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http://www.timesonline.co.uk/newspaper/0,,171-1575576,00.html

Now crisis meeting is called over dangers of postal votes

By Jill Sherman, Whitehall Editor

A CRISIS meeting on postal voting is to be held in Whitehall on Thursday after evidence of a significant rise in applications for postal votes.
Sam Younger, the chairman of the Electoral Commission, David Monks, the leader of the returning officers, and Adam Crozier, the chief executive of the Royal Mail, have been called to see Alex Allan, the Permanent Secretary at the Department for Constitutional Affairs.

The Times has also learnt that last Friday the Electoral Commission sent out new emergency guidance to all returning officers to guard against fraud.

A meeting of such senior people demonstrates the Government’s growing concern that mass postal voting could cause significant problems. The Royal Mail is predicting that about 6.5 million people will vote by post; 15 per cent of the electorate compared with 2 per cent in 2001. Postal ballot papers will be sent out to voters from this Friday, with most delivered by April 29.

The meeting is expected to cover the timetable for printing, delivering, returning and safeguarding postal ballot papers. Mr Allan will also question Mr Monks about measures that returning officers are taking to combat fraud. The Electoral Reform Society has already said that the rise in applications, which in some areas is more than eight times the number of postal votes in 2001, will increase the risk of fraud.

Mr Monks said: “The DCA has contacted me and asked me to go to a meeting this week to discuss postal voting and the action we are taking in view of the media concern.” He said that the highly unusual meeting showed that the Government was taking the issue seriously. “They are taking the right approach,” he said. The guidance from the Electoral Commission advises all returning officers to record the names and addresses of any voters who turn up at polling booths who have already been marked as an absent voter “but who claim not to have applied for a postal or proxy vote”.

At present anyone who turns up in person to vote who has applied for a postal ballot cannot vote but there is no requirement for officers to note this. “Recording the name, address and electoral number of such elections should enable the ERO to write to those people after the election and could also provide invaluable evidence in any police investigation,” the guidance says.

The supplementary guidance comes after two separate sets of advice that have already been sent to political parties, the police and returning officers. The new measures came after the two fraud cases in Birmingham and Blackburn and evidence of aggressive efforts by all three political parties to boost postal voting.

It also suggests that returning officers should “keep a log of any incidents or complaints raised at the count”. The name of the complainant, the measures taken to address the complaint and any resolution achieved should be recorded.

The guidance confirms previous advice to ensure that postal ballots are kept separately from ballot papers in polling boxes and their containers sealed.

A spokesman for the Department for Constitutional Affairs declined to comment on Thursday’s meeting. The Royal Mail said that Mr Crozier had had several meetings with the DCA and had kept in regular contact with returning officers and the Electoral Commission.

A spokeswoman said that Royal Mail would be handling a predicted 13 million extra pieces of mail covering the delivery and return of postal votes. It has also estimated that literature sent out by election candidates would reach 120 million items. “We are confident we can cope with the extra workload but we are advising people to return their postal vote by May 3, two days before polling day.”

Last week it was disclosed that international observers from Ukraine, Serbia and Montenegro and Russia would be arriving at the end of the month to monitor the first experience of large-scale postal voting in Britain.