E-voting may be put on hold

COLCHESTER MP Bob Russell's call for next year's council elections to be held on a Sunday has come too late – the Government has decided they should be postponed for five weeks to "Super Thursday" June 10.

COLCHESTER MP Bob Russell's call for next year's council elections to be held on a Sunday has come too late – the Government has decided they should be postponed for five weeks to "Super Thursday" June 10.

Elections to the European Parliament, Greater London Authority, and district councils which retire by thirds – for example Ipswich, Colchester, and Waveney – will all take place on the second Thursday in June to coincide with the Euro poll.

Events had overtaken a question tabled by Mr Russell to Deputy Prime Minister John Prescott asking him to move "polling day for future local elections to a Sunday."

Mr Prescott's deputy Nick Raynsford said in a Commons statement that responses to a consultation document on moving elections from traditional Thursdays to weekends produced 74 supporters, 91 opponents, and 66 seeking pilot schemes.


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"In the light of this response, the Government intends to take forward further pilots of weekend voting in view of the potential benefit to voters, and taking into account the costs involved.

"However, a series of practical difficulties were raised about proceeding with nation-wide weekend voting in 2004. In particular, the Electoral Commission did not support wholesale mandatory weekend voting in 2004."

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The decision to move the elections will probably put the kibosh on the electronic voting trials pioneered by councils such as Ipswich for a couple of years. It would be nonsense to expect electors to vote by e-mail or text message for one set of elections, and then troop to the polling booths for the European hustings, which are expected to be conducted on a uniform system of voting.

With the possibility of the 2005 county council elections taking place on the same day as the General Election, it might not be until 2006 until the next set of electronic elections are held.

Which is a pity because with more than 6,000 people becoming e-voting pioneers in the Ipswich elections, the council is rightly proud of its pilot scheme. Around 77% of those who registered to take part actually voted, using text messaging, the internet or touch-tone phones – 21.6% of the total votes cast (28,506) – making it was a clear and unequivocal success.

Congratulations should go to the authority's chief executive and returning officer James Hehir, whose penchant for electronic gizmos first surfaced amid the wizardry of the Ipswich by-election count. "This was a triumph for local democracy," he remarks modestly.

"The system worked well and we were the first e-voting triallists in the country to declare our results so it was nice that we showed the way to the rest of the UK.

"More than 6,000 people in Ipswich have helped to change the way elections will be run in the future. There is no going back and we are now looking forward to Government proposals for future use of e-voting in local and national elections."

WHAT took Clare Short so long? "We have the powers of a presidential type system with the automatic majority of a parliamentary system."

Well, better late than never, someone with clout in the Labour Party has had the guts to stand up and say what has been self evidently obvious since shortly after Tony Blair walked into Downing Street.

Landslides, by their very nature, hand to the winner almost absolute power. The checks and balances of parliamentary democracy can be ignored, giving the prime minister of the day enormous power. And landslides also marginalise the opposition, resulting in devastating internal rancour.

The 1997 and 2001 parliaments are little different from that those of 1983 and 1987 – it's not the politicians, but the electors, who are to blame for concentrating power into a few hands.

Just as Labour almost disappeared under a fratricidal welter in the 1980s, the Tories have gone through the same agonies since 1997. And just as Tory Cabinet ministers fell by the wayside under the all-powerful Margaret Thatcher, now Tony Blair is suffering the humiliation of savage resignation statements.

What turns around, comes around.

It's worth repeating some of Clare Short's broadsides.

"In our first term the problem was spin – endless announcements, exaggeration and manipulation of the media that undermined people's respect for the Government and trust in what we said.

"It was accompanied by a control freak style, which has created many of the problems of excessive bureaucracy and centralised targets that is undermining the success of our public sector reforms.

"In the second term, the problem is centralisation of power into the hands of the Prime Minister and an increasingly small number of advisers who make decisions in private without proper discussion.

"Increasingly those who are wielding power are not accountable and not scrutinised. Thus we have the powers of a presidential type system with the automatic majority of a parliamentary system."

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