Electoral fraud special report: The huge efforts made in Peterborough to try and ensure a fair election amid widespread allegations
Forensic evidence, extensive CCTV and raids on properties – no, this is not CSI Miami but a taste of the extensive efforts made to deter electoral fraud in Peterborough.
The city was thrust into the national spotlight in June when a by-election was held following the recall of MP Fiona Onasanya for lying over speeding points – leading to a prison sentence and the end of her political career.
But while the close fought contest kept everyone gripped, the backlash following victory for Labour’s Lisa Forbes was severe, with widespread allegations of postal vote fraud thrown from the defeated parties.
Mike Greene, who came second for the Brexit Party by 683 votes, even went as far as to challenge the result in the High Court, although he has since backed down, with the businessman citing the upcoming General Election on December 12 and fears of heavy costs as the reasons for trying to halt his Election Petition.
Labour has consistently and robustly denied the allegations.
Even though police found five allegations of electoral fraud could not be stood up this has failed to quieten the cynics, not to mention the legions on social media who were adamant Mr Greene was unfairly defeated.
The harshest criticism was aimed at Peterborough City Council which runs elections in Peterborough, but ahead of polling day the authority is determined to prove that its processes are not just robust, but go far beyond what other authorities do.
“There were lots of myths and allegations about what does happen,” chief executive Gillian Beasley told the Peterborough Telegraph. “A huge amount of resource goes into this.
“We will investigate allegations within 10 minutes – that’s the degree of response we give.”
Allegations of electoral fraud in Peterborough have been persistent for years, but there have been no convictions for more than a decade.
Even council deputy leader Cllr Wayne Fitzgerald (Conservative) was moved after the by-election to say there had been postal vote “harvesting”.
“I asked him for evidence of that so we can investigate it,” stated Mrs Beasley. “If someone makes allegations of that offence we ask for evidence and would get a council and police team to look at it immediately. He did not produce any evidence.
“I can only act on statements of evidence. In previous year intelligence into harvesting of postal votes has been used to raid properties but nothing was found.”
Critics claimed that the 400 rejected postal votes at the by-election was a sign of attempts to fix the result, with votes rejected if the signatures and date of birth did not match what had been given when registering for a postal vote.
But elections manager Mark Emson said rejected postal votes are “a lot of the time human error” as people forget to sign them or instead put that day’s date rather than their own date of birth.
“But we go through all the rejections and check if there are any patterns,” he added.
December 12 will be the fifth time some in Peterborough would have voted this year, and although the council insists it is leading the way in the country with its efforts to combat electoral fraud, it has made a couple of tweaks this time around.
Mr Emson said: “We look at our procedures after every election.
“We’ve now changed the procedure at the count. We’re requesting all attendees show proof of ID, and rather than just issue wristbands we will be issuing lanyards as well.”
Mrs Beasley said: “We always record postal votes handed in at polling stations but we’re going the extra step by asking the individuals for their names and addresses.
“It’s voluntary and they can refuse, but we would be suspicious as to why they did not give their details.”
She added: “We have CCTV at polling stations and police officers at the at-risk stations. Impersonation is an offence and it’s something we are looking for.
“We have a meeting with the police once a week and review intelligence.”
The city council has a dedicated election fraud hotline on 01733 452277. And while no allegations have so far been made during the current campaign, Mrs Beasley called on anyone with even the slightest information to pick up the phone.
“If someone is under pressure (with postal votes) it’s unlikely they will give a statement to the police,” she said. “But if someone is subject to that let us know as we will take over.
“ We are experienced and supportive and will handle it with care and sensitivity and conscientiously.
“If they tell us something is happening we can act on that intelligence. It can be done anonymously through our hotline.”
How the council tries to stop electoral fraud
. If applications do not match information held by the Department for Work and Pensions, applicants are required to provide identifying information.
Details can also be checked on data held, including council tax records.
. Large scale or unusual registrations are monitored with any issues raised with the electoral fraud manager. Any suspicions are referred to the police and visits to properties may be carried out.
. Attempts to register twice or duplicate entries are investigated.
. All complaints of alleged fraudulent registrations are investigated.
. Anyone who delivers a bulk of applications has their information recorded.
. Appointed postal vote agents from political parties and accredited observers from the Electoral Commission can observe this process in full. All parties are invited to attend and can challenge the validity of each returned postal vote statement. If any are challenged, the information is passed onto police for investigation.
. Forensic gloves are used to open postal votes. Returns from high risk areas are scanned and monitored to identify unusual patterns. Evidence is logged and referred to police with statements.
Voting on polling day
. Police and CCTV are deployed.
. Polling station staff are trained and made aware of issues such as family voting and the use of cameras/phones in voting booths.
The election count:
. The venue has security personnel and police present to deter any disruption.
. Any votes which are spoilt or unclear are rejected and kept to one side. The candidates and their agents are able to scrutinise them during the provisional result.
. Vote bundles are closely guarded on the night.
. Extensive efforts are made to engage with communities and talk about measures to combat electoral fraud.
. All intelligence of fraud and illegal activity will be logged by the council and referred to the police for action.
. Messages on social media will run regularly.