Councillors guilty of postal votes fraud that would 'shame a banana republic'

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Indy Politics

A Judge has delivered a devastating indictment of the postal voting system championed by ministers as he found six Labour councillors guilty of electoral fraud. He said checks against corruption were "hopelessly insecure" and accused the Government of being in denial about the risks to democracy.

A Judge has delivered a devastating indictment of the postal voting system championed by ministers as he found six Labour councillors guilty of electoral fraud. He said checks against corruption were "hopelessly insecure" and accused the Government of being in denial about the risks to democracy.

Richard Mawrey QC, sitting as an electoral commissioner in Birmingham, found "overwhelming" evidence of fraud in last year's city council elections that would "disgrace a banana republic". The elections, where several Labour candidates bucked the trend to win, were dogged by claims of intimidation, bribery, "vote-buying', impersonation and even the creation of a "vote-forging factory".

The judge's comments yesterday, a day before the expected announcement by Tony Blair of a 5 May general election, when millions of votes will be cast by post, were highly embarrassing to Labour. The court ruled against three Labour councillors in Bordesley Green ward, Shafaq Ahmed, Shah Jahan and Ayaz Khan, and three in Aston ward, Mohammed Islam, Muhammed Afzal and Mohammed Kazi. The 10 June poll was declared void and will be rerun next month.

Mr Mawrey said: "Bordesley Green and Aston were not isolated incidents but part of a Birmingham-wide campaign by the Labour Party to try, by bogus postal votes, to counter the adverse effect of the Iraq war on its electoral fortunes."

The judge said Government claims that guards against vote-rigging were in place revealed a "state not simply of complacency but of denial". He said: "There are no systems to deal realistically with fraud and there never have been. Until there are, fraud will continue unabated."

Mr Mawrey said rules allowing voting slips to be sent to addresses other than those on the electoral register gave "positive assistance to fraud", and was scathing that they were posted in identifiable envelopes. He said: "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. Frauds of this magnitude require a considerable degree of organisation and manpower, not to mention supervision and co-ordination. It would be unthinkable for them to be the work of a few hothead activists, working behind the backs of the candidates and their party."

But Chaman Salhan, a solicitor representing two of the councillors, said: "My clients stand by their innocence. They are victims of circumstance. In effect, we have had a criminal trial under civil procedures."

The Electoral Reform Society said there had been allegations of fraud in Blackburn, Guildford and Hackney involving different parties. A spokesman said: "We do not believe electoral fraud is confined to Birmingham, to the Labour Party or, most importantly, to particular communities. We are not alarmist and do not believe the outcome of, say, the general election is likely to be seriously affected by fraud. But we are concerned that the cases which have come to public attention so far may be only part of a wider problem."

The Labour Party said it had suspended the six councillors, and would conduct a "vigorous disciplinary process" against them. It would also send a senior National Executive Committee member to monitor the general election in Birmingham.

Simon Hughes, the Liberal Democrat president, said: "These activities by Labour Party candidates in Birmingham are disgraceful. Changes in electoral law are clearly required." Liam Fox, the Tory co-chairman, said: "We all want to see improved turnout at elections but this must not come at the price of electoral fraud."

The rules governing postal ballots were liberalised in 2000 to boost turn-out. In Birmingham, applications soared from 16,000 in 2001 to more than 70,000 in 2004.Next month's postal votes in the general election face no more checks on their veracity than in Birmingham's council elections. So some close-run results may be end up in court.

HOW THE POLL WAS RIGGED

Evidence of vote-rigging on a massive scale emerged at the first court to investigate electoral fraud for a century.

Six Labour activists, including two candidates, were discovered by police at midnight in a warehouse with 275 postal votes for the city's Aston ward laid out on a table. They were confiscated by officers, who submitted them to the elections office. Against the national trend, Labour won a narrow victory in all three seats in Aston.

A handwriting expert concluded that hundreds of signatures on postal votes in Birmingham were probably forged. The court was told Labour supporters stood on main roads trying to bribe passers-by to hand over their postal ballots. Children were sent to steal papers from letter-boxes and householders were intimidated into handing over their forms.

A postman was allegedly offered £500 for a sack of ballot papers and threatened with death if he refused. A postbox containing voting slips was set alight.

Hundreds of voting forms were sent to a "safe house" to be filled in. Ballot papers were judged valid although the original votes had been changed with correcting fluid.

Many genuine voters turned up at polling stations and found they had already been allocated a postal vote which they had never seen.

On the day of the local elections, the council ran out of ballot boxes and some votes had to be taken to the count in plastic shopping bags. One carrier-bag full of votes materialised at the last moment. After frantic negotiations, it was allowed to stand for the election. The court was told the ballot papers were folded in the same way, and all marked in favour of Labour candidates.

Nigel Morris

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