Politically Incorrect

Independent (London), Mar. 21

It’s a miserable, drizzling fag-end of a day as Mohammed Saeed drives around the streets of Bordesley Green, on Birmingham’s east side, to show me the area that used to be his manor. Staring bleakly through the windscreen, he mutters darkly about being cheated.

It’s pretty much like any inner city here—terraced houses, corner shops, a mosque, Somali restaurants, streets jammed with cars. Much of Birmingham’s Kashmiri, Pakistani and Somali population live in this ward. Saeed, 40, used to be one of its councillors—until he lost his seat in last June’s city council elections. “It was a very hard door-to-door campaign,” Saeed says morosely. “And then the votes were stolen.”

It’s a startling claim—but he is not the only person making such charges. In fact, his complaints are part of what could be the biggest ballot-rigging scandal in Britain in a century. Over the past four weeks, a specially-convened election court in Birmingham has heard shocking allegations that, here in Bordesley Green and also in Aston, another inner-city ward, last year’s council elections were rigged—on a grand scale.

The court has heard that the elections were subverted by threats, intimidation and the wholesale theft of postal votes, with thousands of others being diverted to “safe houses” where the ballots were allegedly filled in on an “industrial scale”. Bags full of voting papers are alleged to have changed hands in the streets; a postman is said to have been threatened with death. Two days before the poll, it’s alleged, police found Labour candidates for Aston and supporters in a warehouse at midnight, with nearly 300 unsealed postal votes on a table.

The former Liberal Democrat councillor Ayoub Khan—who lost his Aston seat in those elections—claims some votes were up for auction. “I knocked on one door,” says Khan, a 31-year-old trainee barrister, “and the householder said to me, ‘I’ve been offered £10 for my vote, but I’m looking for £15 . . . ’” Khan also told a court he’d received “numerous death threats” during the election campaign. He says these have continued since he helped to mount a legal challenge to the Aston result. “People have phoned me at all hours, from withheld numbers. They play a recording: it’ll say things like, ‘We’re watching you; we’re going to shoot your kneecaps off.’”

It sounds too lurid to believe. But then, a lot of extraordinary evidence has been heard. The allegations centre on the use—or alleged abuse—of a new postal voting system introduced by the Government in 2000 in the hope that it would halt falling turnouts and encourage a disaffected electorate. If the allegations are true, some sections of the electorate showed rather more interest than the Government intended.

Two petitions being heard before Deputy High Court Judge Richard Mawrey QC, sitting as the Election Commissioner, are asking for the city council results in Aston and Bordesley Green to be declared void. Depending on the judge’s decision, expected at the end of this month, one or both results could be overturned. In that case, the postal voting system itself will be in the dock and serious questions will be asked about the looming general election, in which—barring emergency measures—the same postal vote system is due to be used. For the first time since 1872—when the Ballot Act was passed to allow votes to be cast in private—there is now real concern about electoral fraud in a general election.

The Birmingham court has heard allegations that, of the 7,000 postal votes cast in Bordesley Green last year, up to 3,000 were either stolen, diverted, falsified or altered with Tipp-Ex in an organised ballot-rigging campaign that gave a clean sweep of the ward’s three city council seats to the Labour party candidates Shah Jahan, Shafaq Ahmed and Ayaz Khan. They deny any wrongdoing. The People’s Justice Party (PJP), a mainly Kashmiri local party, which Saeed used to represent, lost its two council seats. “We were wiped out,” says the PJP secretary Raghib Ahsan.

The court heard allegations that Labour supporters at Bordesley Green had picked voters’ names from the electoral roll and made requests for postal votes on their behalf, asking for the ballots to be permanently diverted to “safe houses” under their control; that people who had applied for postal votes did not receive them, and that these were stolen or diverted; that postmen were handing out postal ballots to people in the street; that dozens of people went to vote at polling stations, only to be turned away after being told that they had been registered for a postal vote “against their knowledge or will”; and that there had been wholesale forgery of signatures on postal voting forms. And the court heard that at the Bordesley Green count on 11 June, three “unexplained”, unsealed ballot boxes had appeared. There seemed to be “general confusion about where they had come from”.

