System nears crisis point as main parties are told to stop interfering
Hugh Muir, Sandra Laville and Audrey Gillan
Wednesday April 13, 2005 The Guardian
The three main political parties were yesterday urged to withdraw from active participation in the postal voting system amid fears that public confidence in the process has reached crisis point.
Returning officers and officials from the Electoral Reform Society have called on Labour, the Conservatives and the Liberal Democrats to place strict curbs on their activists to ensure there is minimum party intervention in voting procedures. They have reiterated that, except in very limited circumstances, there should be "no third party intervention".
However, the Guardian has established that party officials and candidates are still seeking to involve themselves in the process of applying for postal votes by sending forms directly to electors and asking them to complete and return them to their offices.
The practice is not illegal but, in the light of the scandal in Birmingham - where a judge found rogue Labour activists and candidates tampered with forms - it is now heavily frowned upon
In the wake of the Birmingham case, in which Richard Mawrey QC found the postal-voting system was "wide open to fraud", guidelines were issued to political parties by the Electoral Commission and the Association of Chief Police Officers, warning them to steer clear of involvement in postal voting.
"Because of the risks of suspicions that the application may be altered and the risk of the application form being delayed or lost in transit, the local electoral registration officer's address should be the preferred address given for the return of application forms," the guidelines said.
But some candidates are flouting this advice. In a personal letter to voters in east London this week, the Labour MP Oona King told them to fill out the enclosed application form "and return it to me at the address shown", adding: "Then you can vote from the comfort of your own home."
Challenged yesterday by her opponent, the Respect candidate George Galloway, who accused her of "corruption of the democratic process", Ms King's office said: "It has always been the case [that we ask voters to send application forms to us] and it has been for around 10 years. We have a strict code of conduct."
In Brent East, the Liberal Democrat Sarah Teather sent voters an application form and urged them to "return the form to the Liberal Democrats using the envelope enclosed".
Lord Rennard, chief executive officer of the Liberal Democrats, said the party was acting within Electoral Commission guidelines. He said: "There is no suggestion of any postal voting interference whatsoever in this case."
But returning officers expressed frustration yesterday that parties were still getting involved in postal voting.
Peter Woodward, electoral services officer at Cardiff city council, said Labour and the Conservatives were culpable. "We have had electors talking to us saying that they were not happy with the way this was being done, they felt political parties were pushing them. There is a suggestion from some residents that they have been not exactly pressurised but heavily encouraged into applying for a postal vote and sending it through the party involved. We are not happy about it."
In Newham, east London, Mary Bradley, acting returning officer, said: "I think it would be more wise for politi cal parties to stay completely clear of the postal voting system in view of what has happened recently."
Experts believe up to 6m of the 44m votes likely to be cast on May 5 will be postal votes and, in marginal constituencies, they could be decisive.
The warnings came as the scale of alleged electoral fraud in the UK emerged. A survey by the Crown Prosecution Service, released to the Guardian, revealed there were 39 ongoing investigations into fraud, including cases where criminal charges have been made and those where lawyers were examining police reports.
Police forces in Woking, Lancashire, Greater Manchester, Bradford and Burnley are investigating claims of postal voting fraud.
Police in Birmingham were told yesterday to start a new criminal investigation into the six Labour councillors who were found guilty of "massive, widespread organised" postal-voting fraud at last June's local elections. A CPS spokesman said prosecution lawyers had asked police to investigate "with urgency".
Election officers said they were anxious to rebuild confidence. One senior returning officer said voters had contacted his office seeking to relinquish their postal votes and regain their right to vote at a polling station.
Malcolm Dumper, of the Association of Electoral Administrators, said: "We have had an electoral system in place for more than a century built on trust and we now find ourselves in a position of being ridiculed in other countries because our process is flawed."
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