Election register is open to abuse via postal votes

THE Government must tighten the security of the electoral register in order to prevent postal voting fraud, the Electoral Commission has warned.

The commission, Britain's elections watchdog, wants ministers to change the system of registration by household to individual registration, with every voter providing his or her signature and date of birth as a security measure.

The commission has warned that unless the Government acts on its advice there could be widespread postal-voting fraud at the next election.

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The Government's proposals to change the way elections are run are going through Westminster at the moment and the commission's warning was deliberately timed to try to influence the House of Lords, ahead of the upper chamber's first main debate on the issue, this week.

The commission's proposals reflect the recommendations of a scrutiny committee from Birmingham, which called for a complete overhaul of the way the electoral register is compiled, following widespread postal-vote fraud during the city's 2004 council elections.

An election court sacked five Labour councillors in the Aston and Bordesley Green wards and ordered elections in the two areas to be re-run. The High Court is still considering a second election petition alleging fraud at the Aston by-election.

With numbers of postal votes soaring, the Electoral Commission reported a number of concerns about fraud at the 2005 polls as well.

The Electoral Administration Bill, which receives its second reading in the House of Lords on Tuesday next week, provides for pilot schemes of individual registration in parts of the country. However, Sam Younger, the chairman of the commission, says this will be too slow to allow the system to be in place in England, Scotland and Wales in time for the next election.

He says the Government should move straight to a transitional system, under which all voters would be encouraged to register individually.

Harriet Harman, the Minister for Constitutional Affairs, says ministers are concerned that individual registration might drive down the numbers of people on the electoral roll, which is already believed to be missing about three million voters. She says the concern is that the system may reduce the participation of young, poor or black voters in elections.

Twenty-two councils in England are to pilot new electoral methods - such as voting in shopping centres and electronic counting - at the English local government elections in May this year. The 22 are: Shrewsbury and Atcham; Stratford-on-Avon; Brent; Brentwood; Broxbourne; Epping Forest; Harrow; Lewisham; the Merseyside councils of Knowsley, Liverpool, St Helen's and Sefton; Newham; Peterborough; Rushmoor; Stevenage; Swindon; the Tyne and Wear authorities of Gateshead, Newcastle, South Tyneside and Sunderland; and Westminster.

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Lord Falconer, the Lord Chancellor, says that this year's pilots would maintain the momentum of electoral modernisation and maximising of voting that had been set off in 2000.

And, while the Electoral Commission says that new forms of voting represent the way forward for this country, it is also adamant that extra security measures have to be put in place to prevent fraud and give the public the maximum confidence possible in the new systems.

The measures would include: changes to the ballot paper to support more secure and efficient production of postal votes and the checking of signatures on postal ballots; voting in shopping centres and rural locations; polling booths opening at different times; and electronic counting.

A spokeswoman for the commission says it was disappointed that the Government's bill did not include individual registration at this stage which, she says, is crucial to improving security of postal votes.

She adds: "We understand the concerns that have been raised in Parliament about the risk that a change in the registration process could lead to a drop in the [number of voters on the] register, and have proposed a transitional approach before a move to full individual registration.

"Under this approach, it would be optional for people to provide their signature and date of birth, unless they wanted to apply for a postal vote, in which case it would be compulsory to provide these personal identifiers.

"We believe this would overcome the fears about a drop in registration rates, while addressing the urgent problem of postal-vote security."

She says that the commission also had concerns about the provisions in the bill that make it compulsory for voters to sign their ballot papers at polling station: "Without collecting individual identifiers at the registration stage, there would be nothing to check signatures against - so this wouldn't increase security, and could lead to delays and queues at polling stations, which would deterring people from voting.

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"The bottom line is that if we don't see a significant step towards individual voter registration in this bill, we will be faced with a very similar situation at the next general election - with many of the same security problems and issues with public confidence. We can't afford to miss this opportunity."

The Electoral Commission's findings are available at electoralcommission.gov.uk/elections/eladbill.cfm