Voting fraud 'could decide election result' election result'

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The Home Office is under pressure to change the law on proxy voting after returning officers warned yesterday that mounting abuse of the system could lead to a fraudulent outcome to the next general election.

The problem is most acute in the growing number of old people's homes, according to John Bamford, immediate past chairman of the Association of Electoral Administrators, where "less than scrupulous agents and candidates take in a batch of forms for absent votes and helpfully ask people to sign them. The elderly person is left with the impression that they will get a vote by post but the form is then filled in for a proxy vote which is then cast for the candidate that the proxy, not the elector, wants."

Even if the voter then goes to the polling station, the vote cannot be changed if the proxy has voted first. "We think this practice, known as 'granny farming', is fraudulent," Mr Bamford said. It appeared to have been "growing out of all proportion in the past three or four years". The Home Office had failed to act effectively despite being warned of the problem after the 1992 general election.

With just 1,241 votes deciding the results in the 11 most marginal seats in 1992 "we are concerned the results of the next general election might well be seriously affected to the point where the colour of the government is different from what it should be", Mr Bamford said.

The problem was particularly acute in local elections, where many majorities in council seats were less than 50. Recent cases include the conviction last year of Miles Parker, a former chairman of the Greater London Conservative Agents Association, for forging two votes in Enfield, north London.

In the 1993 council elections in Brighton, 50 postal and proxy votes were applied for in a ward where previously victory had turned on 30 votes. One couple who displayed posters for one party found their votes had been cast the other way. In St Ives in 1992, Labour and the Liberal Democrats found 70 complaints by electors who said their votes had been assigned without their consent, although police found insufficient evidence to prosecute.

In Burnley last year, a Labour candidate lost to a Liberal Democrat by two votes in the local elections. Labour found three votes where proxies had been used in dubious circumstances, one for a woman who had been resident in Bangladesh for almost a decade.

Labour withdrew its action when it became clear that even if it could prove its case, the result could not be overturned. But Richard Mawrey, QC, sitting as the election court commissioner, said a "thorough review" of the proxy and absent voting procedure was needed.