Local authorities in 10 areas have removed traditional polling stations altogether to pilot 100% postal voting in Thursday's local elections. A further four councils have introduced the system partially, sometimes alongside other new forms of voting such as e-mail, text messages and television ballots. Across the rest of the country anyone can now request a postal vote after a relaxation of the rules which allowed postal votes only to certain people such as members of the armed forces, those working away from home or the long-term sick.
Three people have been arrested by West Yorkshire Police investigating election fraud, and Angela Watkinson, Conservative MP for Upminster, is calling for an inquiry into the security of ballot papers.
The arrests were in Bradford where 39,000 postal votes have been issued - twice as many as in Birmingham which has double the electorate. However, an investigation into claims of threats and payments for ballot forms, springing from last year's general election and lasting several months, was dropped because officers were unable to find any significant evidence.
In Havering LBC - one of the authorities which opted for 100% postal voting - local MP Mrs Watkinson said a 'significant number' of people were refusing to vote because of anger at the way the pilot scheme is being run. Electors say their vote might not be secret because they have been told to post both ballot paper and declaration form carrying their name and address in the same envelope. This means polling staff opening them could see how they voted. It has also emerged that envelopes were coded by ward, making them potentially vulnerable to tampering.
A council spokeswoman said the traditional double-envelope system for postal votes had been considered confusing. She added: 'We have ensured that secrecy has been preserved at all times. When the postal ballots are returned, staff handling them are subject to the same requirements for secrecy as normal polling staff'.
The Electoral Commission promised an inquiry into all allegations of voting fraud. A spokeswoman said: 'We weren't aware of the arrests and it's in the hands of the police now. But they will be part of our election report to see why it happened and how it can be stopped in future'.