CONCERNS have been raised about Bracknell Conservative flyers after residents claimed they could confuse voters before polling stations open for the upcoming local elections.

The leaflets, which list the names of Conservative candidates standing in various wards, have been distributed across Bracknell Forest days before the vote on Thursday, May 2.

Residents and candidates from across parties have said they are unhappy with the presentation of the leaflets (pictured) because they contain residents’ polling numbers and “look, feel and read like a poll card.”

Mark John told the News: “I just don’t think it’s right.

“They are black and white unlike all other election literature, they are the same type of paper and the same size. To hold it in your hand it feels the same weight and it even reads “Your Bracknell Forest candidates are…” with tick boxes and has residents’ polling numbers listed above the address.

“I am especially concerned about elderly and vulnerable residents, and first-time voters – it’s not hard to imagine them mistaking this card for the real one.

“Bracknell Forest deserves a free and fair election based on the values of honesty, transparency and respect. For the Bracknell Conservative Party to use election literature that looks like this shows either ill-judgement or downright contempt by probably trying to fix the result.”

Andrea McCombie, who works with local people with learning difficulties as CEO of The Ark Trust in Bracknell, said: "I am really unhappy with this. We are trying to engage with local councillors/parties to try and make their policies etc more user-friendly and I don't think PR stunts like this help the situation."

However, incumbent Conservative councillors have defended the distribution of these particular leaflets, claiming it is a practice that has been commonplace in the borough in previous elections.

Conservative councillor Paul Bettison, leader of the council, told BBC Radio Berkshire this morning: “The eve of poll leaflet is something that we’ve done for in excess of 20 years. There’s nothing new about this and what we do is we deliver them to houses that have told us during canvassing that they will be voting Conservative and it’s to remind them of polling day.

“If you’re a busy household you’ve got your own life to think of – you’re not longing for the second of May. There’s an awful lot of A5 pieces of paper with black printing on – it clearly says Conservative on both sides (pictured). It actually has an imprint which it legally must have and it says ‘printed and published by the Conservatives’. How much protection do you have to give someone?”

Councillor Alvin Finch, sitting mayor of Bracknell Forest borough, also defended the leaflets online and some residents discussing the flyers played down any supposed likeness. 

One commented: "I'm almost 70 and it certainly didn't fool me. I can tell the difference simply by reading the contents!"

Another added: "It's just canvassing - no different from any other leaflet coming through the door trying to convince people to vote for whatever party."

Despite this, a cross-party group complained to Bracknell Forest Council’s returning officer about the presentation of the leaflets.

The News contacted BFC for comment and in response, Timothy Wheadon, Chief Executive and Returning Officer for the authority, said: “It is not a matter for the Returning Officer to determine the legality of election material produced by any political party. That is a matter for the police.

“If we do receive a complaint, before deciding whether to refer it to the police ourselves, we would check whether the material contains an imprint showing who is the publisher.  The material that has been complained about clearly does.  As well as this, the fact that the material clearly encourages voting for one party, contains text about their previous activities, the names of candidates and, on the reverse, a survey by the political party suggest there are clear differences from an official poll card and we will not be referring the complaint on. It is, of course, open to the complainants to refer the material to the police themselves.”

But worries remain for representatives from across parties.

Liberal Democrat candidate for Wildridings, Thomas Parker, told the News: “Whilst I was out canvassing yesterday in Bishopdale, I was handed a copy of this imitation polling card by a resident who didn’t quite understand why they had received another polling card.

“That’s exactly the issue with this type of literature is that it is clearly designed to confuse residents. This is especially worrisome considering the placement of the polling number and the address being identical to polling cards, the paper size, quality, print and everything is design in a way that is in direct contention with Electoral Commission guidance.

“I think we can all agree that this is not about party politics, it’s about the law and our most sacred of our democratic rights through ensuring that these are fair elections and that everyone plays by the rules."

Labour candidate for Great Hollands North, councillor Mary Temperton, stressed the difference between the official polling cards and the Conservative flyers when talking to BBC Radio Berkshire this morning.

She said: “It’s already confusing because residents have now got two official polling cards through their door. One is for Thursday for the local elections but now they’ve also got the EU election one. Now they’ve got a third document coming through their door which people have phoned me up and said ‘this is another card, when is this for?’

“Three polling cards all coming through their door is causing total confusion and I think one of them is not true. It’s not a polling card because it has candidates names on. The other two are.”

The News contacted the Electoral Commission for comment on this issue after residents had suggested the design of the flyer breached electoral law.

In response, the Commission said it does not regulate the content of political campaigns and does not investigate issues such as these, which would typically be left to the police.

However, it did outline the restrictions relating to campaign publicity material and electoral law.

The Commission said: “Campaign publicity material is subject to a number of restrictions under electoral law, and is also subject to the general civil and criminal law relating to published material.
“To summarise, all campaign publicity materials:
• that are published must contain the required imprint containing details of the full name and full postal address of the printer and promoter of the material
• must not make a false statement about the personal conduct of any candidate
• must not be paid to be displayed, unless paid advertising is the usual business of that particular site
• can only be displayed with correct permission (for example, no fly-posting)
• must be removed after the election according to local and statutory planning rules
• are subject to the normal civil and criminal law relating to published materials
• must not resemble a poll card

“The Representation of the People Act (1983) section 94 outlines that “No person shall for the purpose of promoting or procuring the election of any candidate issue any poll card or document so closely resembling an official poll card as to be calculated to deceive.”

The Bracknell Conservative Association was contacted for comment and in response, a spokesperson said: "We like other parties have used these for many years. I would also note that the Labour and Liberal Democrat’s have used and continue to use also use Eve of Poll Cards in elections. The fact that neither party has decided to use one in Bracknell is their decision."