The judge was told of chaotic scenes at the count at the National Indoor Arena as rival Bordesley Green candidates and supporters confronted officials, demanding that the three boxes be excluded. This was refused. When the boxes were opened, the court heard, they held about 1,500 postal votes. It was alleged that they had all been filled in using the same blue ink; that an identical paperwork error had been made in every case; and that all were cast in favour of the three Labour candidates. As Labour beat its nearest rivals, the PJP, by only 441 votes, the judge said that if these allegations were true, this incident alone could invalidate the election.

The allegations were similarly grave in Aston. Here, the losers were Liberal Democrat Ayoub Khan and his two fellow Lib Dem candidates. The Aston petition alleges that a “massive organised electoral fraud mainly involving the misuse of postal ballots was committed by the winning Labour candidates in this election and their agents”.

In a long list of allegations, including claims that “threats of deportation were made to first-generation migrants if they did not sign postal vote papers to vote Labour”, it contends that blank ballot papers were “completed by Labour candidates and activists rather than voters”, and that “postal votes were collected in a completed form by Labour party agents, opened, the vote changed and resealed”. Here, too, the three winning Labour councillors—Mohammed Islam, Muhammad Afzal and Mohammed Kazi—deny any wrongdoing. All six Labour councillors in Bordesley Green and Aston strenuously deny they had any knowledge of, or consented to, any corrupt practice in the course of their campaigns.

But the fact that these cases are being heard raises huge issues. They coincide with a third case: a former Labour councillor in Blackburn, Mohammed Hussain, faces a possible jail term after pleading guilty last month to conspiracy to rig the 2002 town hall election by getting supporters to fraudulently fill in more than 200 blank postal votes. And alarm bells should be ringing nationwide, because these cases coincide with the build-up to a general election.

Almost all the issues being considered by the judge concern the alleged abuse of the postal voting system, first introduced in Britain in 1918 to allow troops who were still abroad to vote. The system continued largely unchanged through the 20th century: postal votes were available only to those with good reason for seeking them (such as being housebound, being away from home for work reasons, or being on holiday).

In 2000, concerned about falling turnouts and apparent voter apathy—and intent on “modernising” the electoral system—the Government extended postal voting to anyone who requested it, without requiring them to give a reason. It’s called postal voting “on demand”. In some areas, particularly in the inner cities, take-up has been dramatic. Electoral authorities insist there is nothing suspicious in this. In Birmingham, postal vote applications soared from 16,000 in 2001 to more than 70,000 last year. The biggest rise was in Bordesley Green, where applications leapt nearly tenfold in a single year, from 900 in 2003 to 8,600 in 2004—despite the fact that there were polling stations all over the ward.

It’s a sensitive issue, but electoral bodies and experts privately agree that inner-city areas of high ethnic-minority population are vulnerable to manipulation of the postal vote system. Ayoub Khan says: “One aspect of the culture is a system of hierarchy that doesn’t just extend within the family—it extends into the families of your first cousins, second cousins; and within most extended families there are certain adults who play a very key role.” In other words, the deep respect in which elders and senior family members are held means that “key adults and community leaders who have affiliated themselves with a party are in a position where they can extract postal votes in the hundreds”.

Meanwhile, although the voting process in Northern Ireland has been tightened up, the system on mainland Britain, so often upheld as a model of fairness, is on even casual inspection astonishingly lax. The loopholes begin with the filling-in of the electoral registration form. The “householder” is asked to do this and could include any names, fictitious or otherwise. Their signatures are not required. Though a polling card is sent to voters, there is no requirement to bring it—or any other form of identification—to the polling station. Giving your name and address is sufficient. As long as these are on the register, with no vote recorded against you, you’re free to enter the polling booth—possibly again.

It would clearly be difficult for even an organised group to cast enough fraudulent votes in this way to materially affect a result. But postal voting on demand appears hopelessly vulnerable. The application form requires only the voter’s name, address and signature—no other ID, nor password, nor security question, nor even a telephone number (that’s voluntary). The edited electoral register of any area can be examined or purchased by anyone: and election officers have no comprehensive database of signatures. Helpfully for the voter who might be away from home (but potentially a gift to the fraudster), the form allows the postal ballot papers to be mailed to any address of the applicant’s choosing. Currently, fraudulently applying for a postal vote isn’t even a specific offence.

