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Volume 405: debated on Monday 19 May 2003

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What recent representations the Electoral Commission has received on voter turnout at elections. [113819]

In conducting its statutory reviews of the conduct and administration of elections, the commission has received representations from a range of organisations, academics and individuals on turnout and what might be done to improve it.

Is the hon. Gentleman and the commission aware that on Wednesday, the Hansard Society is holding a seminar to examine the difference in attitudes between people who are interested in politics but do not watch "Big Brother" and those who watch "Big Brother" but have no interest in politics to ascertain whether there are any lessons on turnout in the fact that fewer people voted in the recent local elections than in many reality TV game shows? Do the Electoral Commission or the hon. Gentleman have any views on whether we have anything to learn from reality TV game shows in trying to improve turnout in elections?

An interesting question. In its statutory report on the 2001 general election, in which it tried to learn lessons from the turnout, the commission presented the view that the main responsibility for persuading the public of the relevance of voting must rest with politicians. They must make it interesting and attractive for individuals to vote.

Before we follow the route of reality TV shows, in which one can vote once or 100 times for the same contestant, can we consider improving voter turnout through more traditional means, including postal votes and holding elections on other days such as Saturdays and Sundays and siting polling stations in non-traditional places such as supermarkets? Surely that would help improve the turnout, which was low in the recent Welsh Assembly elections.

Indeed, the purpose of the pilots that took place in local government elections is to test the way in which different voting systems can encourage turnout and thereby participation. The commission believes that changes in process have a role in making voting more convenient. However, it is important to be realistic about what that can achieve on turnout, given that many other factors have an impact on that.

Will the hon. Gentleman draw to the Electoral Commission's attention the experiment in Chester-le-Street and Derwentside in the recent local elections? Turnout increased by 20 per cent. through a postal ballot. An experiment in electronic counting meant that the count was covered in less than half an hour. Will the hon. Gentleman ensure that the Electoral Commission evaluates the experiments?

The Electoral Commission will present its conclusions on the pilots that were held in the May elections. It will publish the results on 31 July.

Does my hon. Friend agree that the integrity of the electoral process is even more important than the turnout, and will he bear in mind that large-scale postal voting is open to abuse?

Obviously the risk of abuse is one factor that the commission takes into account, but there has been no evidence of widespread abuse.