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Early Voting

Volume 487: debated on Wednesday 11 February 2009

The recent election and inauguration of Barack Obama has been politically a wonderfully bright moment in these dark days of the global economic downturn. “Obama mania” gripped everyone on both sides of the Atlantic, and for once it was not media hype, but a real feeling that something historic was being witnessed. Now that things are settling down, and Obama is getting on with the job in hand, it is time for reflection here. In British politics, it does us no harm to cast our eyes across the Atlantic and to learn one or two things about the American way of doing things—they learned enough from us in the past.

One of the most striking factors about the recent election in the US, other than the huge amounts of enthusiasm and grass-roots campaigning pumped into “swing states” across the country, was the sheer number of people queuing up for hours on end, exercising their right to vote. As a reminder, in November, nearly 57 per cent. of America’s voting age population flocked to the polls. If we compare that with previous elections— 44 per cent. in 2004, 51 per cent. in 2000, and 44 per cent. in 1996—we find that last year saw quite a substantial increase.

In the UK, luckily, our turnout has sustained slightly higher levels. In 2005, just above 61 per cent. of the eligible population voted, but we have seen a fairly disturbing fall in numbers given that the figure was 71 per cent. in 1997. Furthermore, in comparison with the rest of Europe, we are still lagging significantly behind. In France, 84 per cent. of the electorate took part in the last contest.

I have recently come to the conclusion that ease of voting is one of the main factors determining whether people turn out. Members might consider, for instance, the events last week: thanks to the weather, no one could reach work, transport networks failed and traffic came to a halt on roads across the country. Imagine that we had the profound bad luck of that happening on election day. What would turnout levels be like then? I admit that it is highly unlikely that a snowstorm will hit the UK in May or June, but weather conditions are just one example of the numerous deterrents that could, and do, prevent people from fully partaking in the electoral process.

The only answer is for us to consider methods of improving turnout through making voting far easier. Academics have researched the implications of postal voting and of improving access to polls by, for example, increasing the number of possible voting locations, lowering the average time voters have to spend waiting in line, or requiring companies to give workers some time off on voting day. Some countries have even considered internet voting as a possible solution. However, the only method I regard as fully tried and tested, with sufficient evidence in its favour, is what I call “early voting”.

The British electoral system remains very conservative. For years, we have voted on the same day of the week—Thursday—in the same way and at the same polling stations. The Americans did much the same thing, except that they voted on a Tuesday, until recently when they took the initiative and asked, “Why Tuesday?” Recently, in the UK, positive electoral innovations have taken place, such as the rise in the uptake of postal ballots. However, with turnout dropping, faith in the political system falling and people feeling more remote from their elected representatives, radical steps must be taken to re-enthuse people about voting.

On 7 January, Congressman Steve Israel introduced the Weekend Voting Act in the US Senate and the House. He said:

“It is crazy to me that we’re only allowing people to vote over a certain period of hours on one day. Other nations that have voter turnout allow their people to vote over several days.”

Clearly, we are not one of the other nations, but he is right. France allows people to vote at the weekend, thus avoiding the need to take time off work. Some people might say that is common sense, but I will leave that for the Minister to decide.

The work of Congressman Israel has been spurred on by the organisation Why Tuesday. I encourage everyone to visit its website, whytuesday.org. Its motto is, “Fixing our voting system one question at a time.” That is why I am here today—to begin getting such questions asked on our side of the Atlantic. I will turn the question: we should be asking, “Why Thursday?”

Turnout is already worryingly low in local elections. I suspect that it will not be high in this summer’s European elections, and if it starts falling any lower at general elections, the alarm bell will start to ring. A lot can be done to encourage voter participation, increase turnout and restore the vital link between voters and the people for whom they are voting.

Ken Ritchie, the chief executive of the Electoral Reform Society, has investigated the matter of early voting in some depth. He says:

“At a time of falling turnout, those who are planning to vote should be given every opportunity to do so. There are enough other reasons why people don’t vote that we don’t need to add to them by providing just one polling day on a Thursday.

This is why ideas such as early voting, which in no way detract from the security of the ballot, should be introduced as part of efforts to promote participation. In many ways, this is a better idea than weekend voting as it provides even more flexibility for the voter…Early voting can also give opportunities to let people vote in more accessible places, such as shopping centres or at bus stations, etc. There may be some costs associated”—

I am sure that there will be—

“with voting in polling stations over several days, but democracy is important and if a little extra money makes democracy better, let’s go for it. Moreover, when we consider the amount that political parties are willing to spend on election campaigns, there should be no objections to spending more money on putting the voter first.”

