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Concern over postal vote fraud loopholes

Election 2001

Michael White, political editor

Tuesday June 5, 2001

Fresh concern emerged yesterday over the vulnerability to significant electoral fraud of the new and more widespread use of postal ballots - at least 2m of which are expected to be cast by Thursday.

A former speaker of the Commons, Lord Weatherill, gave weight to an investigation by the BBC which suggested that new legislation makes it much easier to obtain postal votes by deception.

A claim by Radio 4's Today programme that a reporter had managed to obtain postal votes for five dead people in the ultra-marginal Liberal Democrat seat of Torbay prompted the local council to threaten the BBC with legal action.

However, the reporters said the votes would not be used and that none of the parties in the Devon resort had been involved in any such activity. The Liberal Democrat majority is just 12.

The Electoral Reform Society is already investigating the consequences of the 2000 Representation of the People Act which encourages voters to obtain postal ballots without having to provide a special reason, such as absence on business.

Sam Younger, chairman of the electoral commission, which oversees elections, is also alarmed about "the greater possibility of fraud this time".

Persistent claims that there has been a marked increase in "granny farming" - the mass use of postal votes in old people's homes - have gone hand in hand with confirmed reports that a mixture of active political parties and zealous local authorities have pushed the share of postal votes up from 1% or less to 25% in some areas, such as Stevenage.

The Home Office minister, Mike O'Brien, said any evidence of fraud would be investigated, but the Tory chairman, Michael Ancram, suggested the system was "overloaded" and needs review.

Lord Weatherill echoed the concern when he said he had received ministerial assurances "that the election registration officers will check applicants for postal votes are legitimate and there would be a proper declaration of identity."

Backing calls for a major inquiry, Lord Weatherill said: "It does appear that this is not exactly true."

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