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1 March 2005

http://www.timesonline.co.uk/newspaper/0,,171-1505686,00.html

Too late to protect general election from voting fraud

By Dominic Kennedy

THE Government has ruled out safeguards against rigging postal votes in the general election because time has run out, it emerged yesterday, as a court was told that Labour supporters forged 1,200 votes in a single council ward last June. One of the country’s leading election experts outlined changes that the independent Electoral Commission believes could prevent people having their votes stolen, but said Whitehall had decided that it was too late to make reforms.

Vote riggers are suspected of using tracing paper to copy signatures of pensioners and benefits claimants illicitly obtained from the Post Office in the mass forgery of postal votes, an election court in Birmingham was told.

Richard Mawrey, QC, sitting as the election commissioner, is hearing petitions alleging “widespread, corrupt and illegal” misuse of postal votes by Labour supporters in the party’s successful attempt to come first in elections to Birmingham City Council.

John Owen, in charge of the city’s election office, England’s biggest, described the impossible pressure that his 14-member team came under in the final days before polling as postal vote applications soared from 24,000 to 70,000. In a single ward more than 4,000 applications were received during 13 days in May. The judge asked: “The more overwhelmed your department is by postal votes, the less likely it is to spot any fraud?” Mr Owen replied: “Certainly.”

Postal vote applications can be made as late as six days before polling. Elections officers have asked the Department for Constitutional Affairs to change that deadline to relieve pressure on staff. “It has been indicated by civil servants that there isn’t parliamentary time available to amend that deadline for any forthcoming election,” Mr Owen said, “but it’s something they want to consider for the future.”

He suggested that Northern Ireland-style safeguards could be introduced to protect English voters. Postal votes there are available only to the sick, infirm or those working away, rather than on demand, as the case is in Britain. Records are kept of all Northern Irish voters’ signatures so that postal ballot papers can be scanned at election counts to ensure that they match.

One of the tricks used by Birmingham’s vote riggers was to fool voters on doorsteps into handing over completed ballot papers. The cheats opened the envelopes and used correction fluid to change the ballots in favour of Labour, knowing that election staff were obliged to include amended votes in the count. Mr Owen said that this scam could be tackled by a new law making altered postal ballots invalid. If people made honest mistakes, they could apply for a new voting paper.

Michael Allen, a former Home Office forensics expert, analysed 200 samples out of 1,500 Labour votes with apparently suspicious signatures from Bordesley Green ward. He confirmed that at least 80 per cent were forgeries. Labour won three council seats but was only 441 votes ahead of its nearest rival, the People’s Justice Party. Some of the forged signatures were “pictorially similar” to the voters’ real ones, suggesting that the forger had access to their handwriting.

Graham Brodie, counsel for the petitioners, said it was suspected that the victims included people who had to “go to the Post Office on a frequent regular basis for pension or benefit” and provide their signatures.

Lin Homer, the city council’s chief executive, gave evidence that there was widespread anxiety about postal voting fraud during the campaign. Cheating reached such depths that a pillar box was set alight in an attempt to destroy completed ballot papers, she said.

The electoral roll in force for the general election has been corrupted by vote riggers, the judge was told. Cheats have exploited reforms which allow voters to demand a postal vote for all future elections and nominate an alternative address, other than their home, where the ballots should be sent.

Forgers have been picking voters’ names from the electoral roll and making bogus requests for postal votes on their behalf, asking for the ballots to be permanently diverted to “safe houses” under their control.

Victims only realise that their votes have been stolen when they turn up on election day and are told that they cannot have a ballot because one has already been sent through the post. The trial continues.

Poll rigger faces jail

A FORMER Labour councillor faces jail after admitting rigging an election.

Muhammed Hussain, 61, from Blackburn, Lancashire, pleaded guilty yesterday at Preston Crown Court to conspiring to defraud local elections in May 2002.

He won a seat on Blackburn with Darwen Borough Council with 1,728 votes and a majority of 685. But 233 postal votes were fraudulent. Hussain had asked others to collect postal ballot forms from voters and fill them in themselves. He was granted bail until sentencing on April 8, but Judge Peter Openshaw told him to “brace yourself for a custodial sentence”.