When—or if—their postal voting packs arrive, many voters find the process confusing. As well as the ballot paper, there is a Declaration of Identity to be filled in and signed by the voter. This must be witnessed by someone—it can be anybody, including a relative or spouse—who must then also fill in their own name and address, and sign. There’s no requirement for the returning officer to check whether the witness is genuine, and little possibility of doing so.

Critics say voting in the home, and the requirement for the declaration to be witnessed, make the entire process much less private and more open to coercion. And there is nothing to prevent candidates or activists from helping people with their vote forms, or witnessing the declaration, or even collecting the completed ballot papers for posting or delivery to a polling station.

Meanwhile, election officials have been struggling with the paperwork. A review after the 2004 European poll by the Association of Electoral Administrators says the postal voting process is “antiquated, cumbersome, resource-hungry and confusing to some recipients”. It also states that there are “significant flaws” in the application process for postal votes.

It concludes that “although the simplicity of the application procedure is appreciated by electors, the opportunity for fraud is abundant. There is little or no opportunity for Electoral Registration Officers to validate applications [for postal votes].” Almost the only thing that can alert election officials to possible fraud is if there are multiple applications from one address. But even this is a poor guide, according to Malcolm Dumper, the association’s executive director, who has been in charge of elections in Southampton for 12 years.

“In one of our wards, probably 70 per cent of the housing is student-type accommodation,” Dumper says. “Some large houses may have up to 28 people in them. If 28 envelopes go through the door, you can’t be sure who’s getting them. When they come back you can’t be sure those ballot papers were marked by the people who should have received them. After the recent allegations of fraud, I think there is now widespread concern about the security of postal voting.”

Yet it will be a major element in the general election. In the 1997 election, Dumper’s local authority, Southampton, issued fewer than 2,000 postal votes. This time, he expects to issue something like 30,000.

Critics say the introduction of postal voting on demand has, at a stroke, undermined a British voting system that has been regarded as more or less unimpeachable. The Birmingham allegations have not helped. Nor has the case of Mohammed Hussain in Blackburn. And nor has the fact that police investigations into postal voting irregularities are reported to be continuing in Reading, Cheshire, Derbyshire, Greater Manchester and West Yorkshire.

Dumper says his association’s members are preparing for many more challenges to the validity of the ballot at the next general election—something that rarely, if ever, happened in the past, but could happen now that there is so much more awareness of postal voting on demand.

The Association of Electoral Administrators now recommends major changes to the system, including “individual registration” at the electoral register stage, so that officials would have a database of signatures to check; a security element to be included in the application for postal votes (for example, mother’s maiden name); and scrapping the Declaration of Identity and the need for a witness and replacing this with a form of checkable security statement. It also recommends that candidates and party workers be banned from handling or collecting completed postal votes.

But is it really an option to shelve postal voting on demand until the loopholes have been filled? The Electoral Commission, set up by Parliament in 2000 to modernise the electoral process and encourage voter participation, reports that postal voting has indeed succeeded in raising turnout. Some argue that this increase—estimated to be 5 to 10 per cent—is just because of its novelty value, although in some all-postal trials for local elections, turnout doubled.

“There are people who find it more convenient to vote in their own home,” says Kate Sullivan, the commission’s head of electoral administration. “They may like to have more time for reflection; and there are people for whom the polling station isn’t convenient or accessible; and also, people’s lifestyles have changed. There has been more change in our electoral system in the last five years than there was in the previous 100 years, and all these things will take a while to bed down.”

However, having previously recommended that all local elections be held by postal vote only (with no polling stations), the commission has now gone back on this following the suspicions and allegations about the local and European elections in June last year. Research showed not only that voters wanted to retain polling stations, but also that their confidence in postal voting had declined. “We were concerned that there was a noticeable decrease in the number of people who said that all-postal voting was safe from fraud and abuse,” says Sullivan. “A third of people said it wasn’t. It’s a significant minority.” The commission now wants polling stations to be retained.

Chris Game, senior lecturer at Birmingham University’s Institute of Local Government Studies, is unimpressed by this apparent U-turn. “They’ve backtracked, and I think they look rather foolish,” he says. “Only a year ago their policy was to roll out all-postal voting as the local electoral norm. This was what our supposedly neutral electoral advisers were saying was going to be the practice for the future. But I don’t think in future anyone will do that—not least because a lot of people don’t like all-postal voting. As every day of these hearings in Birmingham progresses, people’s confidence in our postal voting system must be waning. And now the Government is going to run an election that they know is susceptible to substantial malpractice, because, they say, there isn’t time to make changes before the general election.”

