Returning officers warned that public confidence in the voting system would slump after a judge found six Labour councillors in Birmingham guilty of an electoral fraud that “would disgrace a banana republic”.

On the eve of Tony Blair's expected announcement that May 5 will be the date of the general election, Richard Mawrey QC a High Court judge sitting as an election commissioner said election fraud would continue unabated because there were no systems in place to deal with postal vote rigging.

Malcom Dumper, of the Association of Electoral Administrators, said the judge's ruling would place postal voting under greater scrutiny. “Public confidence tends to decrease when this happens and that's a problem we are going to face at the general election,” he said.

The government tried to play down the dangers of election fraud, but Mr Mawrey, after quashing the election result, insisted ministers were in denial about the effectiveness of postal voting. “This system is wide open to fraud and any would-be political fraudster knows that it's wide open to fraud,” he said in his executive summary.

The increase in postal voting has given returning officers severe managerial problems. Although the system has long been available in the UK, voters were four years ago given the right to ask for a postal vote on demand as part of a wider government push to increase voter participation.

Postal voting has increased from 2.1 per cent in the 1997 general election to 3.9 per cent in 2001, the year the on-demand facility was introduced. Last year's local elections saw the proportion increase to 8.6 per cent and the government is predicting it will reach 15 per cent for the forthcoming election.

But Mr Mawrey, presiding at a rarely held election court, said the scheme was “hopelessly insecure”. There was no way to verify signatures and forms could be sent to addresses not on the electoral register, he said. There had been “massive, systematic and organised fraud” carried out by local party officials in two Birmingham wards in last year's local election campaign involving at least 1,500 fraudulent votes. The problem was that returning officers had no right to challenge the information contained on a postal application, a process which he warned would be resource-intensive.

Conservatives and Liberal Democrats are in favour of individual registration of voters to increase security and accuracy, and last year the government launched moves to get the register of electors online. But a committee of MPs warned last month that individual registration introduced in Northern Ireland had seen a fall in voting registration because of difficulties in tracingelectors.

The Department for Constitutional Affairs discounted the notion that electoral fraud was widespread, but said it would consider changing the system once the Electoral Commission had reported on the issue.

The commission said nothing could be done to instigate changes before the general election because they required legislation. In anticipation of yesterday's ruling, the commission last week issued a code of conduct for parties, candidates and canvassers on the handling of postal vote applications and postal ballot papers.

The commission said the Birmingham case raised serious issues and that it had made a number of recommendations that awaited legislation.

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