All-postal Scottish election a ‘last resort’
An election held entirely by postal vote would be a “last resort” as it could risk disenfranchising up to 1.5 million people, MSPs have been told.
The Electoral Commission told Holyrood’s Standards, Procedures and Public Appointments Committee that the prospect of a fully postal election would “trigger consideration of a delay”.
The Scottish General Election (Coronavirus) Bill would give Presiding Officer Ken Macintosh the power to push election day back by six months.
But the Commission also warned six months may not be sufficient to get enough people registered for a postal vote, given the time it takes to check absent voters’ personal indicators (AVIs) such as signature and date of birth.
Andy O’Neill, head of the Commission in Scotland, said: “Our key concern is six months seems awfully ambitious to get 3.4 million AVIs from applicants which they would have to write, from a standing start, presumably in the first quarter of next year.
“We just see that as a real challenge and you’re going to finish up – and I think the policy memorandum refers to this – you’re going to see something like 16-30% of the electorate may not get their applications with AVIs in in time.”
Concerns were also raised about an all-postal ballot disadvantaging those already least likely to vote, as well as problems with people filling out the vote correctly. When postal voting was first introduced, around four per cent of ballots were rejected.
Scotland’s Electoral Commissioner, Dame Sue Bruce, said: “There is also the risk of excluding people from an all-postal ballot. People who have never done it before who would be reluctant, people who have language or literacy barriers or who are reluctant to declare themselves openly.
“There are a number of reasons why an all-postal ballot might actually disadvantage the people who are furthest away from casting a vote in the first place.”
A survey recently conducted by the Electoral Commission, results of which will be published in full shortly, found 77 per cent of people thought polling places would be safe, but only 54 per cent of people wanted to vote in person.
Around 18 per cent of the Scottish electorate are currently registered to vote by post. Minister for Parliamentary Business Graeme Day confirmed efforts were underway to increase this number in the run-up to election day, though the Bill brings the deadline for applications forward to ensure the expected higher volume can be processed.
He said: “We want to not have a deluge of postal vote applications closer to the day of the planned poll. We obviously want to smooth that out. Clearly there is a role within that for political parties to raise awareness.
“I think all round there will be a general increased understanding of postal vote as an option. We will have the capacity with the additional resources we’ve put in to grow the postal votes as it exists now at 18% to 40% and perhaps beyond that.”
A campaign is set to be launch in the New Year to raise awareness of postal voting, with the possibility of targeting clinically vulnerable people in particular.
Another matter discussed was the prospect of the election taking place over several days to ensure social distancing in polling places, with the Electoral Commission stating polling days should be consecutive.
MSPs were also told the decision to delay dissolution of parliament for six weeks would cost an extra £265,000 for the salaries of retiring members. Normally, MSPs standing down would not be paid after dissolution at the end of March.