by RAY FLEMING
LONG-established Western democracies have always been quick to criticise electoral procedures in other countries where poll-rigging is assumed to be a way of life. Of late, however, there have been sugestions that the critics might usefully examine their own voting arrangements and this revolutionary idea was given encouragement by the odd happenings at polling stations in Florida during America's 2000 Presidential election. Now consider this statement about a recent election: “Although the election process and procedures overall enjoy a high degree of trust, the introduction of postal voting on demand without the need to present a reason for the application, has demonstrated the vulnerability of any trust–based electoral process.” And this: “Sensitive election materials have been processed by individuals, other than election officials, some of whom may have been party representatives or supporters.” And this: “Postal voting presents challenges with regard to the secrecy of the vote, and the possibility of undue pressure on voters at the time of marking the ballot.” These quotations come from a report by the Organisation for Security and Co-operation in Europe (OSCE), a body which specialises in observing and validating the legitimacy of elections. Its report was on the general election in Britain in May of this year and, in particular, on the large-scale extension of postal voting. Its conclusion was that the government had placed more emphasis on improving turnout than maintaining the reliability of the results. It reminded the government of its obligations under international covenants to provide everyone with a secret ballot and warned that women and Muslim communities may be especially vulnerable to the operations of vote-riggers. Postal voting almost certainly did increase turnout at the May general election but there is doubt about how many of the additional votes were legitimate. Ministers, notably John Prescott, pooh-poohed the worries expressed by a number of organisations and individuals but in the face of the evidence they agreed that there should be an urgent review; however, the promise of a Bill in the Queen's Speech was not kept. The government should take seriously the criticisms in the OSCE report and put its own house in order before criticising others.

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