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Keep ballot boxes clean

(Filed: 04/06/2003) Yesterday's proposals for the modernisation of elections, published by the Electoral Commission, were said to be all about tackling low turnout and widening choice.

Like the Electoral Commission, politicians get very upset about low turnout, but it is fair to assume that it is not something that worries the voters - otherwise, presumably, they would turn out to vote. If electors cannot be bothered to cast their ballots, that is much more likely to be a reflection on the candidates than on the democratic process as a whole.

What really does matter, in any election, is the integrity of the process. It is against this that the commission's proposal yesterday, to increase postal voting by relaxing the current rule that a countersigned statement of identity must accompany each application, should be measured.

The problem of personation is a real one, as Northern Ireland shows. Recent experience suggests that more postal voting might well increase turnout, but that it could also increase the opportunities for fraud - whatever new safeguards are introduced.

Another commission suggestion for boosting turnout - the introduction of a national electoral register - has the drawback that it could very easily become a step towards a national identity card.

These are important considerations. So is the worry that abolishing candidates' deposits - another proposal yesterday - will encourage not only extremist candidates, but also the plain flippant. If someone really cannot raise #500 to stand for Parliament, it must be doubtful whether they should be a candidate at all.

The electoral system has its limitations, but at least it is tried, tested and, most important of all, secure. The Electoral Commission, which is a new and untried quango, should tread with care.