Postal voting 'is still wide open to fraud'
By Adam Lusher, Kate Hodal, Beth Jones and Ruth Hetherington
Tony Blair's claim that postal voting was "no more prone to fraud than any other systems" has been seriously undermined by a Telegraph investigation into one of the cities that pioneered the system.
Inquiries in Bradford last week uncovered a history of systematic attempts to seize ballot papers, with pensioners persuaded to hand over entire families' ballots and householders urged to surrender papers without filling them in.
One local politician admitted that he was unable to confirm that his own activists were innocent of malpractice.
Postal voting is "open to abuse and very worrying", said John Hardy, the Conservative campaign director in the city.
"I stress to my people, 'By all means make sure people can manage to fill things in, but do not touch a ballot paper.' Do they anyway? I don't know. It is really worrying."
A survey of police forces discovered confusion about the first nationwide guidelines for preventing electoral fraud issued - at the urging of the Home Secretary, Charles Clarke - by chief police officers and the Electoral Commission last week. Some said they had begun acting on the guidelines, which include a call for a single point of contact for reports of suspected fraud, but others had not discussed their response.
A spokesman for Cheshire Police said: "We have a meeting due for policing of the election. I cannot tell you when it is." He referred further queries to the Association of Chief Police Officers (Acpo).
A spokesman for the association said: "Some of the questions you are asking, forces won't necessarily have got anywhere near that stage in the short time since they got the guidance. Probably with some forces guidance will not have disseminated down from senior officers yet."
On Monday a judge ruled that six Birmingham Labour councillors were behind a postal voting fraud that would "disgrace a banana republic".
Richard Mawrey QC added: "To assert that 'systems to deal with electoral fraud are clearly working' indicates not simply complacency but denial."
Concerns were further heightened on Friday when Muhammed Hussain, 61, a former Blackburn Labour councillor, was jailed for rigging postal votes in the June 2004 local elections.
The Government has insisted, however, that electoral fraud is only a limited problem. Tony Blair said: "Overall, postal voting is no more prone to fraud than other electoral systems."
It was hard to find agreement with Mr Blair in Bradford, where the number of people registered to vote by post has rocketed since the Government changed the law to permit postal voting on demand in 2001. Then there were 19,321 registered postal voters out of about 330,000 on the city's electoral roll. Now there are 46,003.
Bradford was also part of a pilot of all-postal ballots in June 2004, when voters in some northern constituencies cast their votes by post in local and European elections.
One postman, in a predominantly Asian area of Bradford near the university, said: "I guarantee that as soon as I deliver ballot papers for the general election, people will be taking them.
"I will have them asking, 'What streets have you done?' Then they will go around to people they know. Many don't understand the forms, so they will tell people, 'Just give it to us. We will fill it in for you.' It will probably happen all over Bradford, in the Asian areas."
The 28-year-old said he had witnessed widespread abuse by party activists in local elections. "I have seen people with bags full of papers within an hour of doing my round. They all do it, every party. It will happen at the general election, at every election."
A 32-year-old housewife admitted that her father had handed over his ballot paper, almost certainly without filling it in. "It happens a lot. They want them to give all the family's ballot papers as well."
In the West Bowling area of the city, a 47-year-old man said: "A guy asked for my ballot papers. I said I hadn't filled them in. He said, 'We will fill them in for you.' "
The Telegraph also discovered widespread fear of reporting electoral fraud.
In an indication of how easy it may be to get away with fraud on election day, May 5, police said that they had been forced to drop investigations into 39 of the 40 allegations of electoral malpractice referred to them after local elections in Bradford last June. There have been no arrests. A spokesman for West Yorkshire Police said that only one case was still being actively pursued. She said:"In most cases, there was insufficient or no evidence, or people weren't willing to give statements."
She insisted that it was the job of returning officers to seek out electoral fraud, then report their concerns to the police. "If the electoral system is not working, that's not for us to investigate. If there are allegations that the law has been broken, we will look into it. You need to go to the council."
Asked about powers to detect and counter fraud, however, a council spokesman said: "I'm not sure whether these powers are the police's or ours really."
Last night, Jack Straw, the Foreign Secretary, became the first member of the Cabinet to contradict the Prime Minister and accept that the system is flawed. Mr Straw, who as Home Secretary was responsible for creating the Electoral Commission, said: "What has been exposed is a serious weakness in the system which will have to be dealt with. If the electoral process is corrupted, everybody suffers. Where weaknesses in the system are ascertained we will have to deal with them."