Lancashire Evening Telegraph – Keeping it clean: FOR returning officers across East Lancashire, one of the primary goals of next month’s national and county council elections is to restore faith in a process blighted by scandal in recent years. Chief Reporter DAVID HIGGERSON reports.
WILLIAM Gladstone’s statue stands just yards from the entrance to King George’s Hall, Blackburn.
The tribute to the 19th Century Prime Minister — who ensured everyone got a secret vote — overlooked the venue where ballots from a rigged council election were counted in 2001.
The irony is not lost on some of the candidates in next month’s polls.
Thanks to postal voting, some parties claim the transparency of Britain’s proud system is being corrupted.
Former Labour councillor Mohammed Hussain is now in prison for three years and seven months for the part he played in an election fraud in Blackburn in 2002.
He won Bastwell by a 600-plus majority but a police probe — triggered by complaints by the local Conservative Association — found more than 200 votes delivered to people in the post had been filled in on behalf of Hussain.
Such abuse has only been made possible since the Government relaxed rules on postal voting in 2001, allowing anyone to use the method instead of visiting a polling station. Previously, people had to have a legitimate reason, such as working abroad.
The Government’s postal voting experiments continued last year in the local and European elections, doing away with the ballot box entirely in East Lancashire for the first time.
“The thing to remember in 2004 is that everyone had a postal vote for two elections, we did checks and no problems were reported,” said Blackburn returning officer, Phil Watson. “In 2002, just a small percentage opted for the postal vote and while what happened was unacceptable, there is no proof it is rife in the system.”
Mr Watson, like returning officers across East Lancashire, is working to safeguard the system and is reluctant to discuss whether police will again accompany postmen once postal votes start to be sent out a week on Monday.
When a postal vote is delivered, it comes with a declaration form which must be signed by the voter and countersigned by a friend or relative. The completed ballot paper is then mailed back in a numbered envelope placed in another envelope.
When it arrives at the council, the ballot and declaration number is checked to ensure they match and are then split — protecting the secrecy of the ballot until polling day.
Declarations are checked for irregularities, such as large numbers countersigned by one person, with around 1,000 looked over in Blackburn at the last election.
Mr Watson said: “I am confident we will spot anything amiss but I can’t guarantee it will be fraud-free. There is a need for this election to be seen as watertight, though.”
In 2002, Hussain’s case was described as an ‘isolated one’ — but a probe is now under way over similar claims in Burnley and high court judge, Richard Mawrey, last week quashed the results of two elections in Birmingham after deciding there had been large-scale vote rigging.
Sitting in a special election court, he slammed the current system, pointing out that postal votes are easy to steal as they are sent in striking envelopes.
He said: “Short of writing ‘Steal me’ on the envelopes, it is hard to see what more could be done to ensure their coming into the wrong hands.”
And there is now a real danger of the postal voting row becoming political, too, with the Tories and Lib Dems pointing the finger at Labour.
But all three parties have been urged by the Association of Electoral Administrators and Electoral Reform Society to ensure members stay out of the postal voting system, putting an end to candidates offering to deliver completed votes for people.
Paul Browne, a Lib Dem from Darwen, said: “On polling day, I might drive people to vote at a polling station but I’ll have no idea how they voted.”
Home Secretary Charles Clarke has defended the system, as had Local Government Minister Nick Raynsford. And a spokesman for the Department for Constitutional Affairs said: “The voting system works, and works well.”
But Jack Straw disagreed: “What has been exposed is serious weaknesses in the system, which will have to be dealt with. If the electoral process is corrupted, everybody suffers.”
And Craig Murray, his independent Parliamentary rival, said: “People have come to me to say they are under pressure to get postal votes and hand them over. This shouldn’t be allowed to happen.
“And the fact it is taking place in a town where people thought so much of Gladstone, the man who ensured a secret vote, to buy a statue of him just shows how corrupt the Government has allowed the system to become.”
To find out how you can help Craig Murray’s campaign follow this link.