WHEN all the results have been analysed one big question will remain about last Thursday's elections in England and Wales. Was the postal voting experiment in four regions a success or, as many claim, a disgraceful muddle? In the House of Commons John Prescott said that teething troubles in the experiment would be more than justified if postal voting was shown to have reversed the trend to apathy at elections over the past decade.

The first analysis of the proportion of the electorate voting last Thursday suggests that about 40 per cent took the trouble to participate, up almost ten per cent on the last local elections, and that the increase was not confined to the postal vote areas but spread across all English and Welsh constituencies. This good news may be accounted for in part by the feeling, encouraged by the Liberal Democrats' tactics, that the vote was about Iraq as much as local street cleaning, and also by the running together of local UK and European parliamentary elections on a single day.

The administrative problems over printing and delivery that made headlines a week ago are annoying but not something that cannot be put right with experience. Of much greater concern is the fact, already proven, that postal voting makes vote-rigging, fraud and undue pressure on individuals much easier than under the traditional ballot box system. And even when such wrongdoing is absent, the all-important principle that an individual should be able to keep his or her voting decision a secret is breached by the postal vote. It is important, therefore, that Thursday's voting is first rigorously analysed to see whether the increase in votes cast can be conclusively attributed to postal voting or was part of a general trend.