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The Mother-in-Law of Parliaments?

By CNN's European Political Editor Robin Oakley
Fewer people will visit polling stations as postal voting takes off -- but at what cost to democracy?
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Robin Oakley
UK election

LONDON, England (CNN) -- After the 2000 U.S. elections there was much sniggering in Britain about vote challenges, hanging chads as the U.S. political system initially failed to throw up a clear winner. British parliamentarians laughed at the cartoon of two Martians alighting from a spaceship in New York and asking a traffic cop "Well, when can you take me to your leader?"

So quaint, those Americans, British lawmakers joked, contenting themselves that such a shambles could never happen here.

Now they can no longer be quite so certain of a smooth and conclusive outcome to the UK elections. Those who reckon they will have had quite enough of the election by May 5 now have to face the fear that it will not be all over on the night.

The problem lies in the vast increase in postal voting and the desperation of the UK political parties, in the most hotly contested election since 1992, to ensure they do not miss a single vote that could be theirs.

Anybody in Britain can apply for a postal vote and the political parties, worried that the 59 per cent turnout in 2001, the lowest since 1918, could dip even further, have been encouraging more electors to take the option of applying for a postal vote. In experiments, the government introduced postal balloting only in some electoral contests last year.

Applications for postal votes in the general election, with some days to go before the deadline, have already tripled since 2001, with over 6 million people expected to take the option.

In some marginal seats applications are five times as many as they were at the last election. In Birmingham, for example, postal vote applications are up from 16,000 to 53,000. In Blackburn, in northwest England, they have risen from 7.603 to 20,351.

The parties, especially the well-funded Labour and Conservatives, have geared up their political machines and are vigorously, though legally, interfering in the postal votes procedure.

Mass mailing letters from Prime Minister Tony Blair and from Conservative leader Michael Howard to electors enclose postal ballot forms which recipients are asked to send to freepost addresses, which are manned by party campaigners, rather than directly to the "returning officers" who oversee elections in each constituency.

But the postal voting procedure is one increasingly open to question as a result of a series of court cases involving vote-rigging offences. The Electoral Reform Society says that while it approves of postal voting the system as it stands is a "cheat's charter."

In Blackburn a Labour activist was last week sentenced to three years in prison for electoral fraud involving postal votes and in Birmingham six Labour councilors were found guilty of fraud by an election commissioner who demanded new elections in two wards.

The Commissioner, Richard Mawrey QC found evidence of "massive, systematic and organized fraud" on a scale, he said, that would "disgrace a banana republic." He declared the postal ballot system as "wide open to fraud."

So what happens now if the election in the end becomes a close one determined by the outcome in say, 20 or 30 marginal seats where there has been particularly heavy postal voting? Will it really be a certain outcome if the results in those seats are then challenged by defeated candidates alleging fraud?

Westminster, proud of its ancient democratic traditions, likes to look upon itself as the Mother of Parliaments, entirely foreign to the Stalinist concept of "It's not who votes that matters, it's who counts the votes."

But it is at least conceivable in such a circumstance that Britain too would be going down the Ukrainian route, with the legitimacy of the elected government being challenged and demands for a number of re-runs in disputed constituencies. What would that make us-the Mother-In-Law of Parliaments?

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