THE Holyrood election has been left wide open to fraud on a potentially massive scale after ministers scrapped checks designed to prevent abuse of postal votes.
With just 11 days to go, a Scotland on Sunday investigation has revealed concern at the highest level that key seats could be won by fraudulent postal votes, and that there are already widespread claims of vote-buying by corrupt party activists.
Despite an unprecedented 433,000 postal vote applications, our inquiry has established that:
• Computer checks on ballot signatures will be used in England, but not north of the Border;
• Date of birth checks on the same papers will happen south of the Border, but not in Scotland;
• The Electoral Reform Society in Scotland is "hugely concerned" about the scope for fraud;
• Allegations are circulating that votes are already being bought for as little as 20;
• Police have taken the unprecedented step of issuing every officer with a booklet on how to spot voting crimes.
The claims follow several scandals in England following the decision in 2003 to allow everyone to vote by post. In the 2004 local elections in Birmingham, party activists were accused of taking bundles of votes to ballot stations in black bags. A year later, allegations spread to the London borough of Tower Hamlets where nearly one in seven postal votes was estimated to be fraudulent.
The allegations centre on fraudsters stealing or buying other people's postal ballot papers and signing them themselves.
As a result of this obvious weakness in the system, England's council elections on May 3 will use for the first time equipment called postal vote identifiers which compare a voter's signature on the application form with the signature on the ballot. A further check on the date of birth will also be introduced south of the Border.
But the Scotland Office, which monitors the Holyrood elections, decided last November not to bring it in either measure because electronic counting of votes will also be used for the first time and it was feared so many innovations might overwhelm the system.
Billy Somerville, the president of the Scottish Assessors' Association - which administers the voting roll - admitted: "The reason it hasn't been built in is the complexity of the electronic counting for this year. Everyone wants to focus on that, without the added complication of comparing signatures."
Amy Rodger, director of the Electoral Reform Society in Scotland, last night warned: "We are hugely concerned about it and we do want to see these measures brought in. With the extension of postal voting we were always keen that additional measures to prevent fraud were brought in."
Scotland on Sunday has spoken to members of the Asian community in Glasgow who claim that fraud there is rife.
Muhammad Shoaib, who left the Labour party to become an independent candidate last year, claimed there was "a deliberate campaign" to abuse the postal vote system.
He said: "Party workers put pressure on people to sign up for a postal vote. They then have a list of addresses which they know are registered for postal votes. They know when the forms arrive and go back saying that 'we can assist you filling in the form'. There's a lot of pressure put on people; they effectively force people to fill in the form and to vote for them."
Another man, who asked to remain anonymous, claimed that in the last election he had been visited by three party activists. "One of them gave me a postal ballot paper and said 'just tick here'," he said.
The man said that the practice of literally buying votes was also on-going: "The cost would depend on how much the person knows how the system works. A recent immigrant from Poland might demand 20, an Indian or Pakistani 50, and a non-Asian who knows it's not allowed would ask for hundreds of pounds."
One independent candidate in Govan, Asif Nasir, claimed: "Party workers are taking advantage. There are big concerns in the Muslim community, many of whom have never voted in this [new] way."
Both Labour and the SNP insisted last night that there was no evidence of any fraud by any of their activists. Both the parties are following a new code of conduct, which now bars party activists from handling postal ballots.
Of claims that SNP activists were handling ballot papers, Peter Murrell, the chief executive of the SNP, said: "It is fanciful. I can't accept that it could happen. None of the parties have heard of anything wrong going on."
A spokesman for Labour said: "We have clear guidance sent to all candidates and agents and follow, to the letter, the guidance given by the electoral commission regarding handling posting votes. Any breaches would not be tolerated."
A spokesman for the Electoral Commission said: "What we have done is to issue police with guidance in order to aid their officers in identifying and tackling incidents of alleged malpractice. So far, we have not heard of any wrongdoing or attempted offences anywhere in Scotland."
Police officers have been issued with a "pocket book" so they can spot voting fraud. The guide includes specific references to "false application to vote by post or proxy".
Yesterday, a spokesman for the Electoral Commission said the guide books were intended to give "beat bobbies" assistance if and when they uncovered evidence of malpractice.