Watchdog warns against all-postal voting

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The Government's plans to extend all-postal voting are in disarray after the Electoral Commission said it should no longer be used in British elections after allegations of abuse undermined public confidence.

The Government's plans to extend all-postal voting are in disarray after the Electoral Commission said it should no longer be used in British elections after allegations of abuse undermined public confidence.

In a report published today, the independent elections watchdog said people should continue to be given the option of casting their votes at polling stations and should not be forced to vote by post.

The Commission says postal voting could play a part but it should not be the only method of expressing a preference.

The verdict is a severe setback for ministers, who are keen to spread all-postal voting on the grounds that it boosts turnout. It means that the traditional ballot box may survive for many years despite its much-predicted demise.

The Commission found that the experiment with voting by post in four regions at the June European Parliament and local elections was "marred by problems", including "the timescale imposed, complexity of the voting method, logistical issues, and reports of abuse, which resulted in a lessening of public confidence".

However, the Commission could not yet conclude whether postal ballots had led to an increase in fraud or malpractice. Despite media reports of intimidation, bribery and fraud, only two allegations had resulted in arrests. But many returning officers are still completing their post-election audits.

"Whilst it has supported all-postal voting for local elections, the Commission acknowledges that based on the evidence of these pilots, all-postal voting should no longer be pursued for use at UK elections," said the report. "Instead a new model should be devised that allows voters to go to polling stations if they wish, while retaining the best features of all-postal voting."

It called for a moratorium on postal-only ballots until that happened. Surprisingly, the watchdog said the proposed all-postal referendum in November on a regional assembly in the North-east should go ahead because it was too late to change it. The Government will reject Tory demands for it to be scrapped, but there are now grave doubts that postal voting will be used when people in the North-west and Yorkshire and the Humberside decide whether to have a regional assembly.

Caroline Spelman, the Tory spokesman on local government, said: "This is a vote of no confidence in the Government's handling of all-postal voting in the June elections, as evident by the Electoral Commission's criticism of both John Prescott's and Lord Falconer's departments.

"The planned regional assembly referendum in the North-east in November should now be postponed, given there is insufficient time to introduce tougher anti-fraud measures."

Turnout in the European elections was 42.4 per cent in the North-east, North-west, Yorkshire and the Humber and East Midlands, more than 5 per cent higher than the non-pilot regions (37.1 per cent), and nearly 4 per cent above the UK figure (38.5 per cent). Although people believed postal voting was convenient, a significant minority strongly opposed it. There was strong public support for a choice of secure voting channels.

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