Wrong postage on ballot packs

Many UK councils did not use appropriate postage for sending out ballot packs to people in France, Connexion has found

5 May 2015

MANY – perhaps most – UK councils have not been sending out postal ballot packs to voters in France with appropriate postage on them for the Continent, Connexion has found - a problem which is likely to have contributed to some packs arriving too late, or not at all, for tomorrow's UK general election.

Thank you to the many readers who contacted us via email and Facebook to tell us how the envelopes you received were franked or about your issues with the postal voting process generally.

We have now heard from many people who have not received a postal ballot despite having registered to vote and requested one (though it appears that in a few cases people may not have understood the requirement to complete a separate postal vote application after registering). A number of other people were concerned that their packs arrived only last week, leaving them unsure - with bank holidays in both France (May 1) and the UK (May 4) if they will be delivered in time.

A new easy online system of voter registration boosted numbers of applications from expat Britons to register this time, which were well in excess of 100,000 – the target which the Electoral Commission set itself and around three times as many as last time in 2010.

However, separate paper forms also needed to be filled in and posted (some councils also accepted emailed scans) to request a postal or proxy vote.

The commission told Connexion that official registration figures will not be available until after the election, as applications had to be turned into actual registrations by council officers and there may have been some administrative problems.

A number of readers who contacted councils over missing ballots were told they were posted around the start of last week (April 27). This is despite the fact that the government lengthened the electoral timetable this time with the aim of helping avoid the problem – which also happened at the 2010 general election – of some postal ballots arriving too late for people to vote. This writer’s council said they posted all their postal ballots on the same day, Friday 24.

Assuming people registered and request a postal ballot in good time, councils in theory could have sent out postal ballot packs at any point after 16.00 on April 9, which was the deadline for candidates to withdraw and one reader was told by the Electoral Commisison that it was therefore technically possible for them to do it 19 working days before the poll. However, allowing for ballots to be printed, which takes about a week, it was realistically possible to send them by about Thursday April 16, giving three weeks for expats to receive them and send them back.

This was possible for some councils as one of Connexion's contacts in Paris got in touch with us on Monday April 20 to say he had had his pack from Cardiff and had voted, and one reader told us his pack came on April 17 from Wandsworth.

Official Electoral Commission guidance to officers at local electoral offices (mostly based at district councils) is to prioritise ballot packs that are going overseas to allow as much time as possible for them to be received and sent back.

It also states they should be sent airmail and should be identified as being for overseas to the postal service.

However based on feedback from readers, ballot packs were mostly either received franked 1st class and “postage paid GB” in place of a stamp, usually also with an airmail sticker or ink stamp on the envelope, or they were sent franked similarly and with the wording “Advanced Mail” on the envelope (with or without an “airmail” sticker as well). This writer received one by Advanced Mail with no airmail sticker and was told by the council that this type of franking was used for all of their postal ballots, but that they indicated to the postal service which ones were for overseas so that they could be dealt with accordingly.

Royal Mail told Connexion that Advanced Mail is a franking option for businesses in the UK sending to other destinations in the UK. Information on the Royal Mail’s website shows it comes in options including the usual first and second class rates but can allow for some savings on the usual price due to bulk.

However, as Royal Mail’s price list shows, the usual postage rates for sending to the Continent are meant to be higher than those for first or second class post.

Ordinary UK first class postage is 63p for up to 100g, while letters to the rest of Europe should be sent “Standard International”, which at Europe rates is £1 for up to 20g and £1.52 for 21-100g. This writer’s ballot pack from an English district council weighed about 36g and arrived by first class Advanced Mail.

[Edit: Two readers have now told Connexion that theirs arrived franked “Europe 100g”, and in one case the reader said the council (Babergh DC) sent theirs on April 22 and it arrived on April 24].

La Poste told Connexion mail to France should not be posted from the UK at a “national rate”, however a spokeswoman said if this is done then the letter will usually be delivered but is likely to take longer than usual. Strictly-speaking, she said the postman should also ask the recipient to pay the difference between the national rate and the correct one, however in practice this may be waived.

If you have not yet received your ballot for tomorrow’s election it is now too late, however readers have told Connexion some councils agreed to organise an emergency proxy vote, exchanging application documents by email.

Connexion will be forwarding reader comments received to the Electoral Commission, who have told us they will be reviewing the issues that arose with a view to improvements next time (you can email: news[at]connexionfrance.com). A commission spokeswoman said comments can also be sent to them directly at: info[at]electoralcommission.org.uk (though bearing in mind the commission cannot give individual assistance with problems).

As we previously reported, a separate problem identified by Connexion is that many readers received in their packs postage-paid envelopes not suitable for sending from France.

In many cases readers say they realised they needed to put on French stamps, however some said they followed instructions in ballot packs to send the envelopes back as they were. The La Poste spokeswoman said they would not recognise UK franking for posting from France.

Readers found that the correct French postage for return to the UK was either 95 centimes or €1.50, bearing in mind the completed ballot letters weighed about 20g and la Poste’s €1.50 rate starts at 21g.

Royal Mail confirmed that the “Business Reply Plus” envelopes many readers received are for use within the UK and that the postage cost is only charged to the councils when they are used. The councils would not be charged where French stamps are put on, a spokeswoman said.

• As we have previously stated, some readers' councils have agreed to them having "emergency" proxy votes, so-called because the deadline for ordinary proxy voting applications closed on April 28. They agreed to it, with the application forms completed, scanned and emailed to the councils, due to non-arrival of their ballot packs despite the fact this process is typically for people who cannot vote due to a reason related to their occupation or due to disability. We would suggest asking for the same - and if they say they cannot do it, then ask them why not (contact details of the electoral offices can be found by putting in your old UK post code at: www.aboutmyvote.co.uk. The Electoral Commission told us they encourage councils to allow it. If you do not have friends or family in the UK who could help, a last-ditch possibility might be to ask the local constituency office of your chosen party if there is someone there who can help (thanks to reader Alex Charles for this suggestion). Your proxy must themselves be a registered UK voter. A person can be a proxy for close relatives and up to two other people. There are some more details about emergency proxy votes, which in theory are even possible on polling day, at: Emergency proxy votes. Note however that these forms are fairly complex and require you to have a signature from a supporter. However a reader reports her council allowed her to use this simple form, with no supporter: Basic proxy form. A similar form tailored to people abroad (with fields for your French address and the old UK constituency one) can be found at: Basic overseas proxy form.

Previous stories:

Ballots late around the world

No ballot? Take urgent action

Take care over election postage

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