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MISLAID DUDLEY POSTAL BALLOTS COULD HAVE AFFECTED ELECTION OUTCOME

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A mislaid package of postal ballot papers meant hundreds of Dudley voters may have been denied the chance to cast t...
A mislaid package of postal ballot papers meant hundreds of Dudley voters may have been denied the chance to cast their lot in a knife-edge poll, a judge was told today.

Battle lines have now been drawn over the 1 May poll for the Belle Vale Ward of Dudley MBC in which Jill Nicholls was declared the victor, winning just 40 more votes than Martin Knight.

Mr Knight has now presented a court 'election petition', claiming the poll result was invalid and a new election must now be held.

Mr Justice McCombe, sitting at London's High Court, today opened the way for a full trial of disputed facts surrounding the election before a specially appointed election commissioner.

The case will be the first to analyse new postal voting rules and will be anxiously watched by all the political parties.

Gavin Millar, for Mr Knight, told the judge it was accepted by all sides that there had been 'a problem with the Royal Mail delivery of a batch of ballot papers' before the poll.

597 postal ballot papers had been sent out in two batches on 23 April and 25 April.

And the QC said Mr Knight's challenge was based on complaints from voters about late delivery and the 'disproportionate number' of ballot papers that were not returned before the election compared with neighbouring wards.

Mr Knight says the delivery problem may well have affected the election result and now wants a fresh poll.

His solicitors have put out questionnaires to all those who received postal ballot papers which they say support their claim that, in many cases, they did not land on door mats until the very day of the poll, or even the day after.

In his sworn statement to the court, Mr Knight says telephone canvassing and doorstep contact with voters before the election had made him confident of success and he was 'surprised' not to win the seat.

Mr Millar told the judge a trial was needed before an election commissioner so that Royal Mail personnel and others could give sworn evidence and to clear up factual issues which remained 'a bit murky and unresolved'.

James Price, representing Jill Nicholls, said the dispute was really between Mr Knight and the returning officer but agreed that a hearing before a commissioner was necessary.

Mr Philip Kolvin, for returning officer Andrew Sparke, said the case involved a 'numbers game' which had to be resolved. Mr Sparke was concerned as anyone to ensure that the election had been fully fair.

He said there might be a legal issue over whether delivery 'in time' simply meant 'before the date of the election' or early enough to give voters time to mail back completed ballot papers before the poll.

He added the broadening of postal voting was a relatively recent phenomenon and the case raised issues never before considered by a court.

Quizzed by Mr Justice McCombe, the barrister quipped: 'Who knows, we may even find a hanging chad or two.'

As well as directing a full hearing of the factual issues before a commissioner, the judge granted permission for sealed packages containing all the ballots cast, postal ballot counterfoils and a list of those who complained about late delivery to be opened.

That will take place in conditions of strict security before a senior High Court official.

No date was set for the trial before the commissioner which is expected to take place locally.

STRAND NEWS SERVICE

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