24 June 2004 | Sam Fortescue
Local councils are calling on the government to set up a contract for purchasing ballot packs in the wake of Britain's largest experiment in all-postal voting.
In this month's elections for the European parliament and local councils, four regions in England - East Midlands, the north east, north west, and Yorkshire and Humberside - held all-postal ballots with mixed results.
In one instance, Trevor Mills, North Lincolnshire elections officer, said he "was on the verge of a breakdown" trying to find a supplier of ballot packs.
The UK's Electoral Commission left the buying of packs, which went to more than 14 million voters and included information sheets with barcodes and watermarks, envelopes and forms, to regional returning officers. Most was done at a district level.
Purchasers complained that a lack of suppliers capable of delivering the complicated forms at short notice and a short lead-time given by the government could jeopardise future postal votes.
Andrew Foster, procurement manager for Northampton Borough Council, called on the government to agree a national framework deal for ballot packs.
Foster, who led the team that bought packs for the East Midlands' 3.25 million voters, said: "The Department of Constitutional Affairs should be doing procurement on a national basis.
"It should go to the market and produce a framework agreement with four to five suppliers, so local returning officers don't need to go through the competition process," he said.
In the East Midlands, Roger Morris, returning officer, had to negotiate a contract with printer Opt2Vote, then gave all of the region's 40 districts the option to buy ballot packs at the negotiated price.
In Bolton, 11,000 packs were incorrectly printed and about 5,000 suffered delivery problems, whereas in last year's local elections, it had run procurement at a district level with no hitches.
Peter Wilson, deputy returning officer, blamed delays on political wrangling at Westminster, which only passed the legislation for the ballots in April, and pointed to the complexity of the ballot packs.
Purchasers also found it hard to attract suppliers. "People would promise us a quote and never get back to us," said Mills.
Foster warned that a shortage of suppliers could frustrate the government's desire to implement all-postal voting nationally.
"You must seriously ask if the capacity exists," he said.
A spokeswoman for the commission said it would produce a report on each of the four all-postal regions by 13 September.
"We will be looking at procurement and supply in our evaluation of the all-postal ballot," she said. News focus: Vote of low confidence