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http://www.timesonline.co.uk/newspaper/0,,170-1514674,00.html

Election officials warned ministers of post vote flaws

By Dominic Kennedy

MINISTERS were given warning by election officials that a postal voting scandal was looming shortly before local polls that sparked claims of stolen votes.

Returning officers wrote to the Office of the Deputy Prime Minister saying that concern about fraud was putting the integrity of the elections process at risk, according to papers released to The Times under the Freedom of Information Act.

The disclosure comes as an election court in Birmingham hears allegations that thousands of people had their votes stolen from them last June by Labour-supporting poll-riggers using reforms to postal voting introduced by Tony Blair’s Government.

“The current position runs the risk of the whole electoral process being discredited,” Max Caller, a returning officers’ leader, wrote to Nick Raynsford, the Local Government Minister, in September 2003. “Confusion already exists among electoral practitioners and election agents, and a major scandal could bring representative democracy into disrepute. It would be far too late to try to restore confidence once the damage had been done.”

Civil servants advised ministers to meet Mr Caller, then head of Hackney Council, because he was an experienced returning officer and secretary to the Society of Local Authority Chief Executives’ electoral matters panel, an organisation whose co-operation was described as vital.

David Monks, the panel’s chairman and returning officer for the Eastern Region, also attended the meeting in January 2004, along with Chris Leslie, minister in the Department for Constitutional Affairs, which shares responsibility for elections. The returning officers say they had a polite hearing but nothing seemed to change. Mr Monks said: “There may be worse to come than Birmingham. There may be great problems ahead.”

If the general election is close, he fears that there will be a spate of election petitions, which can cost an estimated £70,000 each, resulting in trials. He doubted, for instance, that a Cabinet Minister would tolerate narrowly losing a seat if postal votes swing the result.

“We could well see a repeat of the Florida hanging chad crisis and the decisions being made in court rather than in the ballot box,” Mr Monks said. “It does bring democracy into disrepute.”

The Times requested information about “the risk, possibility or incidents of fraud or alleged fraud in the use of postal ballots”. Background briefing papers show that civil servants gave frank advice to ministers.

“The present postal voting on demand system is seen to be open to greater abuse than previously (when a reason for application was required),” they said. “This is because of the closeness of the closing date for receipt of applications, which provides very limited time before polling day for electoral administrators to identify and investigate all but the more obvious attempts at fraud.

“The practice has also arisen for large numbers of postal ballots to be sent to a single address. This is a practice which local political parties have adopted in garnering postal-vote applications while canvassing for votes. It is alleged that this increases the potential temptation for fraud.”

Ministers were told that there had been a number of allegations, but insufficient evidence for prosecution. Special Branch advice was that electoral fraud is a specialist matter, not commonly encountered by police officers, and does not have a high priority, civil servants said.

Papers also disclose that, in December 2003, a cross- Whitehall board was told that the independent Electoral Commission “had concerns about the risk of fraud”, specifically in the West Midlands.

The Office of the Deputy Prime Minister is withholding some information from The Times because it would “prejudice the convention of the collective responsibility of Ministers”.

The Government is refusing the returning officers’ most urgent plea: to increase the notice period for postal voting, to allow time to check for fraud. Voters in the general election will still be able to demand a postal vote just six working days before the poll.

Ministers say that people should not be deprived of the vote because they fall ill or are away on polling day. The Department for Constitutional Affairs said: “There is no evidence that postal voting leads to widespread fraud. Fraud is rare: there were just five petitions resulting from the June elections, when 17 million people voted to elect 78 MEPs and in more than 6,000 council wards.

“The systems already in place to deal with allegations of electoral fraud are clearly working. However, we are not being complacent about this issue and are planning to introduce a number of further safeguards into the electoral process to combat any possible fraud.”