New revelations appear to confirm that councils may be ignoring systematic breaches of guidelines on postal votes by local Conservative parties across the east.
EAB revealed on Monday (20 March) that, in encouraging registration for postal voting for the forthcoming local elections, many local Tory parties appeared to have doctored the form to ask about support for the Tory party, and also include a pre-addressed envelope for delivery to the party, rather than the Electoral Registration Officer (ERO).
So these applications will first pass through the hands of the Tories before being passed on to the ERO of the council. This seems contrary to the guidelines, which are concerned with possible malpractice, though there is no evidence that this has happened.
“Phishing expedition”? Council declines to investigate
The local Tory parties in our region identified in the first story are West Suffolk, Norwich, and Hitchin and Harpenden. Since then, there have been claims that the practice is also being used in Broadland and North Norfolk.
When the same practice was carried out in Scotland in 2020, it is claimed the Electoral Commission called it a “phishing expedition”. Phishing is defined as: “the fraudulent practice of sending emails or other messages purporting to be from reputable companies in order to induce individuals to reveal personal information.”
But in spite of evidence that the guidelines may be ignored, one council at the heart of the row declines to act. EAB approached the ERO at North Hertfordshire Council with a series of questions about the campaigning of Hitchin and Harpenden Conservatives, who are within their district.
Complacent response: please contact the Tories
Their attention was drawn to what appeared to be potential breaches in the code of behaviour, in particular in appearing to doctor the postal vote application form and the inclusion of the pre-addressed envelope. But the council would make no judgement, and only advised: “Please contact the Conservative Party for comment”.
On the question of whether voters can be assured that all applications through the Tory party are passed on, the ERO went on: “The application forms are forwarded on to the electoral registration officer for processing”, though it is not clear how that can be known, since there is no means of ensuring compliance other than that “the returning officer has contacted the Conservative agent to remind them to pass on any postal vote applications to ensure are processed in a timely manner”.
Guide for campaigners seems to show Tories in breach
However, the council draws attention to the Electoral Commission’s own guide for campaigners, issued in January this year. It states:
“Campaigners should ensure that the local Electoral Registration Officer’s address is clearly provided as the preferred address (EAB’s italics) for the return of registration and absent vote application forms.
“To ensure voters can make their own choice about how to return registration or absent vote application forms, you should always clearly provide the relevant Electoral Registration Officer’s address as the preferred return address, even if an alternative address is also given.
“This will also minimise the risk of suspicion that completed applications could be altered or inadvertently lost or destroyed.”
Yet the applications gathered by the Tories include a pre-addressed envelope to their own office.
Passing the buck
The Electoral Commission says that in the event of a breach of the guidelines, the ERO should approach the party involved. If not satisfied, it should be referred to the Electoral Commission itself. But the North Herts ERO appears to decline a request even to investigate possible breaches.
In suggesting EAB should take it up with Hitchin and Harpenden Conservatives, the buck appears to have been passed to EAB or to the voters. EAB hasattempted to take it up with two local Tory parties who both also use pre-addressed envelopes to themselves, but nobody was available. Several voters have reported to EAB that they have also attempted to talk to their local Tory parties but with a similar lack of success. EAB approached both Norwich and Hitchin and Harpenden Conservative parties for comment, but nobody was available.
But checking that elections are run fairly and according to the rules is the responsibility of the electoral registration officer, not the press or the public.
Enquiries have so far shown that no other party is believed to have used the tactic of providing pre-addressed envelopes in this way.
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