Police are investigating allegations of electoral fraud in Halifax after thousands of postal ballots were delivered by hand to polling stations on day of the general election.
More than 4,000 ballots arrived in the West Yorkshire town on 6 May, with the majority being delivered directly to polling stations. Although there are no rules forbidding the delivery of postal ballots by hand, such a large number arriving on the day of the election itself is considered unusual and risks overwhelming the already-stretched safety checks aimed at minimising fraud.
Local Tory officials raised questions over the validity of some of the postal ballots after they discovered that a number of empty and derelict addresses in one particular ward had voters registered to them. They allege that Labour Party activists spent the days before the election "farming" postal ballots to deliver directly on 6 May and have asked both the police and the Electoral Commission to investigate.
Labour's incumbent candidate, Linda Riordan MP, only managed to hold on to her seat by a relatively small majority of 1,472 votes.
It is believed that a large number of the postal ballots were handed into polling stations in Park Ward, an area of Halifax with a large Asian community and a traditional Labour stronghold. According to the electoral roll, 2,283 people are registered as postal voters in the Park Ward area. The Tories say they have uncovered evidence of voter impersonation, phantom registrations and voter intimidation which they have passed on to the police.
Officials at Calderdale Council, which covers Halifax, say the signatures of every single postal ballot that arrived on the day of the general election were checked throughout the night. But Philip Allott, the Conservative's candidate who lost to Labour, says the current vote-checking system cannot tell whether someone has voted multiple times using more than one postal vote.
"It is possible in Calderdale to apply for multiple postal votes because although the signature of the application form and security slip when the person votes are cross-checked via scanning, the scanner does not check whether the person has voted twice or more," he said. "We can't say for sure whether fraudulent voting affected the outcome but I do believe there is enough prima facie evidence to show that fraud happened. It's simply not good for democracy when this sort of uncertainty exists."
The Conservatives in Halifax say that they cannot afford to launch a legal challenge which would need to be submitted by tomorrow. Mr Allott said the rules stating that complaints have to be launched within 21 days of an election meant there was not enough time or money to gather evidence.
"Just to launch a challenge would cost around £100,000 – or £200,000 if we lost," he said.
Prior to the election, questions were raised over vote-gathering tactics by Conservative candidates in the Park Ward area. In late April police arrested the then-Conservative councillor David Ginley and the prospective Tory candidate Mohammed Rashid on suspicion of electoral fraud. They were questioned and bailed pending further enquiries. Mr Ginley and Mr Rashid, who both failed to get elected, have denied any allegation of wrongdoing.
Mrs Riordan, who first won the seat in 2005, has accused the Tories of complaining about the postal ballots to divert attention away from the fact that questions have been raised over their own candidates' conduct.
"The Tory complaints are a smokescreen to divert attention away from the fact that two of their candidates have been investigated over electoral fraud allegations," she said. "They are simply upset that they lost."
Mrs Riordan rejected the suggestion that the postal votes had been counted improperly. "We were waiting for three hours for the postal votes in the early hours of the morning precisely because officials were checking every single ballot paper. I have every confidence that my supporters and candidates in Park Ward did everything by the book."