Over 1 million people in Scotland are now registered to vote by post. That's almost 1 in 4 of the electorate. Back in 1999, at the first-ever Holyrood election, it was around 1 in a 100. This is an extraordinary political development which has serious implications for the health of our democracy in the long-term.
On Thursday 15th April 2021 postal ballot papers for the Holyrood election on 6th May, started to arrive on people's doorsteps. The above pic shows the top five parties standing in the North East Scotland Region.
In the table below, from the Electoral Management Board for Scotland, we see in the fourth column that 1,010,638 people have registered to vote by post for the Holyrood election. This is out of a total electorate in Scotland of 4,241,904 (23.8%). (Applications for a Postal Vote for this election closed on 6th April.)
You can see the table clearly by clicking on it, or it can be viewed here, where it can also be magnified.
Look at how Postal Voting has increased as a percentage of the electorate, since the first Holyrood election in 1999. (After 2011, the election schedule was changed to every 5 years.)
1999 - 1.2%
2003 - 3.6%
2007 - 11.2%
2011 - 14.1%
2016 - 17.7%
2021 - 23.8%
Since 2001, any elector has been entitled to request a postal vote without giving a reason (except in Northern Ireland). This is known as Postal Voting on Demand. This is what has led to the massive increases year on year.
Previously, a postal vote was only available to those who had to give a reason why they could not make it to a Polling Station due to disability or ill-health, employment hours, planned holidays, or geographical isolation, such as on an island (or an oil rig) requiring one to cross water to reach the Polling Station!
A Force For Good does not support the concept of Postal Voting for anyone without a valid reason.
OUR POSITION – STATION, BOOTH, BOX
A Force For Good believes that all voters have a fundamental democratic right to cast a vote
1. in the convenience and safety of a Polling Station;
2. in the privacy of a Voting Booth, and;
3. in the security of a Ballot Box.
We believe that Station, Booth, and Box is the voting system which should be upheld as the "gold standard" of the democratic process.
Voting at a Polling Station is a public ritual. It seems appropriate to do this publicly for something which has public consequences! For some of us, it seems more appropriate to partake in this public ritual than to do it within our own "closed doors".
However, our advocacy of Station, Booth, and Box as the most private, secure, and integral method of voting, is built on several key democratic Principles, which are compromised and corrupted by the Postal Voting on Demand system. Let's lay them out:
1. THE PRINCIPLE of ONE PERSON, ONE VOTE
The principle of one person, one vote is compromised by Postal Voting on Demand.
Several years ago, one of our colleagues told us that when presented with the two ballot papers on her kitchen table, her husband told her that he wasn't interested in the election. He asked her to make the decision for him (email communication, 6 June 2004)! She did not do so, knowing it was illegal. Yet, if she had done so then she would effectively have voted twice.
Of course, most people are law abiding, and will keep it legal. But the temptation to abuse the system and vote twice is there, and it can be done. In a proper democratic system, the opportunity to abuse the system in this way should not be possible.
2. THE PRINCIPLE of THE PRIVATE VOTE
A Postal Voting on Demand system compromises the privacy of the vote.
That is because a postal vote can be filled in while another person is present. It can be filled in while another person can see it. It can also be shown to another person. In the worst case, it can be taken off someone and filled in by another person!
Postal voting enables behaviour which is against the principle of the private vote.
3. THE PRINCIPLE of FREEDOM from UNDUE INFLUENCE and INTIMIDATION
Related to the essential matter of the privacy of the vote, is the fact that Postal Voting on Demand increases the potential for undue influence and intimidation.
This does not occur in the privacy of a Voting Booth.
Indeed, the Voting Booth was established to ensure that there could be no undue influence or intimidation exercised. It was established in order that the casting of the vote would be an entirely private matter.
Under a large-scale Postal Voting on Demand system, many people will be filling in their ballot papers in the presence of spouses, partners, relations, flatmates and friends.
In some cases, this will clearly expose the voter to a degree of undue influence, perhaps even intimidation – gentle or threatening – which cannot happen in the privacy of the Voting Booth.
Some voters may even prefer to have voted at the Polling Station but have found themselves recorded as Postal Voters against their will.
4. THE PRINCIPLE of VOTE-CASTING CERTAINTY
A Ballot Box ensures that the voter can be certain that his or her vote has been cast – into the Ballot Box.
However, with a postal voting method, the voter casts the vote into the post box and hopes for the best.
How does the voter know that the vote will arrive safely?
With a certain amount of mail going missing each year, how can we be certain that our vote will even be delivered?
Putting our vote in the post box leaves an air of uncertainty over whether the vote will actually be received and counted.
A Ballot Box, however, enables us to see that our vote has been lodged securely.
5. THE PRINCIPLE of SIMPLICITY
People can be disenfranchised – just because they don't understand the forms.
