Postal-only voting may be introduced nationally

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Postal-only ballots are set to be used in elections across the country after a government study found that in some areas they increased voter turnout threefold.

Postal-only ballots are set to be used in elections across the country after a government study found that in some areas they increased voter turnout threefold.

The idea, which could spell the demise of traditional polling stations, proved hugely popular in pilot schemes and ministers are determined to extend it nationwide. Making the public vote by post instead of in person was the biggest single success in a raft of experiments held this year to tackle rising voter apathy.

Allowing votes at supermarkets and during weekends - two of the Government's more ambitious ideas to increase voter turnout - have proved a failure and are unlikely to be pursued.

According to research compiled by the Home Office, postal-only ballots used in this year's local elections led to large increases in turnout, attracting younger voters and commuters. All-postal ballots were the most successful of a range of new methods tested in pilot schemes run by 32 councils in May.

Ministers have been so impressed that some boroughs could have postal-only voting by 2002. Legislation would be required to follow suit for parliamentary elections.

Five types of pilot scheme were allowed by the Representation of the People Act 2000, including voting on Saturdays and Sundays, extended polling hours and mobile polling stations.

The Home Office study found that the wards of seven councils which had only postal voting recorded the largest increases in turnout. One ward in Gateshead had a 32 per cent increase on 1999, compared with a 0.7 per cent rise elsewhere in the borough. In Doncaster, the experiment in the Conisborough ward almost tripled turnout, from 16 per cent to nearly 43 per cent. John Pitt, Doncaster City Council's executive director, said: "This seems to be the way ahead."

In three Swindon all-postal wards, turnout was up by up to 13 per cent. Norwich had a turnout of 30 per cent in postal-only wards compared with 18 per cent elsewhere. In Stevenage turnouts were 49.2 per cent and 38.1 per cent against a borough average of 29.9 per cent. And in Wigan voter numbers were up 26 per cent in the three wards with postal votes.

The rises were achieved in both safe Labour and safe Tory wards, proving that postal voting attracts those most marginalised and those too busy to attend a polling station.

However, the research shows that it was only when voters were forced to use a postal vote and given no other option that the scheme was most effective. Four areas where poll cards had a tear-off freepost section to apply for a postal vote did little to improve turnout.

Fears have been expressed about the security of postal voting, but the pilot schemes found the best results occurred where councils abandoned the traditional requirement to have another person verify that the vote had been cast properly. With many people now living on their own, the requirement is seen by some ministers as old-fashioned and a deterrent to those wanting a "hassle-free" ballot.

Schemes to use mobile polling stations for those in sheltered housing were found to be useful. But other schemes proved failures. In Watford, where a polling booth was open at an Asda supermarket for two days prior to polling day, turnout actually fell, to 27 per cent from 36 per cent the previous year. Plymouth City Council also found early voting had little impact on apathy.