Postal votes lost in election mistake

MORE than 300 postal votes cast in the May elections were lost before they were even opened - and only discovered three months later.The shambles was revealed in a confidential report by chief executive and returning officer James Hehir, sent to a select circle of borough councillors and officers.

MORE than 300 postal votes cast in the May elections were lost before they were even opened - and only discovered three months later.

The shambles was revealed in a confidential report by chief executive and returning officer James Hehir, sent to a select circle of borough councillors and officers.

The Evening Star can now reveal that the report, dated July 29, explains how a box of 333 unopened postal votes was found months later in a Civic Centre office.

This box contained 6.9 per cent of all postal votes cast.

The incident comes at a time when the Labour government is pushing for increased postal voting in the attempt to increase electoral turnout.

Ipswich Conservatives are now calling for a members committee to look into how the votes were mislaid.

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Jeffrey Stansfield, Chairman of Ipswich Conservatives Association, said: "A cross-party panel of elected members should have a post-mortem into this incident.

"I am not looking for a witch hunt, I just want to make sure that in the future this sort of thing does not happen again."

Mr Hehir, writing in his report, explained how the box was discovered.

He wrote: "At approximately 3.30pm on the afternoon of Monday 28 July 2003, i.e. approximately three months after the election, a box of unopened postal votes was discovered in the Waste Management section of the council.

"The oversight was caused by a box of postal votes becoming mixed up with the returns from a Public Survey Questionnaire, both of which had been brought to the council by Royal Mail and were delivered in the same style of plastic crates.

"The questionnaire was not urgent and consequently the box of postal votes lay undiscovered until today. The postal votes are not date stamped but as the questionnaires were issued on the 16 April 2003 and the fact that there were 333 would suggest very strongly that they were received before the deadline for postal vote acceptance."

The box was opened at an exclusive meeting of Mr Hehir, the deputy returning officer Brenda Welham-Clarke and the leaders of the political parties.

Council leader Peter Gardiner, deputy leader David Ellesmere, Conservative group leader Stephen Barker and Liberal Democrat group leader Inga Lockington were all present.

Only the result of one ward - Sprites - could have been affected by the discovery, as in this ward Labour candidate John Le Grys won by a majority of only seven votes.

But a count revealed that the mislaid postal votes would only have increased the Labour majority to 16.

Speaking to the Star, Mr Hehir said: "It is a totally human error which we take full responsibility for.

"In the future any box delivered during the time that the postal votes can be sent in will be checked in the first instance by the election team.

"We are also looking into changing the colour of the postal votes so they are striking different.

"And we will not have another survey running alongside postal voting."

But there will be no investigating members committee.

He said: "I have already reported to the leaders of all political parties – there cannot be a fuller members committee than that. But I will be reporting to the cross-party election panel."

Mrs Lockington, Lib Dem group leader, said: "It was a shock to all of us. It is a lesson to all of us that the system is not safe.

"For any postal voting system in the future, there will have to be a far better security system."

But the borough council leader, Peter Gardiner, denied that this was anything but an unfortunate one-off incident.

He said: "It was a real fluke. We are absolutely not going to discontinue postal voting. The government wants to encourage postal voting and we are going to go that way.

"I don't think the incident was significant. If it was significant, it would have changed the outcome in various wards."

He added: "There was nothing to be gained by going to the public. There was no need. It was an unfortunate incident, but it had no bearing on the actual result."

May Majority Postal Votes in the Box

Alexandra 158 6

Bixley 386 25

Bridge 120 54

Castle Hill 762 21

Gainsborough 258 22

Gipping 188 15

Holywells 453 13

Priory Heath 63 14

Rushmere 242 25

Sprites 7 20

St Johns 94 10

St Margarets 132 35

Stoke Park 88 24

Westgate 101 16

Whitehouse 120 17

Whitton 99 16

Total 3771 333

Number of Sprites votes in the box – the only ward for which the votes were opened.

Labour 11

Conservative 2

Liberal Democrat 5

Spoilt 2

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