Postal voting is voting in an election whereby ballot papers are distributed to electors or returned by post, in contrast to electors voting in person at a polling station or electronically via an electronic voting system. As postal votes must be distributed and placed in return mail before the scheduled election day, it is sometimes referred to as a form of early voting. It can also be used as an absentee ballot.
To enable as many voters as possible to participate, postal voting can assist people who may not be able to attend a polling station in person, for example because of a physical disability, absence from the locality or some other reason. Postal voting is generally available to voters upon application, sometimes with restrictions. If no reason for a request is required, it may be called postal vote on demand. Postal voting may be an option for voters in some jurisdictions, while in some elections there may be all-postal voting.
A form of postal voting was introduced in Western Australia in 1877, followed by an improved method in South Australia in 1890. On the other hand, concerns about postal voting have been raised as to whether it complies with the requirements of a secret ballot, in that people cast their vote outside the security of a polling station, and whether voters can cast their vote privately free from another person's coercion. There have been cases of electoral fraud with postal votes in the United Kingdom (including in Birmingham at the 2004 European and local government elections in the UK).
History by country
Voting at elections originally took place by way of a public show of hands or by a public ballot. The right to vote by secret ballot was introduced by the Parliamentary and Municipal Elections Act 1872 (the Ballot Act 1872). After this voting took place at polling stations where voters marked their votes in secret and placed their ballot papers in a closed box.
Absent voting was first introduced for the immediate post-war period in 1918 for servicemen and others prevented ‘by reason of the nature of their occupation…from voting at a poll’ by the Representation of the People Act 1918. Armed forces still serving overseas at the end of World War I were allowed to vote by post, and permanent arrangements were made for proxy voting by servicemen. The Representation of the People Act 1945 again made temporary provision for postal voting by service voters. Postal voting was not extended to civilians until 1948 when the Representation of the People Act 1948 granted postal voting facilities to both service personnel and to certain groups of civilians including those who were physically incapacitated, those unable to vote without making a journey by sea or air or because of the nature of their occupation, and those who were no longer residing at their qualifying address. All had to provide an address in the UK to which ballot papers could be sent. Service personnel could, alternatively, vote by proxy if they were likely to be at sea or abroad on polling day.
In 1983, in its review of electoral law, the Home Affairs Select Committee criticised the categories of absent voters who were allowed to vote by post. The Committee made clear that they would not wish absent voting facilities to be made available to everybody on demand but recommended that "the Home Office should review the existing criteria for eligibility for absent voting facilities, and in particular we suggest that it would be permissible to apply for a postal vote due to absence “by reason of employment”, without the necessity to distinguish between one type of employment or another." The Committee also called for voters absent on holiday to have the right to apply for a postal vote. The Government responded to the Committee’s report in January 1984 and expressed some concern at the increased opportunities for electoral abuse offered by absent voting (especially postal voting) and in particular by the standing arrangements made for those allowed an absent vote for an indefinite period. However, the Government’s response was summed up as follows:
- First, apart from service voters and electors resident abroad, the right to apply for an absent vote for an indefinite period should in general be confined to those who are unable or likely to be unable to vote in person on polling day (or to vote unaided) through blindness or other physical incapacity. (The special arrangements for those unable to reach the polling station from their qualifying address without a sea or air journey would continue unchanged).
- Second, the right to apply for an absent vote at a particular Parliamentary, European Parliament or local election in Great Britain should be extended to all those who for whatever reason are unable or likely to be unable to vote in person on polling day. This would benefit holiday makers, people who are away in the course of employment and all other electors who although prevented from voting in person on polling day may not apply under existing provisions.
The Representation of the People Act 1985 subsequently made provision for these extensions to the right to apply for an absent vote. The proposals did not apply to Northern Ireland where there was already widespread concern, shared by the Government, at the extent and nature of electoral abuse, including the abuse of postal voting. Further amendments were made to the rules governing absent voting in the Representation of the People Act 1989.
By 1999 the system of postal and proxy voting for those unable to vote at polling stations was seen as cumbersome and complex. A Working Party on Electoral Procedures chaired by George Howarth, Minister of State at the Home Office, published its report in October 1999. The working party recommended that
- Absent voting should be allowed on demand
- The application and voting procedures for absent voting should be simplified
The Representation of the People Act 2000 implemented the Howarth report’s recommendations. The Representation of the People (England & Wales) Regulations 2001 introduced the changes to the absent voting arrangements from 16 February 2001. The main change was to allow postal voting on demand.
