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Ministers ditched vital measures to stop voting fraud

Robert Winnett and David Leppard

MINISTERS ditched a bill to combat postal voting fraud even though leaked cabinet minutes show they agreed it was essential to make the electoral system secure. The papers show that a cabinet committee chaired by Peter Hain, the Commons leader, decided that the safeguards were “clearly needed” to prevent electoral fraud in postal votes.

Ministers went so far as to draw up a bill but then dropped it after a government-commissioned study showed it would reduce the turnout of key Labour voters such as the young and poor.

The disclosure will reignite the row over postal voting. It follows a senior judge’s warning last week that the British electoral system is now wide open to fraud and would “disgrace a banana republic”.

A YouGov survey commissioned by The Sunday Times has found that 64% of people now think postal voting should be stopped until security is improved. Only 22% of people now trust the electoral system “a lot”.

The cabinet committee meeting, held on April 20 last year, decided on the introduction of a new electoral fraud bill to address concerns about the postal voting system.

One of the main proposals was that people should be required to apply for their postal vote on a signed form and that should be cross-checked against their signature on the ballot paper.

This proposal had the backing of both the police and the Electoral Commission, the quango created to ensure fairness in elections.

At the meeting, ministers agreed the reform was necessary. The minutes record: “Safeguards were clearly needed to ensure that voting was secure.

“The main safeguard would be to require individual voter registration, which would provide a signature against which voter returns could be checked. This would offer stronger safeguards against fraud than the current system of household registration.”

Ministers were then shown a paper prepared by the Office of the Deputy Prime Minister and the Department for Constitutional Affairs setting out a proposed bill.

The minutes record: “The paper recommended accepting some, but not all, of the Electoral Commission’s recommendations. It accepted that there should be individual registration of voters, as this had security benefits.”

However, ministers were warned that there was a downside to the new legislation when they discussed the introduction of individual registration in Northern Ireland in 2002.

A study there found the number of voters registered fell by 10% and that the young, particularly students, and the poor tended to fall off the register. Both are part of Labour’s core vote.