Reform Scotland

Postal Voting – Keir Bloomer

“Scotland votes on Thursday” say the news headlines.  The reality is rather different.  Postal votes could be sent in any time from April 15th onwards.  The very early issuing of ballot papers encourages early voting.  I can’t be the only voter to cast my vote before it disappeared in the pile of paper on my desk.  I voted on April 16th;  fully three weeks ahead of ‘polling day’ and well before most election literature was distributed. 

In the past a personal appearance at the polling station was virtually a requirement.  To qualify for a postal vote, a good reason had to be produced.  Until fairly recently, I had voted by post only once.  That was at the general election in 1979 and my reason was that I was a candidate in a constituency sufficiently far from home to make a personal journey to the polling station impossible.

I lived in Glasgow but was standing in Ross and Cromarty and, although I was unsuccessful, my postal vote had an unexpected benefit.  A few months later I faced the prospect of having to vote for a particularly unpleasant candidate whom my party had put up in a local election.  I finally forced myself round to the school about ten minutes before polls closed, only to be turned away.  “You have a postal vote; so you can’t vote here”.  What a relief.  I am sure my hand would have shrivelled as I marked my X.

Today, no explanation is required.  Unsurprisingly, the proportion of the electorate opting to vote by post has been steadily rising.  At the 2010 general election 15.3% of the electorate had registered for postal votes.  By the 2017 election, this had risen to 18%.  At the present Holyrood election, the percentage is 23.8.

Furthermore, those registered for postal votes are more likely to use them.  At the 2017 general election, the turnout of postal voters was 85.1%, compared with 65.9% of those voting in person.  This differential of nearly 20% is very substantial.  The pandemic will certainly cause it to grow still further as some voters will wish to avoid close contact in polling stations.

Putting together the rising number of postal votes and the greater likelihood of their being used, it is a safe bet that 1 in 3 of the votes cast in the current Scottish Parliament election will be postal votes.  It follows that the election is not taking place on 6th May but over a period in excess of three weeks finishing on that day.

Does this matter?  I think it does.  The notion of an election campaign is that candidates and parties have a fixed period of time to persuade voters to support them.  Manifestos are issued and promises made.  The weaknesses in rival arguments are revealed.  The voters then reach their conclusions and deliver their verdict.  The election represents a snapshot of public opinion on a particular date, influenced by whatever may be the circumstances at that time.  That is how democracy has traditionally worked.

Under the present arrangements many voters will implement their decision before the parties have the chance to try to influence them.  They are unmoved by arguments put or facts revealed during the campaign.  My vote reflects my opinions as they stood in mid-April.  It is perfectly possible that events in late April or early May could have changed my mind.  This could be an important incident on the world stage, a damaging revelation about the party I supported or a convincing argument put by an opponent.  In the case of a tactical voter, it could be more accurate information about likely levels of support for the different parties in the constituency.

Why does the time allowed for postal voting have to be so extended?  An explanation sometimes offered is the time taken to check the validity of the votes.  However, any postal voter who forgets to put their vote in the post can hand it in at the polling station on election day.  Any necessary checking is then carried out quickly, so a much shorter period would clearly be workable.

The proportion of people voting by post is certain to continue to rise.  The impact of campaigning and persuasion will continue to fall.  It is time that this decline in the effectiveness of democratic activity received some serious attention.  A fairly straightforward option would be to allow only, say, one week for the return of postal ballots.  A more controversial one would be to delay the start of postal voting until polling day and allow only a brief interval for the return of ballots thereafter.  Whether the nerves of candidates would survive the stress of delaying results is perhaps open to question.  No doubt, there are other possibilities.  Action is needed if our democratic process is to be protected from steady and unintended deterioration.

Keir Bloomer is chair of the Commission on School Reform.