All-postal voting is a variant of postal voting, where all electors receive their ballot papers through the post. Depending on the system applied, electors may have to return their ballot papers by post, or there may be an opportunity to deliver them by hand to a specified location.
There is some evidence that this method of voting leads to higher turnout than one where people vote in person or have to apply for a postal vote. Critics suggest that this is only a temporary impact, and that there are dangers in people using ballot papers intended for other electors.
It has been tested by a large number of local authorities in the United Kingdom for their elections, and in 2004 it was used for elections to the European Parliament and local authorities in four of the English regions (see below for more details).
Experience of postal voting and all-postal voting by country
France had absentee voting until the 1970s, when it was abolished because they were classified as a security risk in terms of vote-rigging.
In Malaysia, opposition leader and former deputy prime minister Anwar Ibrahim alleged that postal votes have been used by the ruling Barisan Nasional coalition in securing seats in certain constituencies. He also said that in one particular constituency (Setiawangsa), he claimed that his Parti Keadilan Rakyat had actually won during the 2008 elections, before 14,000 postal votes came in awarding the incumbent BN parliamentarian the seat with a majority of 8,000 votes. In Malaysia, only teachers, military personnel, and policemen based away from their constituencies are eligible to submit postal votes.
In Mexico, since the 2006 federal elections, postal voting for people living abroad has been permitted. A request can be made to the National Electoral Institute which then sends the ballots outside the country.
Mail-in ballots are an option for Overseas Filipinos in select countries only. The general practise for local and overseas absentee voting in Philippine elections requires that ballots be cast in person at select polling places, such as a consulate office.
In Spain, for European, regional and municipal elections, voters who will be absent from their town on election day or are ill or disabled, may request a postal vote at a post office. The application must be submitted personally or through a representative in case of illness or disability certified by a medical certificate.
Swiss federal law allows postal voting in all federal elections and referenda, and all cantons also allow it for cantonal ballot issues. All voters receive their personal ballot by mail and may either cast it at a polling station or mail it back.
Vote-by-mail is a variation of postal voting in the United States in which a ballot is mailed to the home of a registered voter, the voter fills it out and returns it via postal mail. This process eliminates the requirements to staff and run a polling center during an election, and can result in considerable cost savings to the state. Balloting materials may be sent via the United States Postal Service without prepayment of postage.
Ballots are sent out, usually, three weeks before the election date, after a voter's pamphlet has been distributed. To vote by mail, an individual marks the ballot for their choice of the candidates (or writes in their name), places the ballot in a secrecy envelope, seals it, places it in the provided mailing envelope, seals it and signs and dates the back of the mailing envelope. This envelope is then either stamped and mailed at any mailbox, or dropped off (postage free) at a local ballot collection center.
There is a cut off date for mailing ballots and it is determined by the local voting jurisdiction. In some jurisdictions, postmarks do not count, and ballots must be received by a certain time on election day. In other jurisdictions, a ballot must have a postmark on or before the day of the election and be received prior to the date of certification. Many vote-by-mail jurisdictions enlist the help of volunteers to take ballots in walk up "Drop off Booths" or drive-up "Quick Drop" locations. The Help America Vote Act requires some polling options, often at central election headquarters, with machines designed for voting by those disabled who cannot vote a normal ballot.
In Texas, electoral fraud occurring over the years involves political operatives engaged by candidates illegally aid those eligible to vote by mail, usually voters over 65 years of age or voters with a disability. The overall rates of voter fraud are estimated to be low, with one study finding 2,068 cases of alleged voter fraud in the U.S. since 2000.
States with all vote-by-mail elections
In 1998, voters in Oregon passed an initiative requiring that all elections be conducted by mail. Voters may also drop their ballots off at a county designated official drop site. Oregon has since reduced the cost of elections, and the time available to tally votes has increased. Oregon requires receipt of votes by 8:00 pm local time on election day. County elections offices collect from post offices at their closing time on election day and from drop boxes at 8:00 pm election day. Any valid ballot received by 8:00 pm local time on election day by any county is required to be counted, unless the cumulative votes of any valid ballots transferred to the relevant county elections office after the closing of the polls cannot change the outcome of the election for any given seat.
In 2011, the Washington legislature passed a law requiring all counties to conduct vote-by-mail elections. Local governments in Washington had the option to do so since 1987, and statewide elections had permitted it since 1993. By 2009, 38 of the state's 39 counties (all except Pierce County) had conducted all elections by mail. Pierce County had joined the rest of the state in all-mail balloting by 2014. In the Washington system, ballots must be postmarked by election day, so complete results are delayed by several days.
In 2013, Colorado began holding all elections by mail.
