Saturday, 15 August 2009

Our Disenfranchised Soldiers - Lib Dems Seek Solution

Earlier this week Jess the Dog an ex-RAF officer turned blogger highlighted the fact that our service men and women on active service are currently effectively disenfranchised under current election laws. As he points out that under the current voting system there are only 11 days, inclusive of weekends, from the point at which candidates’ names are confirmed, to printing in the UK, delivery of papers and posting to the overseas destination and back to the chosen constituency. Quite simply this does not work for those serving overseas.

He would be glad to know that on the 21st September this is one of the things that are being address in the Liberal Democrat conference. Under the motion Reaffirming the Military Covenant on the agenda for that day there are 8 actions being called for:

  • The basic pay of the lower ranks and NCOs to be brought in line with the equivalent police ranks, so that a private in Afghanistan is paid no less than a newly qualified police constable, funded through the MOD staff restructuring
  • A doubling of the number of forces' family homes refurbished from around 800 to 1600 per year, halving the length of time it will take to achieve the highest grade, funded through reasonable reductions in senior armed forces officers in the MOD.
  • A review of the current arrangements for repair and maintenance of the of forces' accommodation with the feasibility study on returning to a warden system for military housing estates.
  • The military covenant between the state, society and the army to be codified to guarantee real entitlements for service personnel of the three services and their families.
  • Proper medical provision for all service personnel including post-conflict debriefings and counselling, with particular emphasis on post-traumatic stress disorder.
  • Reform to voting arrangements for service personnel so that they and their families can exercise their democratic rights.
  • Savings to be sought from fighter jet procurement and operational costs and invested in helicopters for Afghanistan to provide additional capabilities.
  • A full -scale Strategic Security and Defence Review.

Admittedly the one line about voting somehow seems lacking in detail compared to some of the other actions. So what exactly can be done.

The recent America elections of course had some close counts delayed while the absentee ballots (often of forces personnel) arrived to be counted. This is one possible solution but can you imagine the disappointment on Dimbleby's or Kyle's face if a barracks, port or airbase of active personnel fell within one or more of their marginals on the night and they'd have to wait for the Service Post to get back with the papers to give them the full result, rather that at some point in the early hours of Friday morning.

A lot of our personnel now have some sort of online connection to the outside world. If not directly where they are stationed at least at home base. The actual delivery and return therefore of a vote to these personnel need not take too long. If any section of our community were worthy of an expansion of the franchise into electronic voting the forces certainly are a prime case.

Surely some secure server connection to a central online polling station in the UK which could link the service persons service number to their registered address would allow them to vote on all the relevant elections taking place that day where they are based. This could also be set up like the early voting in America to allow personnel who are destined to be on missions on polling day to cast their vote. Then at 10pm on election night all these ballots can be sent out to the relevant returning officers at the counts to add into their tallies.

We're toyed with the idea of electronic voting and this is one group that would benefit most from its introduction in my opinion. Yet somehow the Government do not seem to have moved the position on since 2006 when as Jess pointed out Total Politics ran a report on the issue which included the following:

Douglas Young, of the British Armed
Forces Federation
(BAFF) says: "The run-up to the 2005 general election was
an utter farce. There's still anger about it". His report 'Silence in the
detailed the problems faced by members of the armed forces including
legislative changes in 2000, website information and postal voting problems.

Andrew Robathan MP for Blaby criticised the government for being dismissive:
"I firmly believe the government didn't want people in the armed forces voting
because of the large numbers who wouldn’t vote Labour. The government dragged
its heels deliberately", he says.

What has changed? Nothing. Are the government still more scared of losing the votes of the forces than being fair in allowing their democratic voice to be heard? It looks like it and that is something that seriously needs to be redressed.


  1. The problem with an online voting system is that as well as making things 'secure' you also have to make them secret. How do we ensure that the vote cast at the other end is properly hidden? Such a system would have to have proper booths set up on the other end for soldiers to enter and vote in secrecy. It would also be vital to ensure that all possible identifying information is stripped from the vote before it is added to the tally. This can be done, but it needs to be done with extreme care.

  2. Thanks very much for commenting on this critical issue. The late Air Marshal Lord Garden would be proud!! The Lib Dem proposals will be warmly welcomed by the Armed Forces and the Reaffirming the Military Covenant is a bold proposal: the recent Chief of General Staff Briefing Team Paper pointed out many of the problems that these proposals may well help address.

    I think a low-tech solution is needed. Fly out postal votes and fly them back....or fly out ballot boxes to the main operating bases and set up polling stations there.

    Also, it may be a breach of human rights to deny Service personnel the right to vote in this way. The right to vote is a human right contained within the Charter, and this is underpinned by rulings in the European Court in favour of a Gibralter resident and a prison inmate.

    By the way, are the Lib Dems committed to cutting back or scrapping Trident? I can't recall what the policy is.

  3. You've omitted the problem with proxy votes Stephen. That's the one which councils say is most reliable.

    So, for example, you have a father in the UK and his son serving in Afghanistan has appointed his father as his proxy. So far so good.

    Then when the cards come to the father's address, they ask that the voter (military person) downloads a form from a website, completes it (it cannot be completed online), scans it in to send to the council. So far so good.

    But here's the crunch. The proxy vote isn't valid until the council receives the paper copy which was scanned. They need a 'true' signature.

    What chance is there for a soldier to scan a form and put it into BFPO to arrive all within around 10 days? None.

    So I do hope proxy votes for the military are brought into your discussion. Also I hope you have a representative from councils to explain how ridiculous their demands are in this regard.

    Perhaps they ought to try to scan a form then send it from Afghanistan (when post can take anything upto 8/10 weeks to arrive in UK and vice versa).

    Just a thought.