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Rumours of vote rigging and intimidation guarantee paper talk, says Mark Smulian ...
Rumours of vote rigging and intimidation guarantee paper talk, says Mark Smulian

Local election results on the nation's front pages are rare enough. For the mechanics of arriving at those results to make the front pages, or any pages for that matter, must be unprecedented.

The reason for national newspapers' flurry of interest in electoral administration was the postal voting pilots in the north-east, north-west, Yorkshire and the Humber and east Midlands.

For once, no one could complain that the media was in the grip of metropolitan bias - the London mayoral election scarcely had a look in as reporters headed northwards to seek out malpractice.

Universal postal voting has looked like a cock-up story waiting to happen, ever since the Electoral Commission recommended it for two regions and the government responded with a blithe, 'OK, we'll do four then'.

Whatever their politics, the newspapers could see rich possibilities for embarrassing errors at least, and for exposing organised fraud at most. The stories duly came in of ballot packs sent to wrong addresses, not sent out at all, or even sent to the wrong towns.

If some stories had a whiff of 'my friend's aunt's cousin met someone in the pub who said his mate's neighbour's niece didn't get a ballot paper', most were all too believable. The Times carried a cartoon of a canvasser asking a voter: 'Who do you think you have voted for in tomorrow's elections?', to illustrate a report which said: 'Britain's tradition of the secret ballot is under threat from fears of intimidation, vote-stealing and trickery in parts of the country experimenting with all-postal balloting.'

Reporters had learned, The Times said, of accusations of party supporters collecting blank ballot papers from households or examining voting slips to check how votes had been cast. This was backed up with quotes from anonymous voters in the Pennines and reports that a factory owner had threatened to sack staff who did not vote Labour - only recently, factory owners would no doubt have tried to sack staff for voting Labour.

In Bradford, The Times quoted by name voters who said canvassers had tried to persuade them to hand over their ballot papers.

If it went into more detail than its rivals, The Times also pushed the local government electoral process to an unaccustomed fore.

A Daily Telegraph reporter tested the system by having 36 ballot papers sent to one London address. He insisted he did not vote, but 'I would have been able to vote fraudulently 36 times'.

The Guardian made the only concerted effort to follow the turnout, with regular reports of the levels achieved in selected areas and a generally positive gloss on this aspect of the experiment, along with stories about errors and worse.

It also ran a line simply in favour of voting, in elections where apathy was prevalent, but endorsed Labour or

the Liberal Democrats according to the politics of

each area.

The Daily Telegraph departed from its normal Conservative allegiance to refuse to recommend any London mayoral candidates, on the grounds that Tory Steve Norris had an impossible conflict of interest with his chairmanship of London Underground contractor Jarvis.

The tabloids, with Euro 2004 on the horizon, were less interested, but all carried headlines creating an impression that the postal voting exercise was a shambles.

Once the results were in, the politics took over, with

last Saturday's newspapers leading on Labour's post-election plight.

Having built up the possibility of malpractice and disenfranchisement beforehand, the newspapers had

to find some to report, and it was not long coming. But this was almost wholly confined to examples in Hull

and Birmingham, and the latter had only conventional postal voting.

The Guardian found a new angle by reporting that thousands of votes had been ruled invalid in the London elections, because presiding officers had inadvertently ripped up the barcodes when detaching ballot papers

for voters.

Election administrators will be back in the spotlight when all-postal voting takes place in northern England this autumn for the regional assembly referendums. They had better get used to the glare.

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