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Britain to tighten election laws to stop fraud

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LONDON, Feb 27 (Reuters) Britain said it would introduce new laws this week to combat postal vote fraud in a bid to allay fears that the UK electoral system is open to abuse and rigging.

Elections Minister Harriet Harman will say today the government would introduce 14 new measures to tackle fraud, with the main aim of making voting by post more secure.

That scheme's credibility suffered huge damage after an inquiry last April revealed local members of Prime Minister Tony Blair's Labour Party had conducted massive vote-rigging in a local election in Birmingham, Britain's second biggest city.

The judge heading the probe said the scandal would ''disgrace a banana republic'' and it led to Britain's election watchdog calling for the system to be tightened.

''Everyone, in every community in any part of the country, is entitled to their vote and to know that their vote is counted as they cast it,'' Harman will say at a launch on Monday.

''Electoral fraud is extremely rare. But fraud in any area, in any election, national or local, is a problem because it undermines confidence.'' Blair's government has been a strong proponent of postal voting to try to reverse falling turnout at British elections.

Only 61.4 percent of eligible Britons bothered voting at last May's national election, the third-lowest since 1847, but that figure included a record 12 percent who cast their ballot by post.

However, afterwards police made a number of arrests as part of inquiries into suspected postal ballot fraud, further denting ths system's image.

The election watchdog, the Electoral Commission, said last October that research had found that 46 percent of people thought it was unsafe to vote by post, including a fifth of those who did actually vote that way.

The new measures would mean administrators writing to everyone who had applied for a postal vote to acknowledge receipt of their application, thus alerting people to false applications made on their behalf.

Other planned actions include giving officials more time to check postal vote applications, putting security marks and barcodes on ballot papers, and requiring voters to sign for their ballot paper at polling stations.

There will be new offences of falsely applying for a postal or proxy vote and supplying false information or failing to supply information to the electoral registration officer.

The next elections in Britain are local authority polls to be held in May.

Reuters SK VP0613

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