Game describes the Birmingham hearings as “like a guide to postal vote manipulation”. He says: “In inner-city areas there’s a real problem, and everyone knows this. The Birmingham cases show how the vote you are about to cast in what you believe to be the most important elections every five years can be undermined very, very easily by postal vote fraud. I think it’s going to be very damaging. And postal voting inherently undermines the principle of private voting, which I think is a hugely cherishable and worthy value of our electoral system.”

The Electoral Commission is now recommending that postal voting on demand should be retained, but with urgent changes to bring in safeguards similar to those suggested by the Association of Electoral Administrators, including individual registration, and a numerical element—such as date of birth—to assist in checking the validity of applications and postal votes. It also recommends that there should be a new offence to cover fraudulent application for a postal vote, and an updated offence of “undue influence” to discourage coercion.

Meanwhile, the commission is working with the Association of Chief Police Officers to produce a guide for local police forces in time for the general election. “Because it’s quite rare, the police often don’t know how to investigate electoral fraud,” Sullivan says. “If you go into a station and say, ‘Someone’s stolen my car,’ they know what to do. If you go in and say, ‘Someone’s stolen my vote,’ they probably don’t.”

At Greater Manchester Police, Assistant Chief Constable Stephen Thomas has worked with the Electoral Commission on the new police guidelines. Thomas hopes to receive ACPO approval to issue them to forces countrywide in time for the election.

The message to police forces will centre on preventing abuses in the first place. “It’s all about prevention,” Thomas says. “For example, having a system to watch out for high numbers of requests for postal votes from one address. Our belief is that the potential for fraud is greater in local elections, but our guidance to forces will include advice that, for parliamentary elections, it’s where you have small majorities that you need to be aware of the issues.”

Meanwhile, Oliver Heald, the opposition spokesman for constitutional affairs, says that the security of the postal voting system is now in so much doubt that he has called for independent election observers (from the Electoral Commission) to oversee polling in some areas at the general election. That makes the home of the Mother of Parliaments sound alarmingly like a banana republic.

Back in Birmingham, ousted Liberal Democrat councillor Ayoub Khan and PJP secretary Raghib Ahsan say they have little faith that the results of the general election in the city will be accurate. The judge has heard that widespread false applications for postal votes have corrupted the electoral register. “I am aware of at least 1,000 postal votes that have been [falsely] applied for in the Bordesley Green ward alone,” Ahsan claims. “The people concerned are not aware that they have been applied for.”

Khan is equally sceptical. Does he feel he was robbed of his seat by, ultimately, a defective voting process? “Of course,” he says. Despite the alleged threats, he says he will not be deterred from his campaign to prove that he was cheated. “I’m going to do whatever is within my power to make sure that I highlight issues within the postal voting system, which is open to mass corruption. Because if we can’t do that—in a country such as ours, which likes to impose democracy on other countries—then we will have failed in our own back garden.”

AT CROSS PURPOSES

The following are offences under the Representation of the People Act:

Bribery: offering or giving money or anything else to influence a person’s vote (contrary to Section 113)

Treating: providing any food, drink, entertainment or anything else in order to influence a vote, or a person to refrain from voting (Section 114)

Undue influence: directly or indirectly using, or threatening to make use of, force, violence, restraint, or any sort of threat to make a person vote or refrain from voting (Section 115)

Infringing secrecy: breaching a person’s right to a secret vote (Section 66)

Personation: impersonating someone else in order to cast a vote (Section 60)

Multiple voting and proxy voting offences: voting more than once, or when legally barred from voting; or applying for a proxy vote without cancelling a previous proxy appointment (Section 61)

Other non-electoral offences that may be relevant include:

* Making a false statement (under the Perjury Act 1911)

* Forgery or using a false instrument (under Forgery & Counterfeiting Act 1981)

* Conspiracy to defraud or to pervert the course of justice

* Theft or robbery in obtaining postal votes

Source: ACPO/Greater Manchester Police

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