Project Vote published their findings in an article titled "Vote-by-Mail Doesn't Deliver" by Michael Slater and Teresa James. The article's conclusion states,
Thanks largely to Oregon's experience, many reform-minded advocates and policymakers have become persuaded that vote-by-mail stimulates increased voter turnout with few drawbacks. We think the facts don't support their arguments. VBM reinforces the stratification of the electorate; it's more amenable to both fraud and manipulation than voting at polling places; and it depends too much on the reliability of the U.S. Postal Service.
Alternatively, in Oregon (the original Vote-by-Mail state), the decades since Vote-by-Mail began have been remarkably fraud-free and enthusiastic, with high voter turnout, nearly complete lack of fraud, and strong support from voters who prefer taking time to read Voter Pamphlets at home and make a decision, rather than waiting (whether minutes or hours) to vote in person. Some choose to drop off ballots, making their voting experience more of an event. The states of Colorado and Washington have followed suit, and California is in discussion.
Some states in the USA have recently allowed drive-thru voting. In the process voters leave their absentee ballots in a drop box at designated locations. Some locations allow drop-off voting 24/7.
Since 2001, any elector has been entitled to request a postal vote (known as postal voting on demand) without giving a reason, apart from in Northern Ireland, where postal voting is available only if it would be unreasonable to expect a voter to go to a polling station on polling day as a result of employment, disability or education restrictions. Prior to 2001, postal votes had been available since 1948 only to those unable to attend a polling station for reasons of ill health, employment or planned holiday away from home and to some electors living on small islands where they would need to cross water to reach their polling station. Before 1985, holidays were not a sufficient reason, and the employment criterion allowed only some professions.
Registered voters who wish to vote by post must submit an additional application form to the Electoral Registration Officer at their local authority (or to the Electoral Office for Northern Ireland if in Northern Ireland) stating whether they want their ballot paper to be sent for one single election, all elections until a specified date or indefinitely. They must also submit their date of birth, and signature specimen on the form (or apply for a grant of a signature waiver due to a disability or inability to read or write). In addition, if a person eligible to vote in the United Kingdom is chosen by another voter to be his/her proxy, the proxy can apply to vote by post. To receive a postal vote for an election, the postal vote application must have been received by the Electoral Registration Officer by 5 p.m. eleven working days before polling day.
Returning officers issue and despatch postal ballot packs at 5 p.m. on the eleventh working day before polling day at the earliest. Issue of postal ballots is not open to the scrutiny of candidates and their agents; by law, only the returning officers, their staff, representatives of the Electoral Commission and observers accredited by the Electoral Commission are permitted to attend. Some returning officers produce postal ballot packs in house, whilst others outsource the process to an external company.
Each postal ballot pack contains inside the cover envelope a ballot paper, two envelopes ("A" and "B") and a postal voting statement. Postal ballots are printed on paper of a colour different from that of ballots issued in polling stations. Postal ballot papers contain the following design, security and identification features on the reverse:
- an official mark (e.g. a watermark or an official stamp)
- a unique identifying mark (e.g. a barcode which is different for each individual ballot paper)
- a unique identification number
When issuing each postal ballot paper, the officer marks on a list (called the corresponding number list) next to the postal ballot's unique identification number the elector number of the voter to whom the postal ballot is sent, and then makes a mark next to the voter's name in a separate list of postal voters. The unique identification number of the postal ballot paper is also marked on the postal voting statement sent within the postal ballot pack. The local authority name and address and the name of the constituency/ward are printed on both envelopes "A" and "B". Once all ballot papers for an election have been issued by the returning officer, the corresponding number list is sealed in a packet which can only be opened upon the order of a court when an election result is challenged.
Upon receipt of the postal ballot pack, the voter completes the ballot paper according to the instructions and seals it inside the envelope marked "A". A separate postal voting statement must be filled in by the voter with his/her date of birth and signature (unless a signature waiver has been granted or if the voter is an anonymous elector). It is strongly recommended that postal voting statement and envelope "A" (containing the ballot paper) be placed and sealed inside the larger envelope "B" when returned, although this is not a requirement. The vote can be posted back to the returning officer at the local authority address (postage is prepaid when returned from within the United Kingdom), or returned in person to the returning officer at the local authority office, or directly handed in to a polling station on polling day (but only one which is situated within the constituency/ward marked on envelopes "A"/"B"). For the vote to be counted, it must reach the returning officer/polling station by the close of poll (usually 10 p.m. on polling day).