I am sorry to have missed the start of the hon. Lady’s speech. I very much endorse what she says. In the case of Croydon, would it not be good to use the main railway station in east Croydon to increase participation? I was a candidate in the London Assembly elections, which had early voting. Such voting did not make a difference then, but things may be very different in general elections. The hon. Lady’s American example might apply in places such as Croydon. Black and minority ethnic voters might be encouraged to increase their participation in elections.

We have to make voting as easy as possible. There have been pilot schemes, but they have not been rolled out. Chester council used a pilot scheme and there was an increase in voter turnout, and the council would have liked to roll out the scheme. I absolutely agree with the hon. Gentleman. We should use anything we can to increase voter participation.

How do we put the voter first? I recently tabled early-day motion 314 on early voting, which I encourage all hon. Members to support if they believe that allowing only one day for people to vote hinders the democratic process.

The evidence from across the pond is clear: turnout can be raised substantially by making voting easier or more attractive. In the US, there were record levels of early voting. More than 30 states in the US now allow early voting. Research has indicated that more voters are interested in casting their ballots earlier than ever before, and about 30 per cent. did exactly that in November’s presidential elections. Consider what 30 per cent. of the electorate in our constituencies would mean to us. In short, it is time for a radical overhaul of our voting system.

This is not a narrow party political issue, and it has cross-party support. There is no evidence that such a system would lead to any one party increasing its share of the vote. No politician or party should be against a move that makes the franchise easier to use, and expanding democracy is not something that elected politicians should ever be against.

At a time when it is crucial to increase voter participation, we need to be a bit bolder in the reform of our system. Recent years have seen a wide range of pilot schemes, but they quickly fall from favour. It is time to drag our voting system into the 21st century—look at the way in which the American elections caught the public’s imagination. We should understand why people took advantage of early voting and introduce it in our country.

I will finish by reading an e-mail that I received this morning following my interview on the “Today” programme:

“I write to congratulate you on your remarks on the Today programme this morning about extending the voting period at general elections to one week prior to the actual polling day. This is probably the sanest remark yet made about getting more of the electorate to cast their vote in a proper and responsible manner.”

I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Halifax (Mrs. Riordan) on securing this debate on such a fundamental issue. A healthy society depends on a healthy democracy, and healthy democracies depend on high levels of participation. It is very worrying that this country and other western democracies have seen a trend towards lower turnouts. All democratic politicians and citizens should be concerned about that. This Government take the matter very seriously. I am delighted that my hon. Friend is taking such a debate on.

The causes of this trend are complex. I have to say that part of the cause lies with us politicians. We are not exciting our electorate sufficiently to get them to turn out and vote for us. Much of the time, it is clear that part of the problem resides in the fact that voters do not see that there is enough in the election for them to vote for. We are not making them think that politics matters. That is something that we have to look to ourselves to address.

It is clear that when voters in other democracies feel that a fundamental issue is at stake in an election, they turn out to vote in very large numbers. We saw that in the recent presidential elections in France. Arguably, the extraordinary scenes that we saw in the United States after the wonderful election of President Obama are the result of the fact that American citizens felt that that election was profoundly important for the future of their country. It was not necessarily to do with the voting mechanisms themselves. Such matters are complex. My hon. Friend is right to urge us to investigate how we can make voting more accessible and straightforward.

The very act of voting is at the heart of the democratic process, so how do we make that easier? How do we identify the barriers to people voting and how do we make the process more accessible? It is axiomatic that all voters who are entitled to vote should be able to do so. That is why I shall introduce measures to improve the register. Approximately 3 million voters in this country are entitled to vote but are not able to do so because they are not on the register. We must do everything that we can to improve the quality of the electoral roll.

Early voting or, as we call it in this country, advance voting could offer voters a greater opportunity to vote in a supervised environment if they are unable to vote on polling day itself. The act of voting in a polling booth is important in itself: it offers greater guarantees of security in polling and militates against electoral fraud, of which we have unfortunately seen some examples in postal voting, which is another way of making voting more accessible. It also gives people a choice of publicly affirming the democratic act of voting, which is very important.

