Howard Croft column: Carefree world of our postal voting system

Postal votes are freely available on a come-one-come-all basis.
Postal votes are freely available on a come-one-come-all basis.

Several years ago, when I realised that I would have to visit the United States at a time when a general election was being held at home, I applied for a postal vote. This was a concession rarely granted, as was widely known, and only for what were regarded as excellent reasons by some sceptical jobsworth . A scheduled holiday would not qualify, nor would being confined to a wheelchair. Business travel was regarded as borderline and my application had to provide such details as departure dates, destination, nature of business, names and addresses of overseas business contacts and evidence that an airline ticket had been purchased. All of this had to be supported in writing by my boss, who of course was easily fixed, who would assert that under no circumstances could the plan be postponed.

The only sure-fire way of getting a postal vote was confinement in what was at the time known as an iron lung, but even that required written testimony from a registered medical practitioner that the applicant was indeed in a sorry state, but nevertheless capable of exercising the crucial political choice. My own application was granted, but only after I had dealt with supplementary questions from a minor civil servant who was clearly keen to refuse it.

Now postal votes are freely available on a come-one-come-all basis, with no reasons required. This “reform” was blithely devised and its implementation entrusted to public officials whose grasp of unintended consequences was as well-known then as it is now. The result nationally has seen cases of corruption, especially in local elections.

Another threat to the integrity, if I may use that word in this context, to our electoral system is that although it is illegal to cast more than one vote in any election it is not illegal to register in more than one constituency. Many students living away from home do this – in their university locations and in the constituencies where their parents live – which, as they are at their place of study for little more than half of each year, means that they can vote in elections whenever they are held.

There are stories, true or not I cannot say, that spurred on by one party’s promise to abolish student loans and write off existing debts not only registered to vote in unusually large numbers, but voted twice. Hardly a surprise, if true. One is reminded of the old Irish electioneering slogan, “Vote early, vote often”, a racial slur if ever I heard one. Mrs Croft has origins in Galway. Second home owners enjoy a similar advantage, although there have been no reports of these privileged types flocking to more than one polling station. In any event, computers being now more sophisticated than the Sinclair ZX Spectrum of blessed memory, these matters could easily be monitored. They won’t be.

In the meantime, in an attempt to recover some ground with the great unwashed that he lost when he voted in favour of a big hike in university tuition fees, that nice Mr Nick Clegg has come up with an excellent wheeze. I suppose because not all students were smart enough to use both their votes to promote their own interests in the recent general election, he is proposing that every student vote should count as two. As he rightly says, they have a bigger stake in the future than crusty old wrinklies such as myself. He is too cautious.

In my view we should have a referendum on euthanasia, with votes of the over 70s counted three times.

On another matter altogether, science is making an interesting contribution to public debate. Microbiologists Washington University have come to the conclusion that medical staff in operating theatres would be less likely to introduce dangerous baccillae into their workplace and so infect their patients if they were to operate stark naked. It appears that surgical gowns abrade their skin, releasing possibly fatal microbes, or so they say. I should be very interested to hear how they conducted their research, and where, and what were the protocols that governed their studies.

This is a matter worthy of a referendum in its own right. Of course, anyone currently being investigated in hospital should get at least two votes. Mr Clegg is establishing himself as a deep political thinker. We suspected this first, of course, when he proposed that all students should pay interest on full student loans over 30 years even though, thanks to generous parents, they had borrowed no money, so making life fair.

Mr Clegg should explain his genius in a series of country-wide lectures, delivered in the nude, of course – we don’t want to catch anything.