Headlines: April 30th, 2003

Allowing anyone with a special interest in an election into a polling station could improve voter turnout in local elections according to the Electoral Commission. In a report to the Lord Chancellor and the Deputy Prime Minister it is calling for a change in the law which would see more people permitted to watch voting – including children.The Commission is an independent body which aims to increase public participation in the democratic process by modernization of the voting system and improving awareness and confidence. Following last year’s 32% turnout at local elections, its report is recommending changes to legislation to allow anyone with a ‘public service’ interest in observing elections to attend a polling station. It says access should be subject to the consent of the returning officer and governed by strict controls which would be set out in a detailed code for observers.

The Commission says the media are already given limited access to polling stations on an unofficial basis so they can, for example, film high-profile candidates casting their votes. The report envisages other groups being given access including election experts evaluating new methods of voting and international representatives on fact-finding missions.

The report also says children should be able to watch their parents as they cast their votes as a way of encouraging young people to take part in elections. According to research, only 11% of 18-24 year-olds said they voted in the last local elections and many said being unfamiliar with the democratic process was a reason for not voting.

Commission chairman, Sam Younger, said allowing observers into polling stations would be good for transparency and learning as well as bringing the UK into line with international practice.

Tomorrow as voters go to the polls in local council elections in England, hundreds of people will be trying new methods of voting in pilot schemes designed to boost turnout. These include voting by mobile phone, interactive television and the internet. Other people have already cast their votes with the widening use of postal ballots.