Local elections: 'They knock on the door and ask us to give them our ballot papers'

 

Tower Hamlets

Runa Ali is aware her neighbourhood has a reputation for dodgy electoral practices. Standing on the doorstep of her flat in Tower Hamlets, east London, she is more resigned than she is angry.

"Someone was round here a little while ago asking to collect our ballot. They knock on the door and say 'We are collecting the ballot papers, just hand us yours and we'll deal with them for you'." The 28-year-old is referring to the practice of local party volunteers knocking on doors offering help. It might seem innocuous – an attempt by helpful locals wanting to do what they can to get the vote out. But it is illegal.

Aware that such tactics are common, Miss Ali always goes to the polling station in person. But she fears that many people in this predominantly Bangladeshi corner of London might be taken in by unscrupulous campaigners. "Most of the people affected will be those who do not understand the political system or do not care: the young and the very old," she says. "Because most [of those] people don't understand the system and English is not their first language."

Every time an election comes to Tower Hamlets – a vibrant but impoverished borough which lies in the shadow of the City and is home to Britain's largest concentration of Bangladeshis – rumours, accusations and counter-accusations of voter fraud abound.

This year is no different. All three major parties with a presence in the area – Labour, Conservative and Respect – have alleged various irregularities ranging from over-registration of voters to intimidation at polling booths.

A common complaint is over so-called "ghost voters", and the suspiciously high number of residents that can be registered for postal voting at small properties. Local Tory councillor Peter Golds has sent a dossier of evidence to the Electoral Commission highlighting flats where he believes this takes place. In one block on Brick Lane he has identified three properties where four or more Asian names have been recently added to properties where just to one or two European-sounding voters were registered.

The Independent knocked on their doors yesterday and received no answer from two of the flats. But at the third a white man answered, who said he lived alone. According to the electoral register, four Asian names were recently added to his address as postal votes. The man, who declined to give his name, said he was recently visited by a man of south Asian origin who tried to collect the ballots. He refused.

Unlike many local authorities, Tower Hamlets now ensures all postal ballots are electronically scanned. If the signatures do not pair up, the votes are struck off. In a recent by-election for wards of Banglatown and Spitalfields, 14 per cent of postal ballots were disqualified, an indication the checks work.

In an attempt to tackle voter intimidation outside polling stations, police officers have been deployed during elections across the borough. But many residents say it has had little effect.

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