Election 'could be decided in courts'

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Britain's next Government "could be decided in the courts", a leading election official has told The Independent on Sunday.

Britain's next Government "could be decided in the courts", a leading election official has told The Independent on Sunday.

The spectre of "a Florida-style outcome" to the general election has been raised as a second judge rules that safeguards against postal vote fraud are seriously flawed.

Returning officers from around the country met in London on Friday to step up action to prevent ballot rigging after widespread fraud was found to have taken place during last year's Birmingham council elections.

Some election officials are so concerned at the prospect of legal challenges after the 5 May poll that they are writing to check on all those who have applied for a postal vote.

Fears that the result could hang on a few disputed seats are growing. David Monks, returning officer for Huntingdon and an elections expert, said: "There is little doubt that we will see more electoral petitions in marginal seats." Mr Monks, elections spokesman for Solace, the body that represents returning officers, said a delayed outcome was a "highly likely scenario" if one party has a slender majority.

He said: "I am afraid that the country's future could be decided in the courts and not at the ballot box."

An IoS survey suggests that the number of postal votes will be greater than the winning candidate's majority in at least 100 seats.

More than 10,000 voters have already applied for postal votes in Leeds North-West, for example, more than double Labour's majority in the seat that, if lost, would signal the loss of the party's majority in the Commons.

One in six voters, about six million, are expected to opt for postal votes in this election. There has been a 10-fold increase in applications in some constituencies.

The Liberal Democrats' director of campaigns and elections, Lord Rennard, said that the party's lawyers would be looking "very carefully" at close contests. "We have been warning for some time of the prospect of a Florida-style outcome," he said, referring to George Bush's election in 2000, which was delayed by a court challenge after allegations of electoral malpractice.

Ministers were taken aback by the ferocity of judgment by the elections commissioner, Richard Mawrey QC, in the Birmingham case in which he said that the rigging "would disgrace a banana republic".

Tony Blair's attempts to play down the scale of the problem were dealt a blow on Friday when a second judge condemned the arrangements. Jailing a former Labour councillor for three years for postal vote fraud, Judge Peter Openshaw said: "The system is wide open to fraud."

Charles Clarke, the Home Secretary, and the Electoral Commission rushed out new guidelines to police.

But Chris Fox, president of the Association of Chief Police Officers, admitted last night that no extra resources had been released to the front line.