Wednesday, 31 December 2008

'Skulduggery' allegation after voters fail to turn out for by-election

A FORMER Minehead town councillor who unsuccessfully tried to reclaim his seat in a by-election which attracted possibly the country’s lowest-ever turnout, is calling on the Electoral Commission to lobby for a change in the law.
Tony Berry is a past-chairman of Minehead Conservative Association and also formerly the finance chairman of Minehead Town Council.
His defeat in a town council by-election in October has exposed a loophole in English electoral law which he claimed allowed for the result of a local election to be manipulated to the disadvantage of candidates who were not rich.
Mr Berry stood as an Independent candidate in the by-election, which was won by a 19-vote majority by a Conservative candidate in a poll which attracted just 233 votes out of 3,165 eligible voters - a meagre turnout of only seven per cent.
He blamed town council ‘skulduggery’ for the poor voter turnout, as the council failed to issue polling notices, failed to publish notices of election in the ward, failed to advertise the election in local newspapers, and failed to use its website to advertise the by-election.
Mr Berry said the decision not to issue polling cards was taken by the town council clerk - whose husband was agent for the Conservative candidate - and who failed even to notify him of the decision.
The result was that many voters either did not know the by-election was taking place, or thought they could not vote without a polling card and stayed at home.
Now, Mr Berry has been horrified to discover that there is no statutory public organisation which can investigate and ensure local elections are run fairly.
Local electoral procedures can only be challenged by those rich enough to be able to go to court and use the judicial processes.
Mr Berry has raised his concerns about the conduct of the by-election with both the Electoral Commission and the Audit Commission, and he has received confirmation that the town council breached Electoral Commission guidance in several respects in its conduct of the October by-election.
He is now calling on the Electoral Commission to lobby for it to be given statutory powers to investigate electoral skulduggery and to be able to re-run elections where wrongdoing is proven.
Mr Berry said: “I am not casting any aspersions on the successful candidate in this by-election, but I have no doubt the result would have been greatly different had more people come out to vote.
“I only found out by accident two days before the by-election that polling cards had not been sent out, despite it being normal practice to do so, which did not leave me much time to get around 3,000 people to tell them they could still vote and where to vote.
“I do not want the by-election re-run. What has happened is history now. But I do want to see fairness in local elections and it should not matter whether you are rich or poor, if something underhand goes on then there should be an authority which can put matters right.
“I think most people would have believed, like me, that the Electoral Commission was created to ensure that all elections are carried out fairly, so I was extremely surprised to find it is a watchdog without any teeth at all and they can only offer ‘advice and guidance’ on local elections.”
Mr Berry has also written to Minehead’s mayor, Councillor Simon Stokes, asking him as a matter of urgency to ensure the council adopts a formal set of procedures for running elections to include all the guidance points issued by the Electoral Commission.
  • Our photograph shows Tony Berry studying some of the correspondence from the Electoral Commission. Photo submitted.

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