"Postal votes will be landing on doormats soon. They could well be doing so when the Lib Dems are enjoying their best election campaign ever..."A couple of months ago, I was chatting to a party strategist, and asked what he thought had done most to change the nature of British elections in recent years. His answer: postal voting.
Or more accurately, the increased amount of it, following the Representation of the People Act 2000, which allowed for postal voting on demand. Since then, the amount of postal voting has increased election-on-election, to the point where around 15% of the votes cast in 2005 were postal votes.
A paper published in the British Journal of Politics and International Relations (sub required, unfortunately) by Rallings et al argues that, for all the hooha, postal voting had relatively little impact on either turnout or party support at the last election.
But the reason that the strategist argued postal voting altered British elections was because they changed the focus and the structure, even if not necessarily the outcome.
Prior to the 2000 Act, everything the parties did built towards polling day. Whilst most things still build towards polling day, parties now also need to be aware of the significant chunk of voters who will be casting their votes before then. Widespread postal voting effectively creates multiple polling dates.
Postal votes will be landing on doormats soon. They could well be doing so when the Lib Dems are enjoying their best election campaign ever. Even if the Lib Dem surge subsides and Labour manages to pull back some of its support by the traditional polling day, a good chunk of voters will have cast their votes at the point when Labour were in third place.
UPDATE: Writing it, I thought 'I can't believe I'm the only person to think about this'. And then I saw this from the excellent UK Polling Report, which proved that I wasn't. Great minds, etc.
Professor Philip Cowley