The vote was hard won for everyone in this country and the progress towards universal suffrage took many years. Blood was shed in this country and in others to achieve it, so it is very precious. In some ways, it is important that voting should remain fundamentally a public act and that we should affirm the principle of voting in a democracy in that way. Advance voting perhaps offers that in a way that other more accessible forms of voting do not, as neither postal voting nor proxy voting offer that advantage.

Over the past decade, the Government have explored a wide range of options and mechanisms to see how we can increase participation by making voting more accessible to voters, and part of that work has involved advance voting. We have run pilots that examined the impact of improving the opportunity and convenience for electors who choose to vote using traditional methods, but in advance. The choice of times and locations for advance voting can be a key factor in determining convenience, turnout and value for money. As both hon. Members who have spoken today have suggested, it is important that those polling stations are located in central and easily accessible locations such as train stations, shopping centres and public libraries for several days running up to the election.

The exact effect of such measures is open to debate. We piloted advance voting in local elections in England in 2000 and then again in 2002, 2006 and 2007 in a total of 26 pilots. Their aim was to determine whether advance voting increases turnout and convenience for voters. Local authorities ran awareness campaigns highlighting the availability of advance voting and information was made available on polling cards, inserts in election packs, billboard advertising, local newspaper advertising and interviews on local radio stations. As much as possible was done to publicise the innovation.

According to research conducted by local authorities, it appeared that the majority of the electors who voted early could or would have voted on the normal election day if the advance voting option had not been available. In the pilots that followed, the effect on turnout was limited. In 2007, advance voting as a percentage of turnout amounted, for example, to just 0.5 per cent. in Gateshead and 0.7 per cent. in Sheffield. Only in Broxbourne was there a substantial take-up of advance voting, and even there the proportion was just 7 per cent.

Since 2002 the Electoral Commission has evaluated pilots to determine whether they are successful and made recommendations for the future. It has concluded that although advance voting does make the process of voting more convenient for some, it does not seem to have had a significant impact on turnout. The aim of the 2007 pilots was to facilitate voting among those who usually did not participate, targeting so-called opportunistic voters. However, the Electoral Commission has reported that there was relatively little success in achieving that aim. Feedback from election staff and evidence from local surveys suggests that the majority—around 74 per cent.—of users of advance voting would have voted in any case. Across the five pilot areas, turnout at the May 2007 elections was more or less consistent with turnout in previous comparable elections.

In 2007, we specifically wanted to test whether repeat access to advance voting in successive elections would lead to greater awareness among electors and greater uptake. That is obviously a consideration that we would have to take into account, because the cumulative effect could have been greater than a one-off pilot had suggested. Three local authorities that had previously trialled advance voting—Broxbourne, Gateshead and Sunderland—did so again in May 2007. Significantly, and disappointingly from the Government’s point of view and, I am sure, that of my hon. Friend repeat piloting of advance voting in the same local authority did not seem to lead to a higher uptake.

The difficulty in measuring the impact that advance voting might have on turnout is that other factors are not taken into account, which is one reason why we should not dismiss the idea out of hand. I am certainly not going to dismiss it today. We do not know the impact of important local issues, which is difficult to measure, or what the impact of a national political issue would be, and it is hard to disentangle voters’ motivations. Polling surveys and surveys of the sort that we conduct, although methodologically sound in their own terms, sometimes produce different answers according to the exact nature of the questions asked, as all politicians know.

Methodologically, this is a complicated area, but we have done our best to produce robust answers. Although the answers are disappointing for supporters of advance voting because they do not necessarily suggest that it has an impact, in this country at least, we are not dismissing the idea—I assure my hon. Friend of that. In everything that we do, we have to be extremely vigilant and not rule out anything that may increase levels of participation.

Does the Minister accept that one of the complications in analysing whether early voting has successfully increased participation is that local authorities have sometimes chosen fairly obscure locations to trial it? I recall that, in the 2000 experiment, my local authority chose an unused part of the town hall as a venue, which might be one of the reasons why turnout did not significantly improve. Is the Minister saying that the Government’s mind will still be open to the idea of pilots of early voting at the next general election?

I accept the first point that the hon. Gentleman makes: there are always local factors, especially in local elections, where turnout is particularly low. We accept absolutely that there are methodological problems in that, and that is why, in answer to his second question, we have an open mind. I am not committing to that at all, as there would be considerable problems in so doing.

