Postal voting is far more popular in the region than in the rest of the country, and ‘experts’ fear voting in the North could be left open to greater risk of fraud as a result.
Figures released by parliament reveal that the top eight constituencies in the UK for using the system are all in the North. But fears have been raised that postal voting systems are more susceptible to rigging.
Richard Mawrey QC, who tries cases of electoral fraud, has criticised the ‘on demand’ postal voting system and has called for it to be scrapped.
“Postal voting on demand, however many safeguards you build into it, is wide open to fraud,” Mr Mawrey – a deputy high court judge and election commissioner – said last week.
“It’s open to fraud on a scale that will make election rigging a possibility and indeed in some areas a probability.”
He added that postal voting can be easily manipulated and people can be forced into voting for a particular candidate.
Four North constituencies – Houghton and Sunderland South, Washington and Sunderland West , Newcastle and Sunderland Central have more than half of their voters taking part by post, the highest numbers in the country.
Four others – South Shields, Newcastle central, Blyth Valley and Jarrow – are also in the top ten nationally for postal voting.
And across the region 17 other constituencies, from Stockton to Tynemouth, have at least a quarter of voters choosing to vote by post. The average uptake of postal votes across the UK was just 18.8% of voters, up from 15% in 2005.
Dr Alistair Clark is a senior politics lecturer at Newcastle University, specialising in electoral integrity. He believes that the postal voting system in the UK has fundamental problems.
“There are difficulties with the system, particularly since the extension of it to being on demand,” he said. “The main difficulty relates to the security of the ballot – we have no idea who is actually completing the ballot papers – anyone could be filling them out.
“Although signatures have to be provided and matched up, signatures can change over time, and this creates a whole level of additional difficulties for election officials.”
A postal voting-only system was trialled by many North constituencies in the early 2000s, which is the likely reason why the proportion of take up in the region is so high.
But Ronnie Campbell, MP for Blyth Valley – where 46% of ballots were posted – believes there are also other factors.
“We have a very ageing population but we also have a lot of younger people,” he said.
“The older people might not want to leave their homes to vote while the younger people might be away working outside of the North East.”
He doesn’t believe there is too much cause for concern, saying: “I think postal voting is handy and it does work.
“It’s got to be well marshalled though because we’ve seen it fiddled in other parts of the country in the past.
“There is a security risk and we have to be vigilant about it.”
Sharon Hodgson, MP for Washington and Sunderland West – where 50.8% were posted – is also in favour of postal voting.
“While we should always look at how we can increase security, the experience in Sunderland and across the country is that postal voting allows and encourages more people to use their vote at local and national elections, which is good for democracy,” she said.
“Of course, any abuses of the system should always be investigated, and perpetrators prosecuted, but there’s no reason whatsoever to throw the baby out with the bath water.”
Since 2001, anyone on the electoral roll has been able to apply for a postal ballot.
The Electoral Commission said it would not be “proportionate” to end postal voting altogether, and the government has no plans to abolish the current system, saying it had made it easier for many people to vote.
However, from June this year, anyone who wants a postal vote will have to apply individually and prove their identity, as the government is introducing individual electoral registration which ministers say will help stamp out some abuses.
Source – Newcastle Evening Chronicle, 23 March 2014