16 Jan 2015

The pivotal pre-election postal poll

111 days to go.

Media commentators  love giving us the countdown to polling day on 7 May.  But the reality is that voting in the 2015 general election will really start a lot of earlier than that.  In reality, it’s less than three months from now.

Ballot papers

It’s a fact of which party organisers are well aware, but which journalists and commentators often forget.

In a way the 2015 election will involve two climaxes.  The big one, of course, remains the official polling day, Thursday 7 May, which has been almost set in stone since the coalition agreement of May 2010.  But the second, smaller climax in this election will occur when postal voters start receiving their ballot papers.

Postal voting has become a lot more important in elections ever since the Blair government brought in “postal voting on demand”, so that any voter who wanted could have a postal ballot, whereas previously postal voters had to explain that they had special circumstances.

In 2010 about 17 per cent of all votes cast were by post – about one in six.  All parties make efforts to ensure their most solid supporters are on the postal voting list, and most experts reckon the figure voting by post in 2015 will creep up a bit – perhaps by one or two per cent.  So postal ballots could account for almost one in five of all votes in 2015.

And in 2015 people will start voting by post several days earlier than in the past.  This year, partly because the election date has been long known, the election timetable has been brought forward.  The close of nominations is now  Thursday 9 April, four weeks before the main polling day.  After that, local councils can send out postal ballots as soon as they’ve had them printed.  It’s largely up to the councils.  People in some places will get their votes a lot quicker than others, partly depending on whether there are also local elections taking place in that area.

It’s been quite hard for me to discover  in practice when most postal ballots are likely to go.  Nobody really knows.  But John Turner, the chief executive of the Association of Electoral Administrators – the council officials who run elections in each constituency – kindly made some enquiries on my behalf.  Turner tells me his “best estimate” is that most postal ballots will be despatched to voters in the week starting Monday 13 April.

Past experience shows that most postal voters return their ballots within 48 hours of receiving them.  So if John Turner’s “best estimate” is correct, then large numbers of people could be voting as early as Tuesday and Wednesday 14 and 15 April, more than three weeks before the main polling day.  By the end of that week it could be that 2-3 million people have already voted.  In theory, if a council were to act very quickly, some people might be able to vote as early as Saturday 11 April.

Much of this early rush of voting will occur before the proposed date of the second TV debate on Thursday 16 April (if the debate ever happens), let alone the suggested third debate on 30 April.
It all means the parties have to get their messages firmly across before 13 April.  After that, it will be too late in the case of increasing numbers of voters.  Once people have returned their postal ballots they can’t change their minds, of course, or ask for their ballots back in order to vote for someone else.

The political parties are a lot more aware of this than journalists.  They will tailor their campaigns accordingly to hit the week of 13 April, what I’ll call the early climax.  It’s longer and less intense, but a climax nonetheless.

What’s happened is in some ways a return to what occurred in the 19th century when elections took place over several weeks, though the difference then was that different seats voted on different days.

Perhaps it would be more accurate to refer to this contest as “the general election of April-May 2015”.

And from now on I’m not going to refer to 7 May as “polling day”, but as the “main polling day”.

I suggest others do the same.

Follow @MichaelLCrick on Twitter