans to look at the rules governing small parties, including those fielding only one candidate, following complaints that they face excessive red tape.

The report said: "It is already clear that we will need to review the rules as they affect small parties in order to minimise the administrative burden on them and ensure that they are not discouraged from participation in the electoral process."

Spending by political parties during the election may be scrutinised, and a new code of practice introduced. The parties would have three months from the end of the campaign to submit their campaign returns, but this may be reviewed.

The modernisation of elections would include exploring the greater use of electronic systems to help count voters.

"We will support and promote the widespread introduction of electronic systems and new technology to underpin the efficient administration of voting and counting," the report said.

The Commission has been given funds to create education schemes to try to encourage public interest in elections.

Postal voting is to be expanded and schemes will be introduced to guard against fraud in this area.

"We believe that we must promote the availability of means by which voters can participate without having to visit a polling station," the report said. "We also believe that the future lies in finding secure means of extending absent voting through use of telephones and the internet, and we will be promoting pilot schemes in these areas."

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