Watford’s Tories have challenged the result of an historic referendum that made the town the first outside London to say ‘yes’ to a directly-elected mayor.

Results of a postal ballot announced on Thursday, July 12, revealed residents voted to change the way Watford Council is run by the slimmest of margins, with 51.7 per cent voting “yes” and 48.3 per cent voting “no” to the idea of an elected mayor.

But a low turn-out of just 24.5 per cent and the number of rejected ballot papers have prompted Watford’s Conservative association to launch an official challenge to the result.

Conservative group leader Tim Williams said: “There is a serious question mark over the validity of the referendum, due to the number of discounted votes and also how one particular party was able to promote a ‘yes’ vote at the Rainbow Festival when another party promoting a ‘no’ vote was refused permission.

“We have taken legal advice and will be contacting the Electoral Reform Society, which organised the vote, to lodge an official complaint, and the chief executive of Watford Council. We want the situation totally clarified and the election to be re-run.”

“No” campaigners say the result has been thrown into doubt by the number of rejected ballot papers 651 out of a total of 15,427 ballots received which is more than the 496 by which the “yes” vote scraped through.

Of these, 69 were rejected because they were unmarked, uncertain or identified the voter, with 582 not included because voters failed to complete all parts of the voting procedure.

But Watford Council’s chief executive Alan Clarke said the number of rejected ballots was no higher than is normal in postal votes.

He said: “I have not yet received any official complaints. The referendum ran smoothly and efficiently and was well-organised.”

A spokesman for Watford Council admitted officials had expected some voters to get it wrong but had done everything possible to ensure instructions were clear.

He said: “Most people are used to voting by putting a tick or cross on a ballot paper and putting it in ballot box. Here they had to do three things tick a piece of paper in the box, fill in a separate form with their name and address and then get that separate form countersigned by somebody.

“If they didn’t do each of these things, the vote would have been suspect. That is why we spent a lot of time and energy trying to explain. We knew it would be a problem.”

[Posted on the Watford Observer website on July 20, 2001]

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