Upon receipt of a postal ballot pack in the post (or of the postal ballot paper and postal voting statement if sent separately), the returning officer places it inside the postal voters' ballot box allocated to the particular constituency/ward. If a presiding officer receives a postal ballot pack in a polling station, it is sealed inside a packet which is later delivered to the returning officer at the close of poll together with a form recording the number of postal ballot packs received by the presiding officer.
Candidates and their agents, representatives of the Electoral Commission and observers accredited by the Electoral Commission and entitled to observe the opening of postal ballot packs - the returning officer must give candidates and their agents at least 48 hours' written notice of the time and location of every opening session of postal ballot packs. After emptying the postal voters' ballot box, the postal voting statements and envelopes marked "A"/loose postal ballot papers are separated into two different groups. The returning officer is required to verify the date of birth and signature filled in on at least 20% of the postal voting statements from each postal voters ballot box with the details provided on the original postal vote application forms. If the details do not match, then the postal voting statement is rejected. The returning officer makes a mark next to the name of the voter on the postal voters list for each postal voting statement received, even if it is selected for verification and rejected. On a separate list, the returning officer must write down the unique identification numbers of postal voting statements which were chosen for verification and subsequently rejected.
The returning officer then compiles all loose postal ballot papers together with postal ballot papers having been removed from envelopes marked "A". The unique identification numbers of all rejected postal ballot papers are noted on a list. The postal ballot papers are counted and finally placed in the postal ballot box(es), except for rejected postal ballot papers and postal ballot papers which have the same unique identification number as rejected postal voting statements. The postal ballot box is securely sealed by the returning officer (candidates and agents can also apply their own seals).
At the count, the postal ballot boxes have their seals broken, are opened and then the postal ballot papers are counted.
Voters can contact the returning officer to check that their postal voting packs (or their postal voting statements and their postal ballot papers) have been received - however a response can only be given after an opening session since the returning officer will have to refer to the postal voters list. At the end of an election, the marked postal voter lists are open for public inspection and also can be purchased by the Electoral Commission, candidates, elected representatives, government departments, police forces, registered political parties and local constituency parties.
There have been cases of electoral fraud with postal votes in the UK (including at the 2004 European and local government elections in Birmingham).
All-postal voting pilots
In 2000, the UK government passed legislation to permit local authorities to apply to pilot innovations in the method of voting at local elections (including all-postal voting, electronic voting, and voting at weekends), with the first pilot elections being held in May that year.
In May 2000, 2002 and 2003, many local authorities piloted all-postal voting at their local elections. In May 2003, 35 local authorities did so. The outcome of those pilots was a recommendation from the Electoral Commission that all-postal voting should be adopted as the normal method of voting at local elections in the UK. This reflected the positive impact on voter turnout at these elections (in some places, turnout doubled) and the fact that there was no evidence of an increase in electoral fraud.
The local elections scheduled for May 2004 were postponed to June and combined with the European Parliament elections. The UK government used this opportunity to trial all-postal voting in these elections across four regions: North East, North West, East Midlands, and Yorkshire and the Humber.
The pilots did show a significant increase in turnout where postal voting was trialled. However, the government faced heavy criticism from opposition parties due to the decision to over-rule the Electoral Commission's recommendation for no more than three regions to be trialled. There were numerous reports of problems, and due to the delays in passing the legislation many ballot papers were received quite late. However, apart from one ward in Hull where the election had to be re-run, the pilot elections were completed successfully and the turnout in the four regions doubled compared to 1999. In the other regions, turnout increased by half. Again, there was no evidence of an increase in electoral fraud in the pilot regions, though postal voting fraud did occur in other regions (see above).
Nevertheless, the Electoral Commission report into these elections drew back from their earlier recommendation because its research showed that a large minority of people wished to retain the option of voting at polling stations. Thus, the Commission recommended that a new model of multiple voting methods should be developed, including postal voting, rather than proceeding with elections run entirely by all-postal voting.
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- Representation of the People Act 2000, Schedule 4, Paragraphs 3(8), 4(5) and 7(11)
- The Representation of the People (England and Wales) Regulations 2001, Section 72
- Representation of the People (Scotland) Regulations 2001, Section 72
- The Representation of the People (England and Wales) Regulations 2001, Section 75(1)
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- The Representation of the People (England and Wales) Regulations 2001, Section 79(1)
- Representation of the People (Scotland) Regulations 2001, Section 79(1)(a)
- The Representation of the People (England and Wales) Regulations 2001, Section 79(3)
- Representation of the People (Scotland) Regulations 2001, Section 79(2)
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- Highlights of Oregon's vote-by-mail history
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- "Voting Alone," by Nick Arvin, New York Times, November 8, 2008
- Research about postal voting and electoral practices