Shock Pendle election claim: High voter turnout and postal ballot returns ‘appear wrong and an aberration’, council is told

The number of people who voted in a Pendle Council ward and the amount of postal ballots allegedly returned from there on polling day in the May election appears ‘wrong and an aberration’, it has been claimed.
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Questions about Bradley ward were raised at Pendle Council’s recent annual meeting. Councillors debated voter turnout levels across different wards in Pendle and if changes are needed in order to encourage more people to vote.

Suggestions included offering council tax rebates or holding a public holiday to encourage more people to get out and visit polling stations. Councillors also debated using photo ID cards in elections.

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Bradley ward saw a voter turnout of 52.7% from its electorate of 6,284 voters on May 5, Pendle Council figures show. The result was a Conservative gain for Coun Mohammad Kaleem, who was elected with 1,694 votes compared with Labour candidate Mohammad Sakib, who received 1,597 votes.

Pendle Lib Dem Coun David Whipp questioned the levels of voter turnout and postal votes on May 5 at the recent annual council meeting.

He said: “We saw a 52% turnout in Bradley ward. That was quite extraordinary. There were hundreds of postal votes on polling day – 427 postal votes were handed-in on polling day. Wow. There’s something wrong when hundreds of votes are supposedly posted on the day.

Turnout in other wards was 27, 29 or 30%. This is just extraordinary. It’s an aberration with a huge number of postal voters. It begs the question about what is going on? I would be tempted to ask for a report on postal voting in Pendle.”

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The comments about Bradley ward were listened to by councillors from all political parties and council officers, including those involved with local election arrangements.

The Local Democracy Reporting Service contacted Pendle Council to see if it wished to comment further. A spokesperson said the council was aware of the comments raised.

The comments on Bradley came as another Lib Dem, Coun Tom Whipp, asked all political parties to support a motion calling for change in local and national elections.

His motion said turnout in some Pendle wards was ‘dismal’ and many seats were won by candidates who gained less than 50% of the vote. He also asked Pendle Council to write to the Westminster government and MP Andrew Stephenson, raising concerns about ‘voter apathy and disenfranchisement’ with politics, and its effect on local and national democracy.

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Coun Tom Whipp said: “It’s astonishing that councillors can say we represent people, when only 26% of voters have come out and only half of that number supported you.

“We need to think about measures to increase voter turnout. For example, maybe there should be a national holiday on polling day or a small council tax rebate for households who have voted?

“We also need to end the first-past-the-post election system and hold a public referendum about a new system. The government should support the Make Votes Matter campaign and look at successes in Wales, Scotland and Northern Ireland.”

Proportional representation is used as an element in some elections held in those nations.

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He then argued: “The first-past-the-post system here allows councillors to be elected with less than 50% of the vote cast. That happened in wards here. The Westminster government says first-past-the-post produces strong governments. It does not. The government has a 70-seat majority but not that level of support in the country.”

The debate then moved on to voter security and engagement and what could be done to improve both in the future.

Lib Dem Coun David Whipp claimed that moves in England towards a wider requirement for voter ID cards would hinder voter engagement.

He claimed: “Voter suppression is a tactic we have seen in the US with Donald Trump. It looks like the Conservative government here is taking that approach by enacting legislation which would make it harder to vote with the use of voter ID cards. It is a spurious argument. Making it harder to vote devalues democracy.”

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However Conservative Coun Martyn Stone, one of the Pendle councillors elected in May, disagreed.

He said: “Regarding references to ‘voter suppression’, we already require ID for various aspects of life, such as postal votes, using the financial system or to buy some items in supermarkets. Photo ID is used by various organisations which say the absence of ID is a security risk.

“In Northern Ireland, ID has been required since 2003, since being introduced by a Labour government. Nobody has suggested the idea in Northern Ireland was to suppress voting. It is about progressive, sensible measures to support democracy.”

Conservative Coun Paul McGladdery added: “The turnout in district council elections is always low. Introducing postal ballots has not changed the turnout. Turnout in Westminster elections is always higher or turnout in referendums.”

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But Coun Tom Whipp said England’s was not like Northern Ireland, in terms of security threats to the political process requiring voter ID. Proportional representation in England would allow voters to vote they way they wanted without fearing their vote would be wasted, he argued. Germany had proportional representation with co-operative, multi-party working and it had the strongest economy in Europe.

Furthermore, he said referendums in Britain often had high turnouts because they featured a narrow question to a specific issue, such as Brexit or Scottish independence. But that did not mean the public did not want change in elections.

Coun Whipp’s motion failed to win enough support.