A threat to democracy

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UNTIL now, the biggest point of contention in the Scottish election campaign has been, quite rightly, the fundamental matter of the different routes our nation might take under the governance of the independence-supporting SNP as opposed to their Unionist rivals.

As we reveal today, however, there is a very real danger that the voting system itself has been compromised by inadequate checks against electoral fraud and, indeed, by alleged incidents of outright corruption, including the buying and selling of votes. With just 11 days to go to election day, this is a scandal which should trouble all true democrats.

An investigation by Scotland on Sunday has discovered that there is so much concern among the authorities that police have been issued with guidelines on how to spot attempts to subvert the vote. Glasgow is the area giving most cause for concern, but there is also serious potential for trouble at a string of other key electoral contests.

The fear of fraudulent ballots being cast has gone up drastically with the sharp rise in the numbers of postal votes.

A total of 433,000 applications for postal ballots has been received - three times more than at the last Holyrood election in 2003. That in itself is not necessarily ground for suspicion, since anybody can now request a postal ballot without having to comply with the restrictive conditions that apply elsewhere in the UK. Yet it is slightly surprising that so many people should have altered their voting practice so suddenly: normally such changes take a long time to bed in. Nearly 15% of the electorate in Dundee have applied for postal votes; that is the kind of phenomenon that raises fears and invites speculation.

What is thoroughly alarming is the fact that this ballot-box revolution is taking place in a relatively uncontrolled, even chaotic, environment. Astonishingly and reprehensibly, there is absolutely no mechanism for checking the authenticity of these postal ballot applications. Across England, a security scheme has been introduced whereby an electronic scanning system will enable election officials to check the signature on an application form against the signature on the corresponding ballot paper. There has been an understandable outcry at the very few English council wards where the system is not in place.

Scotland was intended to have the same security system as the vast majority of places south of the Border, but officials decided to shelve it for the time being. Their excuse was that they were too preoccupied with the complexities of the new electronic system for counting votes to deal with the security system as well. What sense of priorities does that reflect?

As we also report today, there are already accusations of widespread electoral fraud involving postal ballots in key areas, notably Glasgow Govan, which has a history of such irregularities. The allegations cover a combination of intimidation, manipulation and outright bribery, with one resident even quoting the financial tariff for bartered votes. An electronic scanning system would have gone a considerable way to reduce such fraud. It would also have sent out a message to the hucksters that the authorities were on the alert and would not put up with any attempt to buy or sell votes.

Who authorised the abandonment of the security system? That is not a rhetorical question: the country has a right to know. The validity of the entire election could come into question if there were doubts over the way even a small number of votes were cast. The question of which party will be the biggest after May 3 could be decided by just a few thousand votes; the decision on which candidate will be sent to Holyrood by key marginal constituencies could hang on a mere handful.

This is a key moment in Scotland's modern history, with the crucial question of national sovereignty at stake. The issue of who will form the next Scottish government is a matter that must be determined by the will of the Scottish electorate, under conditions of unquestionable democratic integrity. The election therefore must be transparent and honest, and it is the responsibility of the public authorities to ensure it is so. On the evidence uncovered today, shamefully this does not appear to be the case.