Allegations of electoral fraud have been made about last week’s by-election in Peterborough with claims of postal vote rigging and intimidation - but the authorities insist there is no evidence of any wrongdoing.
Labour’s Lisa Forbes won the seat by 683 votes ahead of the Brexit Party’s Mike Greene, but a senior Conservative has alleged there was “harvesting” of postal votes, while the Tories have highlighted the involvement in the campaign of Labour activist Tariq Mahmood who was jailed in 2008 for postal vote interference.
Mr Mahmood was pictured with Ms Forbes and Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn during the campaign and was also present at the election count - just as he has been at previous elections.
However, Labour has categorically denied that Mr Mahmood had any involvement in the campaign.
Cambridgeshire police is currently investigating two allegations of electoral fraud, including one message shared on social media allegedly showing someone bragging that he and two others had ‘burned more than 1,000 votes for the Brexit Party’.
Mr Greene, responding to it on Twitter, wrote: “Just not funny... if even 1 persons vote was destroyed then our democracy is threatened. More than ever we need to #ChangePoliticsForGood
“(NAME DELETED) should be investigated - this kind of post just spreads hate.”
The second incident being investigated is a report of a “suspicious incident involving postal votes on Tuesday (June 4)”, a police spokesman said.
He added: “Peterborough City Council and Cambridgeshire Constabulary are working closely to reduce the risk of election fraud and ensure voters have confidence in the electoral system.”
Peterborough City Council, which ran the election, has been inundated with so many queries and complaints that it issued a lengthy statement on Monday evening to try and reassure people that there was no evidence to suggest wrongdoing.
In particular, it referenced the fact that the 69.6 per cent return of postal votes (9,898 in total, with 400 rejected) at this election was much lower than the 81 per cent at the 2017 General Election (11,930 in total).
But council deputy leader Cllr Wayne Fitzgerald is convinced that illegal activity took place. The Conservative cabinet member told the Peterborough Telegraph: “I have grave concerns over postal vote harvesting within certain sections of the community, particularly focused on the urban city wards of Park, Central, North and East.
“We know it goes on with reports of it happening in Asian communities with people coerced.
“My view is postal votes should be scrapped entirely unless you are physically impaired.”
Asked if he had raised this issue with the council’s elections team, Cllr Fitzgerald said: “I’m assured by the chief executive police do covert actions.
“I am making constant complaints to electoral services.”
Peterborough City Council last year signed up to take part in a pilot scheme to prevent voter fraud, with certain voters needing to show identification.
However, with three high-profile elections taking place in a five week period the council pulled out of the scheme for this year.
Despite this, the authority insisted that the date of birth and signature which are required on postal voting forms are cross-checked with the same information given when a postal vote application is submitted.
Moreover, a spokeswoman said the matching process takes place on a large TV screen at the Town Hall, with approved party agents able to watch and challenge any postal votes.
Nevertheless, Conservative city councillor Shazia Bashir, who was formerly a Labour supporter, alleged to the PT that a few years ago she had seen electoral fraud first-hand in Eastern European and Asian areas of the city and firmly believes it still happens now.
She also claimed voters are told to take photographs to prove who they voted for, even though polling stations display signs stating that photography is forbidden.
Election observation group Democracy Volunteers sent a team of activists to cover the by-election and “identified an emerging concern in the frequency in which individuals were observed to be photographing their completed ballot papers”.
However, when contacted by the PT, a spokesman for the group said: “Our observer team is not aware of any evidence of voter intimidation or postal vote fraud in this election at this time.”
Labour has also branded the allegations of electoral fraud as “false and baseless”.
On Mr Mahmood’s involvement, a Labour spokesperson said: “Peterborough council, who organise the count, always announce the results in a public area of the venue. There were hundreds of people there. The Labour Party had 19 official guests who were allowed in to the restricted areas. He was not one of them.
“Members of the public can of course support Labour, but this individual did not play any role in Labour’s campaign.”
Mr Mahmood was not the only person jailed previously due to vote rigging in Peterborough with six being sent to prison in 2008.
The electoral fraud took place in Central ward, and at last week’s by-election the highest number of postal votes (1,445) out of all wards were recorded in Central - around 180 more than second place.
But despite this both the council and police claim there is no current evidence to suggest there has been any wrongdoing this time around.
The council, which has its own electoral fraud hotline, said: “Prior to polling day, Peterborough City Council received one unconfirmed report regarding alleged bribery which was referred to the police and on which no further action will be taken.
“One other concern was received on polling day which was also referred to the police but could not be substantiated. No other complaints have been received by the council.”
The Electoral Commission said Peterborough “is an area that has had a higher number of allegations in the past than other parts of the country”.
Eight allegations were investigated by Cambridgeshire Constabulary in 2017, which included tampering with ballot papers, undue influence and multiple voting.
Seven allegations saw no further outcomes, while one for false statements to candidates was “resolved locally”.
Eight allegations were also made last year which led to a Green Party candidate being convicted for forging signatures on a form to stand in the local elections.
An Electoral Commission spokesman said: “We know that there have been some allegations concerning postal votes at the by-election. It’s important to stress that the Electoral Administration Act 2006 introduced new measures to improve the security of postal and proxy votes.
“From January 1, 2007 all postal and proxy voters in England and Wales have been required to give their signature and date of birth when applying for a postal or proxy vote. A signature and date of birth are also required on the postal vote statement sent with the ballot papers,
“One hundred per cent of these must be checked against the original personal identifiers. Peterborough have confirmed that 100 per cent of postal votes were checked.”
Meanwhile, articles published online have alleged eye-witness accounts of coercion and bribery taking place at the by-election - albeit without any visual proof to substantiate the claims.
But such is the belief among many individuals that there has been foul play, that one online petition calling for an investigation has so far received more than 24,000 signatures, while a crowdfunding appeal to raise £30,000 to fund a legal challenge has also raised nearly £1,000.