If there is one thing on which we pride ourselves in this country it is the honesty and integrity of our elections.
If there is one thing on which we pride ourselves in this country it is the honesty and integrity of our elections. Not for us the sort of electoral practices by which Robert Mugabe has just tightened his hold on power in Zimbabwe. Not for us the blatant vote-rigging that triggered a chain of popular uprisings in the post-Soviet republics. Not for us the ambiguities and inconsistencies that left it to the Supreme Court to decide the outcome of the US presidential election in 2000. We in Britain know how to run elections that are free and fair and conform to the very highest international standards.
Or do we? Yesterday a High Court judge, Richard Mawrey QC, annulled the results of elections in two Birmingham City Council wards, citing evidence of electoral fraud that would "disgrace a banana republic". He found six Labour Party councillors guilty of corrupt and illegal practices before and during last year's local elections. There was, he said, evidence of "massive, systematic and organised fraud" which made a mockery of the elections.
This judgment would be damning enough in itself. The very notion that there would be individuals willing and able to rig the electoral system in their favour shames us all. But Mr Mawrey did not stop there. The fraud had taken place in one of the regions selected by the Government for a controversial experiment in postal voting. And while the individuals concerned were guilty of abusing the system, the system itself was - in Mr Mawrey's words - "wide open to fraud", it was "hopelessly insecure", and any would-be fraudster knew that full well. In other words, it was not only the individuals that were flawed, but the system, too.
There were many, including this paper, who warned of the perils inherent in the experimental postal voting system well before last year's elections. The stated purpose - to increase turn-out by making voting more convenient - had merit. Like so many of the innovations pioneered by this Government, however, the new provisions were introduced with undue haste, before they had been properly thought through.
For an experiment, it was on a huge scale: it applied to no less than one-third of the country. But it was also unduly selective, being limited to those areas of the country with a traditional Labour majority. This fuelled suspicion that one intended effect was to boost the Labour vote. The judge went further: the Birmingham fraud, he said yesterday, was part of a city-wide campaign by the Labour Party "to try ... to counter the adverse effect of the Iraq war on its electoral fortunes".
The procedure to register for a postal vote lacked even the most elementary safeguards. There was little check on an individual's identity and qualification to vote. There was no need to dispatch the ballot paper by post: ballots could be, and were, collected by self-appointed local agents. As Mr Mawrey memorably said in his judgment, "short of writing 'steal me' on the envelopes, it is hard to see what more could be done to ensure their coming into the wrong hands".
Hard though it is to believe, what followed was almost worse. Despite the early evidence of abuse, neither the police nor government ministers seemed especially concerned. The Government spoke of "scare-mongering" and cited the legal proceedings which ended yesterday as proof that the system worked. Mr Mawrey disagreed. "The fact is that there are no systems to deal realistically with fraud and there never have been. Until there are, fraud will continue unabated."
The most distressing fact of all, however, is that this so-called experiment, with its demonstrably unreliable systems of registration and voting, is still in place. And with one month remaining until the expected general election, the only way that further abuse can apparently be discouraged is for the postal votes to be separately counted. Such a provision should be put in place immediately. Once the election is over, however, the whole experiment must be abandoned or rethought.