Postal voting cheats are threat to May elections

Fears of widespread fraud in the local elections in May were raised yesterday after a judge said that the rules for postal ballots were fatally flawed.

Just weeks before more than two million people are expected to vote by post in local council and mayoral elections, Richard Mawrey, QC, said that postal voting on demand was “lethal to the democratic process”.

He said that the current system made “wholesale electoral fraud both easy and profitable” and accused politicians of failing to act after past scandals. He urged sweeping reforms to electoral law dealing with corruption.

His comments came as he found a Conservative councillor guilty of vote rigging by using postal ballots in the names of hundreds of “ghost voters” fraudulently added to the electoral register. Eshaq Khan was stripped of his council seat in Slough, Berkshire, and banned from holding office for five years after being found guilty of corrupt practices.

The case highlighted how new checks designed to stamp out the misuse of postal ballots were by-passed by Khan’s team within a year of their introduction, enabling him to gain a marginal seat from Labour last year.

Mr Mawrey, in his judgment on the Slough case, concluded: “There is no reason to suppose that this is an isolated incident. Roll-stuffing [packing the electoral roll with fictitious voters] is childishly simple to commit and very difficult to detect. To ignore the probability that it is widespread, particularly in local elections, is a policy that even an ostrich would despise.”

The case is an embarrassment to David Cameron as the most serious case of vote rigging involving a Conservative candidate. But Mr Mawrey criticised all Britain’s main political parties for failing to introduce adequate checks after widespread electoral abuse involving postal ballots was discovered during local elections at Birmingham in 2004.

Election chiefs last night stepped up their demands for tougher laws to clamp down on voting fraud after the Slough judgment.

The Electoral Commission urged the Government to heed its calls to introduce individual registration for all voters similar to the scheme in Northern Ireland for the past few years.

“We have been saying since 2003 that the current system of voter registration in Great Britain is not sufficiently secure and that a system of individual voter registration is needed to provide a secure foundation for both registration and postal voting,” a spokesman for the commission said yesterday.

The chief safeguard included in the Electoral Registration Act 2006 was to require people voting by post to sign a form and write their date of birth when returning their ballot paper, to be checked against the signature on their original request.

But the judge attacked the move as inadequate, saying council staff were untrained to match signatures and computers were unreliable, meaning bogus ballots still slipped through and some genuine votes were rejected.

Under individual registration all members of a household eligible to vote have to provide two sets of identification such as a signature and date of birth at the time they sign on to the electoral register. These have to match identifiers for both postal votes and those put in ballot boxes.

The Electoral Commission has sent 55,000 guides to “bobbies on the beat” giving the police advice on how to detect and prevent fraud. A fuller guide is being distributed to police chiefs and election officers next week.

Secret ballot

1872 Right to vote by secret ballot is introduced
2000 Postal voting on demand introduced with pilots in 32 areas
2003 More pilots to test alternative voting methods
2004 All-postal ballots in four regions for European elections, despite opposition from the Election Commission. The Times exposes widespread fraud
August 2004 Commission says all postal voting should not go ahead
April 2005 Richard Mawrey, QC, said electoral fraud in Birmingham would “disgrace a banana republic”
October 2005 Electoral Adminstration Bill with new safeguards introduced
May 2007 First elections using personal identifiers for postal votes