Postal voting needs to change, Peterborough City Council tells Government

The Government has been lobbied to change postal voting by the chief executive of Peterborough City Council.

Saturday, 7th December 2019, 5:00 am

Gillian Beasley said she had spoken to ministers about altering the current arrangement which allows anyone to register for a postal vote.

Peterborough has been dogged for years by allegations of postal vote fraud, and Mrs Beasley admitted that despite stringent checks which go beyond what councils are required to do, it is impossible to monitor what happens behind closed doors.

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Postal votes being counted at the Town Hall

At last year’s local elections the council ran a pilot for postal and proxy voting which included officers hand delivering postal voting packs and completing face-to-face surveys with postal voters to stress the importance of completing the vote themselves.

A second round of face-to-face surveys was then completed after the postal vote returns to check residents put an ‘X’ in the box themselves.

Mrs Beasley, who is the returning officer for elections in Peterborough, said the scheme cannot by law be used in parliamentary elections, but added: “If I was allowed to do it I would. I told the Electoral Commission we would like to do it at a General Election. I’ve also been to see Chloe Smith when she was in the Government.

“The problem is all those votes go out in the community and we can’t legislate for what happens behind closed doors.”

Elections manager Mark Emson suggested limiting postal voting to people who are unable to attend a polling station.

He said: “The Cabinet Office was keen for us to run a pilot of our choosing in Peterborough. In urban areas we hand-delivered postal votes to get the message across that it’s your vote and yours alone.

“We followed that up when the postal votes were returned to the Town Hall by visiting a selection of those properties and asked if they could confirm they completed it themselves with no undue influence.

“The pilot was a huge success and we had feedback from communities that it gave them more confidence in the system.

“I spoke in the House of Lords a month ago on this issue to try and make it less open to unscrupulous people in the area. We’ve spoken to the Government as well.

“Once it goes through the door, we can’t police it. There’s nothing we can do to make sure it’s handled by the person it’s allocated for.”

The postal voting process in Peterborough

With the General Election being held in winter (Peterborough’s polling stations will have access to grit) a high number of postal votes can be expected.

In the Peterborough constituency around 14,000 postal votes were sent out, slightly more than the number to the electorate in North West Cambridgeshire.

And to open up the process to scrutiny, the Peterborough Telegraph was invited to the Town Hall on Tuesday to see how the system is run.

In one of the side rooms a team of postal vote handlers using forensic gloves were opening the returns and, under supervision, separating the votes and the forms.

The forms with the voter’s date of birth and signature on were then scanned by a machine which showed if they matched the date of birth and signature given in the original application.

The comparison is shown on a big screen and the parties’ election agents, who are allowed to be present, can challenge it should they wish.

If the forms do not match, they will be provisionally rejected before senior electoral staff at the council make a final call on whether to approve or reject the vote later in the day.

During the PT’s visit several votes were provisionally rejected, with examples including one person who had used their first initial on one signature but on another had written out their first name in full, so the signatures did not match.

Elections manager Mark Emson said rejected postal votes would be inspected in case there were “patterns in handwriting”.

Signatures which are “drastically different” will be sent to the police for investigation.

Accepted votes are sealed until polling day when they are counted with those cast at stations.