An example: According to the report "Postal ballot 'cost candidate seat in Europe'", (The Guardian, 16 June 2004, p. 13):
In the north-east as a whole, where voters appear to have experienced more problems than other regions, 29,571 papers were invalid, with 18,744 rejected after problems with witness statements.
Furthermore, those people who do not receive their ballot papers on time, or who do not know who to contact or where to go to pick them up, are also being disenfranchised.
Such confusion does not occur under the traditional Polling Station method of voting, which everyone understands perfectly well.
This is especially concerning given that elections are won or lost often on very small margins. For example, the 1992 General Election was decided by just 1,241 votes in 11 key marginals.
6. THE PRINCIPLE of THE SECURITY and SAFE KEEPING OF THE VOTE
No voting system can be free entirely from an attempt by an unscrupulous person or group to try to rig the result.
However, the postal voting system is considerably more open to abuse than the traditional Polling Station method. People can literally snatch your vote from your hands!
For example, Ann Cryer, Labour MP for Keighley was quoted in The Daily Telegraph of 10 June 2004 saying:
'People are going to homes, demanding that the voters give up their ballot papers – and that is what they are doing.'
There have been reports of postmen being intimidated and fights breaking out in an attempt to seize postal ballots. See for example, "City Poll Riot", The Evening Mail (Birmingham) 8 June 2004:
Hundreds of people clashed in a fierce street battle as inner city election fever erupted into violence in Birmingham. More than 200 campaigners from rival political parties went toe to toe in the Small Heath brawl, sparked by a row over the controversial use of postal votes. The pitched battle between Labour and People's Justice Party supporters was ignited by the appearance of a postman with a bag. 'Some people tried to get the votes off him and were pinching them out of letterboxes – then all hell broke loose,' said an eyewitness.
7. THE PRINCIPLE of DEMOCRATIC INCLUSION and PARTICIPATION for all PARTIES and CANDIDATES
A postal voting method discriminates against smaller parties and independent candidates.
Small parties and independent candidates need to campaign right up to an official polling day if they are to be heard and known about.
The larger parties, however, can rely upon their already established name to garner votes well before an official polling day, and this is often regardless of how hard they may campaign on the ground.
By the time a voter finds out about a smaller party or independent candidate – which may only be a few days before the official election – and realises that he or she wishes to vote for it, then the voter may find it is too late because they have already cast their vote via the postal method.
For example, someone who casts their vote on the same day that the ballot paper arrived on their doorstep for the 2021 Holyrood election (which is today, the date of this article, 15 April 2021) will be doing so exactly 3 weeks before the end of the campaign and the official day of the election (6th May).
This means that people are being encouraged to vote before they have had time to acquire full information about the nature of the choices available.
OUR RECOMMENDATION: 'POSTAL VOTING ON DEMAND' SHOULD BE ABOLISHED
Consequent to the above Principles, A Force For Good believes the introduction of Postal Voting on Demand acts to undermine confidence and trust in our democratic system.
We believe that "increasing the turnout" should not be the end in itself.
We should ask: At what cost are we "increasing the turnout"?
Unfortunately, it is at the cost of 'one person, one vote'. It is at the cost of the privacy and security of the vote. It is at the cost of possible undue influence; and the potential for intimidation and fraud; it is at the expense of vote-casting certainty; at the cost of the simplicity of the process; and at the expense of the democratic inclusion and participation of all parties and candidates.
Even if Postal Voting on Demand were to "increase the turnout", it would only do so at the expense of the truthfulness of our democracy. That is too high a price to pay.
Our opponents will pretend we are trying to "suppress" the turnout, when in fact we are trying to protect the very essence of our democracy, which is the integrity of the individual vote.
Promoting the postal voting culture of "voting from home" is also a "gateway" – a "thin end of the wedge" – to increased electronic voting, or even internet voting. These are even less secure methods of electing governments. The adoption of such methods in the UK would mark the beginning of the end of effective oversight of the democratic process, an end to the accountability (and count-ability) of the numbers, and a move towards perpetual government by 'Big Tech Oligarchy'.
Furthermore, law-abiding people are well aware that some unscrupulous people will be taking the opportunity to abuse the system, and this knowledge undermines their own faith in the truthfulness of the election, and in the sanctity of their personal vote.
This leads to disillusionment and cynicism towards the entire democratic process – especially among the most law-abiding and politically-engaged sections of the electorate – which is a very unhealthy development in any democracy.
We believe the aim of government should be to ensure a private, secure and integral voting system, which presents the minimum of opportunities for fraud by unscrupulous people or groups.
The Polling Station, Voting Booth, and Ballot Box is still the best way to achieve that aim.
Postal Voting on Demand is not a suitable voting method to use at any election for political purposes in the UK. It risks bringing our democracy into disrepute.
We advocate the return to the pre-2001 method whereby postal voting is only available on request to those who can provide a valid reason, such as being ill, housebound, working inconvenient hours, or geographically isolated.
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