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This election could be stolen: prepare for voting fraud on a massive scale

Camilla Cavendish

YOU MAY have thought that recent reports of postal voting fraud were B movie tales of a few small-time crooks (often called Khan), cheating their innocent neighbours (often called Khan), out of the odd local election in a dismal suburb.
That is certainly what the Government would like you to believe. In fact, the Khans are a subplot in a much bigger story, a story of a system that is “an open invitation to fraud”, according to Richard Mawrey, QC, a deputy High Court judge sitting as an election commissioner, who found six Birmingham councillors guilty of vote-rigging yesterday. In criminal courts recently there have been convictions for cheating in areas as diverse as Hackney, Guildford and Blackburn. The Electoral Reform Society predicts that many MPs may be challenged on the legitimacy of their victory, if next month’s election is close. If the general election were to be decided by a court rather than by the ballot box, that would be an astonishing indictment of British democracy, a hanging chad epic. So it’s odd that ministers are still refusing to talk about it.

Mr Mawrey himself was obstructed by the Labour Party at every turn. A lone star, he has had to pick his way through scenes that would have astonished a sheriff in a frontier town. The councillors found by police in the warehouse at midnight on the eve of the election in Birmingham’s Aston ward, surrounded by unsealed postal ballots; the box containing postal votes all in the same hand and same ink, and all for Labour; witnesses refusing to give evidence fearing for their children’s lives; a lawless Wild West in which the number of postal ballots had mushroomed from 24,000 to 70,000 in one year. The city’s returning officer agreed that the overwhelming number of ballots made it more difficult to spot fraud. I’ll say.

Labour Party officials wanted to postpone Mawrey’s inquiry until after the general election; he faced them down. They withdrew their legal support from the accused councillors in the hope of delaying proceedings; he pressed on. Now he has caught their colleagues red-handed.

It would be wrong to think that cheating is confined to Labour, or to Asian areas. So easy has it become to steal votes, only the astonishing incompetence of the Birmingham crooks has brought all this to light. First, returning officers started to receive phone calls inquiring whether they would count envelopes that had been opened and resealed, containing votes which had been altered (answer yes). Next, bewildered people went to the polls to be told that they had already voted. And then opposition parties were amazed to discover that certain Muslim areas had swung towards Labour in the heat of the Iraq war. The vote-riggers had overplayed their hand.

We cannot count on all fraudsters being so slapdash. When Mr Mawrey says that “short of writing STEAL ME on the envelopes, it is hard to see what more could be done to ensure their coming into the wrong hands”, he is spot on. Postal voting must sound terrribly modern to politicians eager to increase turnouts. But it is acutely vulnerable to the oldest tricks in the book. Before 2001, scurrilous activists used to read the Marked Register to find out who usually voted and who didn’t. They would then drive a minibus of supporters around and vote in each ward under a different name, knowing that returning officers could not ask for identification.

This was petty stuff, and pretty rare. But in 2001 the Government made this kind of fraud possible on a huge scale. It abolished the requirement to show good cause for needing a postal vote, such as being away on business. Anyone can now apply for a postal vote, to be sent to any address. That postal vote is permanent. You keep it until you renounce it, or until you find that it has been sent to an address you have never heard of and filled out by someone you have never met. Or “corrected” with correction fluid.

The first casualties of this disastrous policy have been Asian voters, particularly women. Not only those who have had their votes stolen before they have had a chance to fill them out; but also those who have come under enormous pressure from their families to fill out postal votes in a certain way. A Bangladeshi woman asked the indefatigable Times reporter Dominic Kennedy why she could not vote in the privacy of the polling booth because “everyone could tell you how to vote, but you could decide for yourself on the day”. We didn’t fight to enfranchise women to see their voices silenced by some PR man’s vision of higher turnout and electoral convenience. Zimbabwe has a high turnout — but we don’t want to live there.

The Government was warned of these problems by Muslim groups, by the Electoral Commission and by its own MPs such as Roger Godsiff, who told Parliament days after the June eletions that registered postal voters in the Bordesley Green ward of his Sparkbrook & Small Heath constituency had increased from 691 to 8,488 in a matter of weeks. It has accused them all of scaremongering. Its determination to press ahead has forced the other parties to join the race for postal votes. But too often the plea to vote early has become a way to vote often.

We do not know how many people have applied for postal votes in the forthcoming general election. But a survey of 135 constituencies by The Guardian last month found record numbers of electors applying for postal votes, in some case a tripling over four years ago.

For the Government to claim that “the systems already in place . . . are working” indicates, as Mr Mawrey says, “ a state not simply of complacency but of denial”. There are no systems. The Government needs to restore the safeguards that made postal votes available only to the sick, infirm or those working away. That is the only answer now: return the problem to sender.