By Barnaby Mason
UK affairs analyst
With Britain poised for parliamentary elections next month, a High Court judge has delivered a devastating ruling on the current arrangements for allowing people to vote by post.
The Labour party councillors deny the allegations
He said: "The system is wide open to fraud and any would-be political fraudster knows that."
Judge Richard Mawrey quashed the results of two local council elections in Birmingham after deciding there had been systematic large-scale vote rigging.
But the implications are wider: it was regarded as a test case for similar complaints in other cities; and record numbers of people have been applying for postal votes in the general election.
He criticised the government's insistence that the current postal voting system was working.
"Anybody who has sat through the case I have just tried and listened to evidence of electoral fraud that would disgrace a banana republic would find this statement surprising," he said.
The scandal in Birmingham threatens to undermine Britain's long-established reputation for trustworthy elections.
For several weeks, a special election court heard lurid allegations of postal votes being stolen and forged. Six councillors from Tony Blair's Labour Party denied wrongdoing.
According to petitions from supporters of rival parties, three of the councillors - Muhammad Afzal, Mohammed Islam and Mohammed Kazi - were found by the police in the middle of the night in a warehouse with hundreds of postal votes spread out on a table.
One of their lawyers admitted that might have looked suspicious. But he argued it would be wrong to conclude they were guilty of corruption and forgery.
Other allegations spoke of an attempt to bribe a postman to hand over a bag of ballot papers, and of threats to cut his throat.
Labour Party supporters were said to have intimidated voters into voting their way and stood over them while they filled in their ballots.
Some arrived at polling stations to vote in the traditional way and were astonished to be told that a postal vote had already been cast in their name.
Many people in Britain will have been astonished to hear tales about an English election which they associate with dodgy regimes abroad.
Stricter controls might eliminate forgery, but the mere existence of a postal ballot makes it easier to bully someone to vote a particular way
Britain is more used to sending observers to watch out for abuses in other people's elections.
The current problems date from 2001, when the law was changed to make postal voting available to anyone on demand - no reason required.
The government made the change in order to increase turnout at elections, but critics said it was calculated to benefit the Labour Party most.
Since then, there has been an explosive growth in postal voting, especially in inner city areas.
'Anything is legal'
In Birmingham, the number of postal votes more than quadrupled between 2001 and 2004. In one of the areas where the election result was challenged, nearly half the registered electors had ostensibly applied to vote by post.
Evidence presented in court indicated it was possible to intercept or forge both the application forms and the postal ballots themselves.
Many ballots had signatures that differed from those on the application.
The councillors were discovered counting votes at a warehouse
The forgers were alleged to have applied for postal votes under names taken from the publicly available electoral roll, asking for the ballot papers to be sent to an alternative address or safe house.
The gaps in the law were raised within a few days of the June elections.
The Birmingham Labour leader, Sir Albert Bore, wrote to Mr Blair saying: "At present, in relation to the handling of postal ballot papers, the law is so general that almost anything is legal."
There is a striking example of that. The ballot papers seized by the police from the warehouse were handed over to election officials, who decided they had no reason to reject them and included them in the count.
The judge commented to the Returning Officer that her function was nil.
"If something seems wrong with the postal ballot papers," he said, "you have no powers or resources to ferret around to see if the votes are legitimate."
Calls for a tightening up of the law have come from the Electoral Commission, an advisory body. But failing any such move so far, the commission has negotiated with the political parties a voluntary code of conduct on postal voting.
It reveals several surprising facts.
First, it is perfectly legal for the parties to produce and distribute their own version of the form applying for a postal vote. People do not have to use the official one.
The allegations centred on the issue of postal voting
Second, the completed form doesn't have to be sent straight to the electoral registration officer, but can instead go via an intermediary address.
The commission says it wanted a requirement for applications to be returned directly, but the political parties wouldn't agree.
And third, the code concedes that party workers may be present when someone completes the actual ballot paper and may take it for delivery - though they should not see what is written and should ensure the vote is sealed.
This last point touches on perhaps the most serious potential defect of postal voting: its vulnerability to intimidation.
Stricter controls might eliminate forgery, but the mere existence of a postal ballot makes it easier to bully someone to vote a particular way.
He or she may be forced to reveal a ballot paper in a way that is simply not possible at a polling station.
Some observers argue that the hierarchical and paternalistic nature of some ethnic minority communities makes them especially open to such abuse.
But other experts say the fraud is not confined to particular communities, or to Birmingham, or to the Labour Party.