Dec 12 2004
Fraud fears as post replaces the ballot boxBy Jill Sherman, Whitehall Editor and Dominic Kenned
THE Government defied its own independent advisers yesterday by declaring that all-postal ballots could go ahead despite fears of widespread fraud and intimidation.
The Electoral Commission, which has recommended that all-postal ballots be abandoned, accused it of setting the wrong priorities in putting turnout above public confidence. The Conservatives said that the Government’s “reckless fiddling” was undermining the electoral system by throwing away the ballot box.
All-postal voting could begin in next May’s local elections. Officials said that the Government would consider applications by the 166 councils which hold elections next May to carry out all-postal ballots.
The recommendation comes in a report published by the Office of the Deputy Prime Minister and the Department for Constitutional Affairs in response to the Electoral Commission’s review of four all-postal ballot pilot schemes held in the European and local elections in June. A second report recommends tightening electoral law to guard against fraud.
The Government was persuaded to go ahead when the pilot schemes boosted voter numbers significantly in the four areas, the North East, the North West, Yorkshire and the Humber and the East Midlands. A referendum on a North East regional assembly attracted a 48 per cent turnout, double that expected. In 1999 turnout for the European elections was 24 per cent. This year, for combined European and local elections it was 42 per cent, compared to 37 per cent in non-pilot areas.
The Government said that the figures had underlined ministers’ view that all-postal ballots maximised participation.
“Notwithstanding the conventional basis for the next general election, we are not persuaded by the commission’s recommendation that all-postal voting should not be pursued in future UK elections,” John Prescott’s office said.
Oliver Heald, the Shadow Constitutional Affairs Minister, said: “There is a risk that the kind of intimidation and fraud that was common in the 18th and 19th centuries becomes widespread in future.”
In August, the Governnment accepted the Electoral Commission’s recommendation that no more all-postal ballots be held after The Times discovered widespread allegations of fraud and intimidation in the pilot schemes. Four police forces in North West England and Yorkshire and the Humber are investigating alleged electoral fraud. Two petitions have been sent for trial challenging election results in Birmingham which was not part of the pilot scheme but saw applications for postal votes treble.
Ann Cryer, Labour MP for Keighley, said that all-postal voting in her constituency had disenfranchised Asian women voters. “There were people going around with carrier bags collecting up ballot papers and taking them to a safe house where they were filled in,” she said. “In a number of Asian households, the father filled all of them in for the whole family.”
She said that intimidation failed to result in prosecution because people would not report families or neighbours.
The Electoral Commission said that the public did not like all-postal ballots. “The Government is using different criteria on postal voting and prioritising increased turnout,” a spokeswoman said. “There is clear public support for choice in voting methods.”
The Electoral Reform Society said that the pilot areas saw turnouts rise by five percentage points. “Clearly there is an advantage. There are also costs. Those include the increased risk of fraud,” it said.
Tony Travers, local government expert at the London School of Economics, said: “I’m surprised that the Government’s determination to have somewhat higher turnouts has overridden the issue of confidence. Turnout isn’t everything. Some of the higher turnouts in Ukraine were among the most worrying features of the election.”
Test case on future of postal voting examines organised electoral fraudBy Dominic Kennedy
THE gravest threat to the integrity of postal voting comes from two pending trials into alleged “massive organised electoral fraud” in Britain’s biggest local authority.
Across the country yesterday, police said they were still looking into claims of irregularities in the June 10 European and local polls.
Voters in the North of England told a Times investigation during the campaign that they were too intimidated to complain to the authorities about being bullied into supporting certain candidates.
Birmingham has become the test case for the future of postal voting. Although the city was excluded from the postal-only experiment, the council saw a surge in applications for postal votes from 24,000 to 70,000.
The High Court has appointed Richard Mawrey, QC, a deputy judge, as Election Commissioner to examine petitions seeking to overthrow results in Bordesley Green and Aston wards. Two ten-day trials, without juries, will be held in Birmingham from February to March. The Director of Public Prosecutions has been invited to take part.
In Hull, which experimented with all-postal voting, the High Court has already declared one result void after scores of householders were sent ballot papers for the wrong ward.
Cheshire Constabulary has sent a file to the Crown Prosecution Service after the arrest of the Mayor of Halton, Pat Tyrrell, from Runcorn. Allegations are being studied against four people of personation, an offence against the Pilots Act 2004, which governed the all-postal experiment, and forgery. Greater Manchester Police is about to send a file to the CPS after the arrest of three men in Oldham, where activists allegedly completed voters’ ballot papers.
West Yorkshire Police said its investigation into alleged irregularities in the Barkerend area of Bradford is continuing. Lancashire Constabulary has been investigating a surge of applications for postal proxy votes in Burnley.
Fatima Patwa, solicitor for the petitioners in Bordesley Green, Birmingham, claimed that the People’s Justice Party had been ahead at the count when boxes of postal ballots mysteriously appeared. “Every single vote in those three boxes was for Labour,” she said, “and all in the same ink.”
After claims of mass forgery in Aston, every application for a postal vote and every ballot is being checked to see if the signatures match. Ayoub Khan, a defeated Liberal Democrat candidate, claimed that 182 votes had been witnessed by a single individual using 50 different names and 80 bogus addresses.
The alleged cheat is known as “Mystery A” because of his distinctive way of writing the letter. A handwriting expert will be consulted.
Since the High Court ordered the Birmingham trials to go ahead, Mr Khan says he has received telephone death threats.
Labour has said that the Birmingham petitions from the Liberal Democrats and pro-Kashmir People’s Justice Party involved “wild allegations” and a “scattergun approach”.
The petition for Aston alleges: “Post boxes containing a number of ballots were set alight to invalidate the votes.“Threats of deportation were made by Labour supporters to first-generation migrants if they did not sign postal vote papers to vote Labour.
“Attempts were made by Labour supporters in Bordesley Green to bribe a postman and he was threatened with having his throat cut,” the petition continues. Labour activists stole postal votes from addresses. Children were paid to collect postal votes that were sticking out of people’s doors.”
Investigations by The Times into all-postal voting in June found:
A national Labour Party document urged activists to set up bogus ballot boxes outside traditional polling stations in all-postal-voting areas
A Pakistani woman said management at her husband’s workplace in Burnley insisted that all employees prove they vote Labour or be sacked
A Bangladeshi mother in Oldham said: “People are forcing you to vote. You don’t have a choice”
A council worker in Bradford said that his mother-in-law had unwittingly handed three blank ballot papers to a caller at her house
A young husband in Bradford said that party canvassers told him: “You give the ballot paper to us and we will vote for you”
Voters complained that all three main parties were involved in postal-vote cheating