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Monday, March 28, 2005

"Vote early, vote often"

It seems that the old maxim of "vote early, vote often" may be making a comeback if fears aroused by today's Guardian's report are realised.

The paper records that a 'survey of 55 councils covering 135 constituencies reveals applications to vote by post have risen in all cases, tripling in some places, particularly in inner cities. The increase comes as demand grows for urgent changes in the postal-voting system, last week labelled by a judge as "an open invitation to fraud". There is an ongoing court case, and police are investigating fraud in six areas of the country.'

The article continues by stating that 'areas where allegations of postal-voting fraud have been made in the past - the "hot spots", according to one local government official - increases in applications to vote by post are among the highest.

In Birmingham's 11 constituencies, more than 53,000 people have asked to vote by post, compared with 16,000 at the last election.

In Woking, where police have begun an investigation into allegations of postal-voting fraud at June's local elections, 15,000 electors are asking to vote by post, compared with 2,356 in the last election.'

I have written on a number of occasions about my concern regarding the Government's postal voting experiments and the fact that they have disregarded warnings on the security of the ballot in pursuing their agenda. I do not think I am exaggerating when I say that there is a real danger that the General Election could degenerate into a farce of Florida 2000 proportions unless measures are put into place quickly. I am fully in agreement with Lord Greaves of Pendle that international observers may be required to ensure fair play.

This second article sets out examples of what could happen over the next six weeks:

'One of the most remarkable allegations has been the claim that Labour candidates were running a "vote-forging factory" in a warehouse in Witton. Mr Mawrey heard that police raided the disused building at midnight on the eve of last summer's elections and found Labour officials sorting through 275 unsealed postal ballot papers. Mr Afzal denies being there. Mr Islam and Mr Kazi admit they were present, but say they were checking the documents to make sure they had been filled in correctly before submitting them. Police confiscated the papers but handed them in to the council, and they were included in the final count which gave Labour the election. The returning officer, Lin Homer, said she accepted the votes because she saw no evidence that they had been tampered with, leading Mr Mawrey to tell the hearing that her powers were "nil".

He said: "If something seems wrong with the postal ballot papers you have no powers or resources to ferret around to see if the votes are legitimate. You also have no way of verifying the signatures of the witnesses who sign the ballot papers."

He also noted that police had little experience in investigating electoral fraud.'

Birmingham Councillor, John Hemming, has a lot more about his City's problems on his blog, but the idea that the returning officer has effectively "nil" powers to intervene and that the police have little experience in investigating electoral fraud is very disturbing.

I would argue that there is a case for the Electoral Commission to be given an investigatory role, except that all the evidence is that they know very little about elections as well. Clearly, if the Police hire accountants to help them investigate fraud and money-laundering then they should also recruit experts to assist them in dealing with allegations of electoral fraud as well. To do otherwise will undermine our confidence in an already-flawed electoral process.
The basic problem is that a postal ballot is not a secret ballot and that is
impossible to police what goies on away from polling stations.
Postal ballots on demand amounts to making secret balloting
optional. Hence anyone is free to sell their vote to the highest
bidder - they just have to be a tadge careful about not
getting caught.
Even at Polling Stations of course there is no requirement to prove that a voter really is who s/he claims to be.

Hypothetically speaking, it is perfectly possible for a candidate, or more likely her/his supporters to impersonate someone whom they know is not going to turn up at the polling station later in the day.

This is one problem for which ID cards might eventually provide a useful solution.

While I largely concur with Peter's reservations about all postal voting (but would not advocate banning postal voting altogether due to the need to enable the franchise to be exercised by people who find it physically impossible to get to their local polling station on polling day - eg because they are housebound, hospitalised, or working at the other end of the country on the day in question), postal votes do have to be accompanied by a form signed by the elector which can be compared against their true signature if a challenge is made.

As the Electoral Commission say, the whole system is no longer fit for purpose. The challenge is to redesign it to make fraud far more difficult - without making the whole business of voting overly complex and demanding on the elector.
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