Postal ballots hailed as 40% take part in pilot

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Indy Politics

About four in ten adults voted in the regions that are experimenting with all-postal ballots, twice as many as in the previous European elections.

About four in ten adults voted in the regions that are experimenting with all-postal ballots, twice as many as in the previous European elections.

Despite the allegations of malpractice and incompetence dogging the contests, ministers hailed the sharply increased turnouts as a triumph.

Peter Hain, the Leader of the Commons, said it had been "the biggest exercise in spreading democratic opportunity anywhere in Britain and probably anywhere in the world".

Postal voting was trialled in four regions with a total electorate of more than 14 million ­ the North-west, the North-east, Yorkshire and the Humber and the East Midlands. By yesterday afternoon, 671,088 votes had been returned in the North-east, representing 35.3 per cent of the forms sent out. In the previous European elections of 1999, the turnout in the region fell below 20 per cent, dipping to 13 per cent in some areas.

Numbers voting in the North-west, where 19.5 per cent took part in the 1999 ballot, had reached 37 per cent by Wednesday evening and was expected to reach 40 per cent. There was a similar picture in the East Midlands, where turnout had reached 36.8 per cent and was also on course to pass 40 per cent. Up-to-date totals for Yorkshire and the Humber, where turnout was less than 20 per cent five years ago, were not available yesterday. But the figure had reached 28.2 per cent earlier in the week, with 40 per cent voting in Bradford and 34 per cent voting in Leeds, suggesting a final figure for the region of between 35 and 40 per cent.

Electoral watchdogs are to carry out an opinion poll among 14 million voters in the pilot postal ballot areas amid fears that allegations of fraud have damaged public confidence in the voting process.

Officials from the Electoral Commission are also meeting the police and the Crown Prosecution Service to examine the implications of fraud allegations that marred the all-postal ballot pilots. Yesterday Downing Street pledged a review of postal ballots in the wake of yesterday's polls.

The commission said headlines about malpractice could damage confidence in the elections, despite research from previous pilots showing fraud no higher than in conventional polls. The pollsters ICM will undertake polling in pilot areas.

A Labour councillor in Birmingham was questioned by police after he was discovered in a car with bags of postal ballots during a midnight meeting in a car park. Mohammed Kazi was later cleared of any illegal act. He said: "I was there with some other people trying to sort out the campaign. We wanted to sort out the postal ballots. We were too frightened to do it in the Labour Party office. You could be robbed or anything."

Police are still investigating alleged irregularities, although police said no evidence could be found to substantiate complaints of fraud in Bradford.

The postal trials sparked anger in the Commons, despite the Government's insistence that postal ballots were no more likely to be hit by fraud than conventional polls. Yesterday the Conservatives demanded an urgent statement on the conduct of the all-postal ballots.

The Department for Constitutional Affairs said electoral fraud was rare. In the 2002 council elections there was one prosecution, which was successful. There were 16 prosecutions during the 2001 general and county council elections. Ten were successful.

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