All voters should be required to show proof of identity when they turn up at a polling station before they can cast their vote, the official UK elections watchdog has said. The Electoral Commission has called for a further tightening of the rules in an attempt to stamp out ballot-rigging and restore trust in the electoral system.
At the same time, the commission has launched a study into concerns that some South Asian communities - notably those with roots in parts of Pakistan and Bangladesh - were particularly susceptible to electoral fraud. Sixteen local authority areas - all of them in England - have been identified as being at greater risk of complaints of alleged vote-rigging being reported.
The commission said it was essential that electoral registration officers, returning officers and police forces in those areas put in place measures to protect the integrity of the vote before the next set of local and European elections in May. The at-risk areas include Birmingham, the scene of a notorious ballot-rigging case in 2004 which the presiding judge said would "disgrace a banana republic".
Others on the list are Blackburn with Darwen, Bradford, Burnley, Calderdale, Coventry, Derby, Hyndburn, Kirklees, Oldham, Pendle, Peterborough, Slough, Tower Hamlets, Walsall, and Woking. In its final report of electoral fraud in the UK, the commission rejected calls to restrict access to postal voting - which has been at the centre of many of the allegations - saying it would prevent many innocent people from casting their vote.
However it said the existing code of conduct needed to be strengthened to ensure campaigners do not handle postal votes or voting application forms. It warned that it would seek legislation if the problem was not resolved voluntarily. It also called for legislation to be in place by 2019 at the latest requiring voters in England, Scotland and Wales to produce proof of identity before they are issued with a ballot paper at a polling station, bringing them in line with Northern Ireland.
Overall, the commission found that electoral fraud was not widespread and was unlikely to have been attempted in no more than a "handful" of wards in any particular local authority area. It also said that would be a "mistake" to suggest that it was confined to certain South Asian communities - with people from white British and other European backgrounds also involved.
Nevertheless the commission said that it was concerned about the extent to which ballot-rigging "affects or originates from within specific communities. The evidence and views we have heard raise significant questions about whether individuals within these communities are able effectively to exercise their right to vote, and whether they are able to participate in elections on the same basis as other electors across the UK," it said.
"All electors should be free to cast their votes in the way they wish. It is not acceptable to explain or excuse electoral fraud on the basis of actual or perceived differences in cultural approaches to democratic participation." It went on: "We have begun further work to identify relevant evidence in order to help address concerns about the vulnerability of some South Asian communities, specifically those with roots in parts of Pakistan or Bangladesh, to electoral fraud."
The commission said it would be working with academic experts to try to identify common factors in areas where fraud as been attempted and to devise improved strategies to prevent it occurring at future elections. It is expected to report towards the end of 2014. In the meantime, the commission said that it would continue to monitor closely the situation in the higher-risk areas.
It urged electoral registration officers and returning officers to analyse their area's previous history of ballot-rigging to draw up preventative measures for future elections. It said that police forces also needed to have plans in place for policing elections - such as identifying particular polling stations where a strengthened police presence may be required.
Electoral Commission chair Jenny Watson said: "Proven cases of electoral fraud are rare and when it is committed, the perpetrators tend to be candidates or their supporters. Voters are the victims and sustained action is needed now to prevent fraud from taking place. Although the introduction of individual electoral registration this year will tighten up the registration system more can and should be done."
A Cabinet Office spokesman said: "The Government takes the issue of electoral fraud very seriously and we thank the Electoral Commission for their work on this issue. We will consider the recommendations in this report carefully and respond in due course. We welcome the Electoral Commission's finding that there is no widespread electoral fraud, but there is no room for complacency. That's why we are ending the outdated system of household registration and introducing individual electoral registration.
"By requiring identification information such as date of birth and National Insurance number, we can verify that everyone on the register is who they say they are. This is vital as we create a register in which everyone can be fully confident and which reduces the risk of fraud and duplication.
"We are also legislating to require 100% of postal vote identifiers to be checked in UK polls, rather than a minimum of 20%, and to enable police community support officers to enter polling stations and count venues, which will further safeguard against electoral fraud.''