Mary Dejevsky: A little voter fraud goes a long way

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The Independent Online

There's something delightfully quaint about voting in Britain: the makeshift notices that appear overnight, the empty school halls where assembly was held only the day before; the tumbledown booths, the ballot-boxes that look like supermarket surplus, and those inimitable period pieces – the little pencils on string. They were all there yesterday, in their accustomed place, when I went to perform my civic duty. There was also something I don't recall from previous occasions: a queue – which was consoling if you regard turn-out as a gauge of democratic engagement.

But I wonder how long one rather admirable feature of British elections will, or indeed should, endure: the absence of any check on identity. The reason I ask is the proliferation of fraud allegations before the vote. This is not the first time, of course, that the integrity of the ballot has come under suspicion in some constituencies. Ever since 2004, when the New Labour government decided that making it easier to vote could increase what threatened to be a shamingly low turn-out, and gave postal vote to pretty much anyone who asked, the potential for fraud has increased.

It would not take great ingenuity to abuse the system. Many people, including students, have more than one address. How good are the checks that someone votes only once? When the registration forms come round, or some time later, you might add someone to your household tally: someone, perhaps, who is not entitled to vote; someone, even, who does not exist. You might then intercept the real or fraudulent postal ballots and put the crosses where you want them to go. This is hardly hi-tech, but not always easy to detect either. The judge in a celebrated case in Birmingham five years ago spoke of practices that would "disgrace a banana republic".

The official line is that accusations of electoral fraud are taken very seriously. I remain to be convinced. Jenny Watson, the head of the Electoral Commission, the watchdog appointed by Parliament, was on Newsnight earlier this week. It seemed to me not only that she was given an unnecessarily easy ride, but that she wasn't nearly as concerned about the allegations as I would have hoped someone in her position to be. Indeed, she seemed – in a phrase likely to go out of use from today, so let's give it one last whirl – "intensely relaxed" about what might be going on. If the watchdog isn't too worried, why should the rest of us be?

There seems to be especial sensitivity about addressing fraud allegations in areas with a large Muslim population, even though it is in areas such as Tower Hamlets, where such allegations are routinely concentrated – and where The Independent's reporter was attacked following up this story earlier this week. Yet how difficult can it be for councils to monitor new and last-minute applications from one address? Why not a mechanism that estimates how many adults are likely to reside at a particular house or flat and triggers further enquiry if that number is exceeded? If that is against the Data Protection Act, you can bet the big supermarkets and internet shopping sites have something similar stashed away.

Yes, it was splendid that there was a late surge in registrations this year, largely, it is thought, thanks to the first televised debate. That is a thoroughly positive development. But the integrity of the vote must be protected. Even a whiff of fraud compromises the whole process.

Elephants on parade

Two baby elephants have just appeared, guarding the Albert Memorial in Kensington; there is a colourful little coterie in front of Nelson's column, and another pair has materialised at Hyde Park Corner. They are among the 260 fibre glass elephants, painted and decorated, that comprise what is said to be the largest exhibition of outdoor art the city has ever hosted. It's not the first such event, though. London had a cow parade in 2002, as did Manchester two years later. And such parades have become set-pieces of the modern city, rather as annual marathon races have done.

By accident rather than design, I have become a bit of an aficionado of such animal parades, having been in Chicago for one of the earliest cow parades in 1999, and in Berlin for the bear parade of 2002. And you could dismiss the whole enterprise as a bit silly and a bit trite, and a bit hard on the civic purse, too. But just glimpse a few of these beasts, judiciously sited, and I defy you not to melt. The first London elephants had scarcely been hauled into position than they were being patted, photographed, and clambered over by excited children, and everyone was smiling. Once it's over, they will all be auctioned – in aid of the endangered Asian elephant. What more could a city want in summer?

A better class of B&B

Wilton Park, in West Sussex, is set in the sort of countryside that draws gasps from foreign visitors. It is exactly as they imagine England, only more so. As you drive in the outer gate, a flight of pheasant ascends in your path; a luxuriant red fox crosses the road; snow-white lambs gambol in the green-green fields; and the age-old trees whisper. By night, the stars seem so close that you could touch them.

Wilton Park hosts conferences for the Foreign Office, but it will now hold hotel-type weekends, in response to requests from nostalgic conference-goers – offering what you might call conferences without the conference. Nor is it alone. Oxford and Cambridge colleges are now to offer B&B in vacations when they have no conferences. And why not? Others with distinguished buildings will surely follow suit.