Pro-Brexit campaigners are protesting about a council-approved guide to postal voting which accompanies ballots and strongly implies recipients should vote Remain in the upcoming referendum.
A step-by-step ‘How To Vote By Post’ guide was sent by Bristol City Council to residents registered for postal voting last week, along with the actual ballots.
In the guide ‘Step A’ told people to fill out the Postal Voting Statement, with the warning “take care to follow the instructions.” The following ‘Step B’ advised “read the instructions carefully, then complete your ballot paper.” This advice was set out above a picture of a pencil about to tick a box to “remain a member of the European Union”.
One local resident, 18-year old student Henry Michallat, took to Twitter to express his view that the postal voting instructions “even tell you how to vote”.
— Henry Michallat (@henry4alw) May 29, 2016
Speaking to The Daily Telegraph, Mr. Michallat said: “I am appalled by it. It should be neutral.
“When you see that bit of paper if you are not used to it or you are a first time voter, that might imply ‘you should vote remain’ and put the cross in the box.
“When I first saw these instructions I was disgusted. The Electoral Commission should never have allowed this to be sent. This is meant to be a democratic referendum and in my opinion these instructions contradict this.”
John Turner, the Chief Executive of the Association of Electoral Administrators and someone with over 20 years of involvement in elections, predicted the form could be challenged as “unsafe” in court. He said:
“Good practice would say that in any instructions to vote you do not put something which indicates you should vote in a particular way. Clearly this has not followed good practice.
“Whether it is unsafe or not only a court can determine.”
Mr. Turner also said similar forms could have been distributed to postal voters in council areas other than Bristol, because certain companies providing postal voting services act for a large number of authorities.
The pro-Brexit Conservative Member of Parliament, Bernard Jenkin — who serves as Chairman on the House of Commons Public Administration Select Committee, which is charged with overseeing the conduct of the referendum — said:
“Any subliminal messaging by authorities purporting to be neutral is absolutely forbidden and it should be reported to the Electoral Commission.”
Arron Banks, a leading backer of the Leave.EU campaign, said: “To send out postal votes with instructions showing people how to vote and favouring the IN campaign is the latest outrage.
“We have been made aware of this from a number of different concerned individuals over the last 24 hours who have asked us investigate.
“We will be asking our lawyers to contact the Electoral Commission for an explanation. We are already deeply concerned about the whole postal votes issue and will be calling for independent observers to monitor the process.”
A spokesman for the Electoral Commission said that the content of instructions, including illustrations, is left to local Counting Officers to produce, but added: “It could be something we have to follow up with Bristol.”
Bristol City Council has denied the form suggests how someone should vote. A spokesman claimed:
“The placement of a pen graphic is incidental. No cross (X) is shown, so it could not in our view be construed as indicating how to vote.”