We are taking a breath on further pilots for the time being, but we will publish our electoral strategy by the summer, which will set out a vision of how we want electoral policy to develop for the next 10 years or more and for at least two Parliaments. At the heart of that policy will be the overriding imperative for elections to be not only legitimate, but perceived to be so. Central to that legitimacy are precisely the concerns that my hon. Friend has voiced in this debate about participation and making voting accessible to every voter who wants to vote, targeting dedicated, routine and habitual voters and also opportunistic voters who will perhaps only vote if it is convenient.

With that quest in mind, in June 2008 the Ministry of Justice launched a consultation on whether turnout would be likely to increase if elections were moved from the traditional polling day of Thursday to one or both days of the weekend. My hon. Friend rightly drew attention to the conservative—with a lower case “c”—habits of election policy in this country. We have got into the habit of holding elections on Thursdays for no obvious reasons other than tradition. We also asked people what they thought about other forms of voting, including advance voting.

We have not yet completed our analysis of the responses, as we received nearly 1,000, but we will publish the report soon. I would like to share some of the findings today because they are informative. The consultation asked whether greater access to advance voting in polling stations should be made available alongside weekend voting. Although the question referred to advance voting in conjunction with weekend voting, the vast majority of respondents chose to address the issue on its own merits. Unfortunately, the results suggest that there is not a huge demand for advance voting.

Obviously, the consultation is not a statistically representative reflection of the views of the public as a whole—the views expressed were those of people with a particular interest, and the sample was self-selecting—but it is valuable evidence none the less and we should not ignore it. In all, 240 respondents gave their views on advance voting. Overall, 31 per cent. were in favour, because they felt that it would provide increased accessibility and voter convenience, but a quarter of those were not strongly in favour. They argued that it should be introduced only on a limited basis and only if it proved to have a significant impact on turnout.

There was some support for making advance polling available at centrally located polling stations rather than at all of them—that relates to the points made by both hon. Members who have spoken. Some respondents suggested making advance voting available in non-traditional but well attended places such as train stations, town centres, supermarkets and shopping centres. However, about 60 per cent. overall were opposed. Many local authorities and electoral administrators noted that it would be likely to add significantly to the cost and complexity of running elections, as the cost of staff, premises and security would almost certainly increase depending on how many polling stations were open in advance of polling day and for how long. One would expect the local authorities responsible for funding to be deeply concerned about that, particularly at the moment.

Nearly a third of those opposed noted that it was already possible for those unable or unwilling to attend a polling station on election day to vote by post. However, that does not deal with the fundamental point that I made earlier about the importance for many people and for our democracy that one should be able to affirm one’s vote in public in a polling booth. There are also security issues.

In considering any move towards advance voting, we would also need to consider the impact on the election timetable and party political election campaigning. If polling stations were open in advance, it would bring a profound change—maybe a welcome one—to the way that political parties approach election campaigning. They are used to doing things leading up to the key polling date on Thursday, so there would be problems for them too.

One potential electoral innovation that attracted support among respondents to the consultation was remote electronic voting. We have conducted trials in which it appeared to have a positive impact on turnout, although there were other issues from which we must learn lessons. Remote e-voting clearly has potential advantages. For example, we must make an extra effort, perhaps now more than ever, to ensure that our armed forces serving overseas can vote, and people with disabilities could certainly benefit from it.

However, there are issues of security and of public confidence in elections. Although we are increasingly becoming an online nation, many people are still uncomfortable with online operations, and we do not want a significant section of our electorate to be suspicious of the means of voting. One great advantage of voting in a polling station is that it is physical and can be seen, so it inherently still commands more confidence.

The Government recognise that we must ensure that our electoral processes put the elector at the heart of the system. I will publish a strategy and vision that will include our view on how best we can do so. Fundamentally, though, as my hon. Friend rightly said, the electoral system must be beyond partisan dispute, and all measures need to be developed on the basis of cross-party consensus. I believe that that consensus exists on these issues. I do not believe that the matter is a party one at all; I agree completely with her.

Although the evidence does not support my hon. Friend’s proposition at the moment, we remain open-minded. I am delighted that she has engaged so vigorously with it. In the context, I can assure her of a wider electoral strategy. We will continue to explore whether advance voting should be part of that. In the shorter term, I understand that she and I have a date in the diary for about two weeks from now, when we can discuss these important issues further.

Question put and agreed to.

Sitting adjourned.