It has always been problematic globally

Pressure on Britain to curb postal vote fraud
Hugh Muir
Sat 6 Aug 2005 00.58 BST
Officials from the Warsaw-based Office for Democratic Institutions and Human Rights (ODIHR) yesterday urged ministers to ensure that voting materials were only handled by election officials.

Their comments followed controversy during the general election campaign, which was marred by accusations of postal voting fraud and claims that parties were exploiting an insecure system by “harvesting” postal vote applications.

The election monitors told ministers that they should move towards the more secure system used in Northern Ireland, where those applying for a postal vote are obliged to explain why they need one and to have their applications verified by a third party.

The monitors also called for more measures to help increase voting in person. This could be done, they say, by operating polling stations “out of country” for voters who are abroad, or by using absentee voting certificates which would require the proxy voter to enter a polling station.

The ODIHR also suggested that British voters might be compelled to produce identification at polling stations before being given a ballot paper. A national database of registered voters should be established to help “identify or prevent multiple registrations”.

Further safeguards might involve changing the law relating to registrations to emphasise the need for individuals to register themselves. During the election it was found that heads of households were completing registration forms for individual members of their families, a practice that was exposed as open to abuse.

The monitors also urged ministers to remove the serial numbers from ballot papers, arguing that these created “opportunities to breach the secrecy of the vote”.

There were also calls for minimum standards for those who administer elections, and concern about the extent to which the monitors were able to scrutinise the May election.

“The United Kingdom’s legislation is not yet in full compliance with its … commitments regarding election observation,” they said.

John Turner, president of the Association of Electoral Administrators, said the monitors supported many of the concerns raised by officials during the campaign.

“It is a matter of public record that the problems with this election were the largest number that have come together at any one point in recent years,” he said. “Postal voting diverted attention away from everything else. Most people who were involved are saying fairly publicly that this must never happen again.”

The government has pledged to address concerns with an electoral administration bill, which will still allow postal voting on demand but will also introduce a new offence of fraudulently applying for a postal vote, punishable by up to two years in prison.

Under the proposals, electoral registers will be more secure, with household registrations including signatures and dates of birth for all occupants.

However the lord chancellor, Lord Falconer, has indicated that the government will reject the idea of a registration system similar to that in Northern Ireland, where individuals register separately, providing details such as date of birth, signature and national insurance number.

The parties are also likely to continue their involvement in garnering postal vote application forms, continuing to make a clear distinction between those and completed postal vote applications.

A spokesman for the Department for Constitutional Affairs said: “We recognise that security issues are important but need to be balanced with the ability of as many people as possible to be able to register to vote.”