More votes by post *really can* change the result of an election

As we have seen in the recent US election, postal voting can make a huge difference to the outcome of elections. Martin Roche traces the origins.

Postal voting was first introduced during WW1, so that men serving overseas and putting their lives on the line could exercise their democratic right to influence the UK’s political course. There is little doubt that their votes paved the way for the electoral success that the youthful Labour party would enjoy in the 1920s. Once again, 25 years later, distant voting played a central role in the General Election of 1945. Servicemen and women stationed across the globe ensured a Labour landslide.

Counting the Votes
Postal Voting is growing in popularity.
Observing the receipt and opening of postal votes at Oxford Town Hall. 

According to the House of Commons Library, almost 7.6 million postal votes were issued for the 2015 General Election. Almost half a million more voted by post in 2015 than in 2010. That was 16.4 per cent of the entire electorate. Some 85.8 per cent of those issued with a postal ballot returned it, while traditional voting in person by the remaining electorate saw only 63.2 per cent cast a vote in person. Postal voting is on the increase and appears to be a more reliable way of encouraging British voters to vote.

Get registered

To register for a postal vote you must be on your local authority’s voter roll. If you are not already registered, go to your local authority’s website and find the section on voting and register your details. If you’re already registered you can apply for a postal vote HERE.

I’ve been voting by post for the past 10 years. Registering for a postal vote is a quick and pain-free exercise. The form is simple and takes only a few minutes to complete. Take great care on getting all the details right. Returning officers are quick to reject votes where the paperwork is not 100 per cent correct.

However, most people will get it right. When an election or referendum is called, you’ll automatically be sent a postal vote and a pre-paid return envelope. You can register for just one election or opt for a permanent postal vote, in which case whenever there is a local or national voting exercise, your vote papers will arrive through your letterbox.

All postal elections?

Local elections in England, including the elections for Kent County Council, were postponed in 2020, as Covid swept the land. They have been rescheduled for this May. It’s possible that they might be again postponed if Covid is still a big threat to national health.

Postponement might suit the Tory party, whose unpopularity is reflected in recent polls, but pressure from the public, some media and political parties (mainly the SNP, as elections to Holyrood are also due in May) will lobby for the elections to go ahead. The safe way to do so is by making them all postal. There would be no polling stations. This proposal is being given serious thought in political circles. The Tories will almost certainly oppose it.

If everyone votes by post, the long tradition of the Conservative party triumphing through postal votes will be under threat.

But remember, there is no compulsion to register to vote or apply for a postal vote. Voters have to make the effort. It’s not difficult and it’s not complicated.

Among politics watchers it was accepted as an established truth that the Conservatives were the market leaders in getting large numbers of voters to vote by post and vote Conservative. As recently as 2019, I attended the count for a local authority by-election in an affluent ward in Kent.

When the ballot boxes were opened the votes for the excellent Lib Dem candidate piled up. Tory faces showed lines of concern. They needn’t have worried. The last box opened contained the postal votes and they comfortably took the Tories to victory.

The Conservatives have led in postal voting because they throw money and people at the matter. Tory members and known supporters are mailed a letter from their local party along with the postal voting application form and a reply paid envelope to send that off. They do the job before any elections are called, so that the spending is not counted as an election expense. The Tories spend the money and make the effort because it works.

But Tory leadership in postal voting is being eaten away. UKIP long ago recognised the power of postal voting. Its older demographic electorate liked the idea that whatever the weather or if they were out of town on holiday (probably in Spain, Portugal, Cyprus or Malta) or visiting grandchildren on voting day, their vote still counted. Dominic Cummings employed postal voting to get out the Leave vote.

Many who voted by post then were doing so for the first time. A great surge in postal voting was seen in Sunderland before the 2016 EU referendum.

SNP launches postal vote campaign

Now, the SNP has launched a drive to get its supporters to register for a postal vote. The SNP is thinking ahead. It wants to maximise its vote in the elections for the Scottish Parliament, scheduled for May. Party managers fear that Covid-19 will act as a disincentive to voting in person. Research across the UK says that working class voters have been less likely to register for postal votes.

With substantial support in Scotland’s old industrial towns and big cities like Glasgow and Dundee, the SNP wants to ensure that its loyal supporters make their voices heard. These same areas have recorded the highest levels of Covid infections and deaths.

The size of the SNP vote will not only determine who is in charge at Holyrood, but also the strength of the case for a second independence referendum. Scotland’s governing party aims to be ahead of the curve whether elections are of the traditional type or all by postal vote.

Having votes in the bag has great advantages for the parties contesting an election. It’s energising for party workers to know that a big percentage of supporters have done their duty and given their favoured party or cause a strong start and a solid foundation of votes.

Money, and human resources can be focused on winning votes from waverers, the undecided and the uncommitted. Most of all, particularly for smaller parties or parties that get a big share of the vote but never get over the line to secure a majority, postal votes boost turnout. And turnout is the golden key to elections in febrile times.

Pollsters are now more attuned to trying to establish the size and direction of postal voting. This is important if you believe, as I tend to, that polls not only reveal voting trends but also influence voter behaviour. Polls can influence voter expectations and the nature of tactical voting.

Another theory of some credence is that some voters simply want to be on the winning side, the polices of the competing parties hardly mattering. Being perceived to be ahead can make a difference. Small margins of change can lead to great shifts in the political landscape. History can be made.

You too can change history. Join Kent Bylines in persuading thousands of our fellow Kent citizens to get voting by post.

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Together we can try to change Kent, change Britain and change the world.