On Wednesday last week Parliament had a Westminster Hall debate on the subject of electoral administration, triggered by Meg Munn, the Labour MP for Sheffield Heeley.
Sheffield was one of the areas particularly badly affected by the problems with people queuing to vote at 10pm on polling day, and it was this issue which dominated her opening remarks. Citing the Electoral Commission’s views on the matter, she urged the government to change the law to enable those who are still queuing at 10pm to be allowed to vote in future.
This proposal received support from other MPs during the debate as did her concerns about the number of electors that some polling stations are meant to service. One way to tackle this, she suggested, was the provision of early voting places and also the trialing of weekend voting.
Regular readers of this site will know my support of more investigation of weekend voting. Early voting has however been tested out repeatedly in pilots with poor results: little impact on turnout and little reason to believe it is a cost-effective way of spending money.
Despite the considerable sums of money spent on these trials, there outcomes were not mentioned during the debate – a small but less than flattering example of how Parliamentary debates sometimes rather skimp on consideration of the evidence, even when it has been produced as the result of a scheme that Parliament voted for (the election pilots) and paid for by public funds.
A similar point applies to the support for electronic voting espoused by the Swindon MP, Justin Tomlinson. He did refer to the outcome of the pilots that took place on his patch, but described them without contradiction as “very successful” when in fact “very controversial” would be a more apt description: they were popular with voters, but unpopular with many IT security experts who doubted their security and they were costly without raising turnout significantly.
Andrew Percy raised the question of the appearance in his constituency (Brigg and Goole) of polling cards, containing information on how to apply for a postal vote, after the deadline for applications. He urged that, “Legislation should include a provision that polling cards must be sent out before the deadline for postal votes.” Not mentioned in the debate was the downside of this proposal: that by issuing polling cards earlier they become a less effective means of reminding people when actually polling day is, as usually reminders closer to an event work better. For general elections there are so many other reminders of polling day that this matters little, but low profile council by-elections or indeed council elections where not all wards are up for election each year (and so the public has greater uncertainty about whether or not there are elections in their ward in any particular year) it is another matter.
Again, in its own small way this omission helps illustrate why the quality of electoral rules passed by Parliament is often questionable.
The Minister (Mark Harper) in replying did not address these points, though he was quite right in his rejection of John Leach’s argument that the problems of electoral administration mean different elections should not be held on the same day. Harper said:
The hon. Gentleman makes half a good point in that he puts his finger on what caused some of the delays, but allowing that to drive whether we have combined elections would be letting the tail wag the dog.
More generally he concluded, referring to the points raised by Meg Munn and others:
I cannot make any particular commitments. I have listened very carefully to what she and other Members have said, particularly as the events of the last general election are still fresh in our minds. Ministers will have further meetings and receive further advice from the Electoral Commission as we consider how to take matters forward. I am grateful to the hon. Lady for securing this debate; it has been very helpful for the House to consider these matters.