Thousands of British military personnel based in Afghanistan have been disenfranchised in the general election because they have not been registered and there remain massive problems in getting their postal votes back in time.
Only around 65 per cent of the 9,500-strong UK force in the country are registered to vote and many of these will have to be brought back from frontline bases in Helmand which are under daily Taliban fire.
The Independent revealed last month that the troops were in danger of losing their votes. The Ministry of Defence has now asked a council in Hampshire – Rushmoor – to handle the postal votes which do make it back to Britain and then get back to the constituencies by the time the polls close on 6 May.
Andrew Colver, who is running the operation for the council, acknowledged that counting the military votes in time is a daunting task and success is uncertain. “At the end of the day there are a number of operational issues which meant that the process cannot be guaranteed,” he said. “But we have done a lot of planning on this and I think we can make it work.”
Under electoral laws, postal votes could not be issued until the close of nominations, 11 days before the election date putting a huge strain on the task of sending out the ballot papers and getting them back on time. Julie McCarthy, of the Army Families Federation, said: “There are tremendous problems with postal votes. It would take up to 12 days to come back from Kabul, which sould have meant a person’s vote wouldn’t have counted.”
Some of the other Western countries with forces in Afghanistan have taken special measures for voting from the country to take place in their elections. The Canadians had sent out poll boxes with enough of a time gap to ensure that votes would not be delayed and US troops will vote on the internet during the mid-term elections later this year.
Neither of those options, however, were allowed under British electoral laws, forcing the Ministry of Defence to try and organise the postal votes at a particularly busy time, with the present brigade in Helmand being replaced 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.
A straw poll on the unofficial military website, ARRSE (Army Rumour Service), 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 was set up to consider how to deal with the problem of ensuring troops’ votes are counted. 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 had urged Service personnel to use proxy votes. 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.”