How thousands are allowed to vote under false names

Battered wives, prison warders and police officers are being allowed to vote under assumed names in breach of election rules. Electoral officials revealed to our reporter that the anomaly was one of many in a system which was due for radical overhaul.

A provision for anonymous registration should be introduced to protect people who are genuinely at risk if they allowed their real names to go on the electoral roll, according to electoral officials.

Currently, registration officers are taking pity on those who claim that they and their families are at risk from having their addresses made public, and bending the rules so that they can still vote. It is believed that many others are sacrificing their suffrage rather than going on the roll.

The Independent has been given a list of proposals from the Association of Electoral Administrators (AEA), which oversees the compilation of the electoral roll, which has been put to a government working party on reform being chaired by George Howarth, the Home Office minister.

Apart from introducing a facility for anonymous registration, the proposals call for trials of electronic voting. The AEA would also like disabled voters to be allowed to vote away from the polling station crush and want steps to be introduced so that blind voters could vote in secret.

John Turner, chairman of the AEA, said: "Change is needed now. Voter turnout must be improved. The election process must be modernised and improved or the organs of government will become more and more remote from the people they claim to represent."

His deputy, Colin Marshall, said: "Each registration officer knows that people are not particularly happy that their details are public knowledge; prison officers, police officers, people at risk from their estranged husbands. Unlike the council tax, there is no anonymous registration although a number of electoral registration officers get by this.

"Sometimes we put people in their maiden names, or police are put in their wife's maiden name."

He added: "It's technically wrong but I think that many election officers sympathise with people in this position. I personally know of people who have been traced by villains and either had their property vandalised or have been threatened."

The Home Office working party will look at various ways of improving electoral practices, including registration of the homeless and setting up a continuous or rolling register so that people do not lose their vote if they move home shortly before an election. It will also look at automated voting, whereby voters press a button instead of mark a cross against the name of their chosen candidate. Such electronic methods have been tried in other countries and speed up the counting process.

In its submission, the AEA expresses the view that Britain has allowed itself to rest on its laurels as the cradle of democracy. "The British electoral system is based on custom and practice going back well over a century. No exhaustive review has been carried out during that time - changes have often been piecemeal, minor or technical with little direct consequence for the voter."

The Independent has also obtained a copy of the latest British electorate figures, compiled by the Treasury and sent to the Labour MP Harry Barnes. They show that despite the activity that surrounded the run-up to last May's election, when campaigns such as Rock the Vote and Operation Black Vote aimed to attract the missing young and ethnic minority voters, there are still nearly two million people missing from the electoral register.

By last February, there were 39,229,038 people registered to vote, an increase of 235,000 on the previous year. But because the population eligible to vote increased by 179,000, the number of missing voters was only reduced by 56,000 to 1,982,434.In the Commons yesterday, Harry Barnes, the Labour MP, was to question Jack Straw, the Home Secretary, on why more is not being done to bring about "fundamental reform of the antiquated and cumbersome voter registration system".

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