Amid all the media flurry about last Thursday’s general election and its inconclusive result, there’s been quite a lot of discussion of the conduct of the election itself.
Leaving aside for now the debate about the respective merits of first-past-the-post and proportional representation, it seems pretty clear that the logistics of the election were a mess, at least in certain constituencies:
- Voters were left standing in queues outside polling stations as the polls closed, simply because the officials hadn’t expected the turnout to be so high (at 65.1%. Wow);
- Several people reported receiving multiple polling cards and some children were sent cards, while other eligible voters didn’t receive one at all;
- Electoral fraud was attempted in several constituencies, involving the registration of non-existent people or attempts by party workers to get postal votes sent to them for completion rather than to the returning officer.
Postal votes, of course, were a tetchy subject for expats. In her blog for the Daily Telegraph, “Majorcan Pearls”, Anna Nicholas fumed about the failure of Electoral Services in the Cities of London and Westminster constituency to send her ballot paper in time for her to return it. Nicole Hill in Nice also expressed regret that delays in the postal services effectively disenfranchised her.
So what to do about it? Well, some of the more ignorant comments on the Anna Nicholas blog suggested that as expats have left the UK behind and don’t pay taxes any more, they shouldn’t have a say in the election anyway – after all, they don’t have to live with the consequences of their vote. Of course, this is all nonsense. For starters, many expats do continue to pay taxes in the UK. For another, most of them have contributed a good deal to the UK economy and can be said to have earned the right to vote on that basis. But most importantly, decisions made by the UK government about the tax structure continue to affect British expats and their families – particularly if the family continues to reside in the UK while the expat works overseas.
Others have suggested Internet voting. It sounds like a good idea on the face of it, and could save considerable amounts in the organisation and holding of future elections. There were even some trials in UK local elections. But they still appear to be a long way off, according to Richard Parsons on Yahoo! News, because of squabbles between the Government and the Electoral Commission about how to organise them. So in the meantime, it looks as if we’re stuck with postal ballots. Unless, of course, you want to commit your support to a particular party in advance, in which case you can vote by proxy – but many of us want to make up our minds on the issues and manifestos rather than sign a blank cheque.
Ms Nicholas in Majorca highlighted the short period of time allowed to distribute the ballot papers, and asks why they couldn’t have been printed sooner. Let’s look at the timetable for the general election, which was pretty typical. The election was called on Tuesday 6 April, 30 days before it was actually held. Candidates had until Tuesday 20 April to register their nominations, leaving just two weeks and two days for the ballot papers to be printed, sent out and returned.
Not very long, is it? Especially given that the postal services in many countries are prone to delays (last month, for instance, we received a whole bunch of mail that appeared to have been held up in the local post office for over a week during a public holiday lasting three days) and the cost of sending everything by courier would be prohibitive. Even so, it seems a bit lame for Westminster Council to say on Monday 26 April that the papers were delivered that week and couldn’t have been printed any sooner – they’d had Wednesday, Thursday and Friday of the previous week to get the job done, and the printers must have been aware that a rush job would be on the cards for those days.
One way of solving the problem might be to increase the lead time involved – even a week might help matters. Of course, fixed parliamentary terms would make things much simpler. Above all, it would mean that everyone knows when the election date’s going to be and can prepare properly for it. It would also deprive the incumbent of a huge tactical advantage. But that solution may not be to Ms Nicholas’s and the Daily Telegraph‘s liking.