This report summarises the proceedings of the conference on international electoral standards held at the UN in New York sponsored by the Nigeria Permanent Mission to the UN and organised by the Campaign to Defend the Right to a Secret Ballot (CDRSB). The CDRSB seeks to defend this Right with regard to the unconditional use of postal ballots, that is to say, without conditions such as illness or absence from usual place of residence as a reason for voting by post. The CDRSB was the first British organisation to be formed to oppose this practice, which was introduced by means of the UK Representation of the People Act 2000.

The initiative to form the CDRSB was taken by Dr Keith Nilsen, while acting as secretary to the Labour Committee on Democratic Accountability of Secret Services (LCDASS), an organisation formed under composite 54 seconded by him and passed unanimously at the 1992 Labour Party conference. In 2001 two letters on postal ballots were published in the Daily Telegraph. The first, in May, was by George Cunningham, a former SDP/Labour MP, the second, in support of the first, was by Dr Nilsen, published on 25 July. The CDRSB held its inaugural meeting on March 16th 2002 supported by the Society for Democracy including Random Selection (SDRS), itself the result of an initiative on House of Lords reform taken by the LCDASS. No Labour MP supported this initiative at that time. Although, for example, the former Labour MP George Galloway attracted media interest on this question, especially after being threatened by Muslim extremists, he did not respond to our letters asking for support from Labour MPs in 2002. Similarly though the Liberal Democrat MP John Hemmings campaigned against unrestricted use of postal ballots in Birmingham after the formation of the CDRSB he has not maintained that approach: of 19 early day motions sponsored by him since none have mentioned this practice.

The unconditional use of postal ballots is a recent development. Their use in Government elections was banned by unanimous vote of the French National Assembly in 1975, but since 1989 they have been introduced in the UK, Germany, Ukraine, and a number of US states. This practice has been subject to radically distinct evaluations of what is acceptable in regard to electoral standards.

For example, while it was uncritically endorsed in the UK Parliament, in Northern Ireland British political parties oppose this practice on the grounds that unrestricted use of postal ballots creates unacceptably high levels of opportunity for intimidation and electoral fraud.

In 2004 in the Ukraine 'pro-Russian' parties supported this practice while 'pro-Western' parties opposed it to such an extent that new elections had to be organised in which the unrestricted use of postal ballots was banned. Anti-Russian parties received Western support in taking this stance, including from the US Congress. Postal ballots are still restricted in Italy and Australia, which publishes the number of postal votes cast for each party, whereas in the UK this information remains secret. In the 2005 UK General Election the Daily Express published poll results indicating the Labour Party had a 15% lead in postal ballots, as compared to less than 2% among votes cast at polling stations. In the USA itself opinion is divided on this question. Previously no states allowed the use of absentee ballots on demand but in the last 15 years twenty nine states have adopted this approach despite several reports recommending a halt to such practices, including by the Federal Election Commission, chaired by former Presidents Carter and Ford. This report, the most authoritative to the present time, explicitly warns such practices "threaten the hard won Right to a Secret Ballot."

Discussion at the conference took place throughout the day, though the main meeting took place in the morning. For reasons of clarity and to answer enquiries raised at the meeting this report has been presented as follows: first, preparations for the conference; second, conference proceedings together with opening remarks by the chair and CDRSB proposals, the discussion which followed, and the consensus that emerged in regard to the CDRSB proposals together with suggestions for implementation of conference objectives; third, historical analysis of the relation between electoral standards, common sense, and conflict resolution.

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