A potted history. With every policy sold as a major innovation, it can be easy to forget that postal voting isn’t new. The 1918 Representation of the People Act allowed First World War servicemen to mail in their votes. The same was done for those caught up in the Second World War; which explains the relatively high proportion of postal votes in 1945, shown in the graph above. But it wasn’t until the New Labour years that postal voting was extended beyond those who had a good reason to be away from the ballot boxes. As of 16th February 2001, it can simply be done on demand. You want it, you got it.
Going postal. Which is why postal voting has been on the up and up over the past decade-and-a-bit. In the general election of 1997 some 738,614 people sent in their vote by stamped-addressed envelope, or 2.3 per cent of the electorate. By 2010 that had risen to 5,596,865, or 18.8 per cent. Those numbers are likely to be even higher this time around. We often talk about the changing demographics behind elections, but sometimes the real action is hidden away in the mechanics.
The positives, negatives… The usual complaint about postal voting is that it’s open to subversion: y’know, ballot papers being sent to fake voters at fake address, all the usual Tower Hamlets stuff. But politicians generally remain unmoved. The system is being tightened up, they say – and, besides, it has its benefits. According to the Electoral Commission’s analysis of the local elections in 2008, nearly 60 per cent of postal voters were “encouraged” to vote because they could do so by mail. This could be one way of improving the meagre turnout figures in our elections.
…and troubling variations. But, to my mind, the concern ought to be the variation between different constituencies. In 2010, only 8.3 per cent of Lewisham West & Penge voted by post, compared to a whopping 52.7 per cent in Houghton & Sunderland South. The reason? It’s hard to be sure, although it’s likely that some local authorities are better at advertising the system than others. The effects of postal voting, whether good or bad, will be felt more acutely in those areas. It’s a rather lopsided way of doing things.
Controversy now. These imbalances needn’t matter when one party is gliding to victory. But they become more significant at a time of inconclusive results and hung parliaments. What happens if a crucial marginal seat votes by post before the end of the campaign? What if another marginal holds on to vote in the traditional manner? Ed Miliband is clearly worried by some of the implications. Despite the joys of higher turnout, other politicians may soon join him.