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Feb 26 2005

General election 'at risk of fraud' through postal votes

By Dominic Kennedy

The general election is wide open to fraud, thanks to the headlong rush into postal voting, the Government was told yesterday. Ministers have been urged for years to introduce safeguards against cheating but have refused to change the law, according to John Owen, Birmingham’s elections officer and one of the country’s leading experts on the subject.

He was giving evidence to a special election court convened to hear allegations of widespread fraud and vote-rigging in the June local elections last year.

The court has heard statements from hundreds of people who had their votes stolen. In many cases vote riggers made fraudulent applications for postal ballot papers, which were diverted from their owners’ addresses. Mr Owen is responsible for 700,000 voters in 11 parliamentary constituencies. He said that ministers were happy to blame exaggerated press coverage for bad publicity surrounding the launch of widespread postal voting.

His evidence is the biggest blow yet to the reputation of the postal-voting-on-demand reforms introduced by Labour in 2000.

Thousands of extra postal votes have been registered around the country in time for the general election, which is expected to be on May 5.

“The current system is open to abuse and therefore it’s easy to cheat and not to be caught out,” Mr Owen told the court.

“That,” said Richard Mawrey, QC, sitting as the election commissioner, “is something that would be appreciated by anybody who is minded to go cheating.” The first election court to investigate fraud for morem than a century has been convened to hear petitions complaining of “widespread corrupt and illegal conduct” which helped Labour to take first place in Birmingham City Council ’s elections last June.

Voters described how they were persuaded to hand their completed ballots to Labour canvassers to be delivered to the election office.

The votes appeared to have been opened and changed, using correction fluid, in favour of Labour before being counted in the poll. An election manager testified that the office received phone calls during the campaign asking whether votes altered with correction fluid would count even if they arrived in sealed envelopes that had been slit open. Callers were assured that they would be valid.

Postal ballot procedures for the general election would be essentially the same as in last June’s poll, Mr Owen said. Last summer the independent Electoral Commission produced a report in which it sought a law requiring returning officers to check postal vote papers after elections. But the Government has declined to make these changes, the court was told.