Sandra Laville, Guardian (London), April 5, 2005
A senior judge made a scathing attack on the postal voting system yesterday, condemning the government for complacency in the face of fraud which would disgrace a “banana republic”.
Richard Mawrey QC, presiding over a special election court in Birmingham, warned that there were no realistic systems in place to detect or prevent postal voting fraud at the general election. “Until there are, fraud will continue unabated,” he said.
He found six Labour councillors in Birmingham guilty of carrying out “massive, systematic and organised” postal voting fraud to win two wards during last June’s elections for the city council. Declaring the results void, he barred the men from standing again in a byelection expected on May 12.
After the judgment the national Labour party suspended the six men. A spokesman said they would be sub ject to a “vigorous disciplinary process”. Criminal charges against them are expected. Police said yesterday their inquiries were continuing.
But Mr Mawrey, a deputy high court judge who has sat through four weeks of evidence that thousands of postal votes were stolen to be changed or filled in by Labour supporters, said the fraud was not the actions of a “few hotheads”. It was carried out with the full knowledge and cooperation of the local Labour party and “extensively prevailed” throughout the city, where applications for postal votes soared from 28,000 to 70,000 last year.
It was focused on areas with a large Muslim population who could no longer be trusted to vote for the party because of unhappiness over the Iraq war.
The case was brought after complaints from electors in the Bordesley Green and Aston wards of Birmingham city council that their votes had been stolen. A dossier of evidence compiled by the Liberal Democrats, who were defeated in Aston, and the People’s Justice party, which lost in Bordesley Green, formed the basis of the hearing.
In his judgment yesterday, Mr Mawrey condemned the government for refusing to change the postal voting system in advance of the general election because it believed that systems to prevent fraud were “clearly working.”
“Anybody who has sat through the case and listened to evidence of electoral fraud that would disgrace a banana republic would find this surprising,” Mr Mawrey said.
“[It] indicates a state not simply of complacency, but of denial. The systems to deal with fraud are not working well. They are not working badly. The fact is that there are no systems to deal realistically with fraud.”
In a damning judgment which ran to 192 pages, he said the system for registering postal vote applications was “hopelessly insecure”. There was no way of checking whether the person who had applied for the vote was the legitimate voter.
Postal ballots were sent out in ordinary mail and were clearly identifiable. “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,” he said.
There had been “widespread theft” of postal votes, either en masse from corrupt postal workers or on a smaller scale from the letterboxes of householders, the court heard.
A lack of effective policing meant that fraud was compounded, Mr Mawrey said. Returning officers had neither the powers, resources or authority to investigate suspicious applications for postal votes, and the police were poorly trained to detect it.
In the Bordesley Green ward, he ruled that up to 2,000 postal votes were fraudulent, and in Aston 1,000. In many cases whole families had had their votes intercepted and changed by Labour.
Chaman Salha, a solicitor for the Aston Labour councillors, said the result was a “dark day for democracy”.
[Editor’s Note: For more on this story, click here.]