Local Conservative parties across the Eastern region are accused of serious breaches of official guidelines by intercepting postal vote applications.
Concern over dodgy tactics
Voters across social media are alarmed at what they claim to be deliberately misleading and possibly improper tactics leading up to the local elections in May. They include officially condemned ways of collecting postal votes, publishing party leaflets in the colours of their opponents, omitting their own party name, and other misleading behaviour.
Most concerning is their management of postal votes. It is quite normal for parties to encourage their supporters to register for postal votes, especially now that voters are required to produce recognised ID documents to vote at a polling station. And all parties do this. But the proper procedure is for the applications to be sent direct to the returning officer of the local council, not to a political party.
Application forms doctored: responses harvested in “phishing expedition”
In the lead-up to local elections this year, some local Conservative parties have invited voters to apply for postal votes, and included a ‘convenient’ prepaid return envelope addressed to the party itself. The party claims that the form will then be passed on to the electoral registration officer, but there is no process for monitoring this, no evidence they are all being passed on, and no obvious reason why the forms should be diverted to the party’s own offices.
The application form itself has also been doctored. It invites applicants to tick a box declaring: “We would like to keep in touch with you about our work locally and campaigning activities”.
So, when the application is returned to the party, they can distinguish votes likely to be cast for them, from those for their opponents.
This procedure of ‘harvesting’ applications is against Electoral Commission guidelines, and they strongly advise against it, but it is not illegal.The fear is clearly that an unscrupulous party may simply destroy all those applications which may be likely to be votes for opponents.
Beyond the possibility of ‘losing’ inconvenient votes, there is the matter of access to personal data. When the same practice was carried out in Scotland in 2020, the Electoral Commission called it a “phishing expedition”.
Is this a plot from Tory ‘black ops’?
Across the east, EAB knows of this practice being used by Conservatives in West Suffolk, Hitchin and Harpenden, and Norwich. Beyond this region, it is known to be used in Sleaford in Lincolnshire, Gedling in Nottinghamshire, and the Weald of Kent. So, the likelihood is that it is being employed throughout the country, or at least in selected seats.
This, and the sophistication of the literature, suggests that it is a national tactic, rather than being a series of local initiatives. One source has suggested the tactic may be from a ‘black ops’ department in No.10.
It is claimed by Andrew Rosindell, the MP for Romford, that “all parties do this”, though this is the first time any such attempt has come to light. Not all Mr Rosindell’s local councillors support the practice, either. Havering Conservative group leader, Councillor Steven Kelly, who is also chairman of the Hornchurch and Upminster Conservatives, criticised the MP, saying, “We say send it back to the ERO not us. I don’t think that’s the right thing to do.”
EAB has asked local returning officers in the region for their comments, and we await their responses.
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