The problem with mail suffrage

Democracy cannot be delivered through the letterbox.

Dolan Cummings

Topics Politics

Would you put a £50 note in the post? A tenner? How about a photograph with sentimental value? Most of us hesitate to put anything of value in the post; indeed, following a sensationalist Channel 4 documentary earlier this year (1), and the cumulative effect of countless negative anecdotes (2), public confidence in the Royal Mail is probably at an all-time low.

It says something about the state of British democracy, then, that in an effort to boost turnout for the local and European elections on 10 June, the government is asking 14.8million voters to consign their ballot papers to the postbox. The huge pilot scheme, involving three northern English regions and the East Midlands, is testament to the level of official anxiety about public disengagement from the democratic process. The chaotic organisation of the pilot, with thousands of ballot papers arriving late, only underlines the sense of desperation.

As things stand, anyone who wants to vote by post, because of a disability, agoraphobia, or for any other reason, can register to do so. By making these elections all postal, however, the government hopes to encourage people to vote by post who would not otherwise vote at all. But even if the pilot is successful in its own terms, boosting turnout by making it easier to vote hardly addresses the deeper problem of public disengagement from politics. Indeed, arguably the fact that people are willing to put their ballot papers in the post only underlines how little they value voting.

For companies and organisations with a purely technical relationship to the public, it makes sense to make paying bills and so on as easy as possible. That’s why gas companies, for example, want to save us the bother of even putting a cheque in the post by having us set up direct debits, so we don’t have to think about it. Voting can’t be like that. In a healthy democracy, voting is merely the final expression of a process of public discussion and argument that demands much more of individuals than a cross in a box.

In principle, of course, there is no reason that this final, practical aspect of voting couldn’t be facilitated by an efficient and reliable postal service, but clearly this is not what is happening. Postal voting is being promoted as a way of getting the turnout up regardless of voters’ general engagement in politics. Instead of trying to change the political culture by stimulating debate and inspiring the public with its ideas (indeed, the muted response to the ‘Big Conversation’ indicates that New Labour’s ideas aren’t up to much), the government is accommodating to potential voters’ lack of enthusiasm by taking the effort out of casting the vote.

This reduces democracy to the level of those charities that send out begging letters with free pens so you don’t even have to find your own. Encouraging the public to think of voting as a chore, something that we know we ought to do but want to get over with as soon as possible, is hardly likely to engender respect for the political process, much less passionate engagement with political ideas.

Having established an independent Electoral Commission precisely to come up with technical fixes to the problem of low turnout, the government ended up ignoring the commission’s warnings against such a large-scale pilot, in its own enthusiasm for postal voting. (It is ironic that critics of the ensuing fiasco have held up the politically unaccountable Electoral Commission as the hero, as if it had nothing to do with the degradation of democracy.)

The whole episode has surely only reinforced public cynicism about politics, with accusations that the government targeted traditional Labour-voting areas compounding more general suspicions that postal voting is open to corruption. All this is inevitable when the task of ‘getting the vote out’ is divorced from political debate and put in the hands of bureaucrats and administrators.
The real cynics are the politicians who think that we will vote for them if only they make it easy enough, and that they can get postmen to do their legwork.

Read on:

Cranking up the cranks, by Josie Appleton

The limits of ‘localism’, by Munira Mirza

(1) Third Class Post, Channel 4, broadcast 29 April 2004

(2) For example, Couple find abusive note from postman, Ananova

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Topics Politics


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