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Surrey’s elections officer has referred a potential voter fraud scheme aimed at the coming civic election to the RCMP and changed local voting options after discovering what looks like an attempt to manipulate absentee ballots.

Chief elections officer Anthony Capuccinello said he and his team discovered the irregularities late last week after they looked at 160 applications for absentee ballots.

“Our paramount duty is to protect the integrity of the voting process," Mr. Capuccinello said.

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People wanting an absentee mail-in ballot will now have to show identification and sign for the package. In the past, the city has mailed out packages to applicants if that’s what they request, but that option has been suspended.

Mr. Capuccinello declined to say how his office was alerted to the potential fraud, nor would he say what problems were noticed. But he said the city halted its plan to start mailing the absentee ballots out Friday.

He said he also consulted with provincial officials and was told to report his findings to the RCMP because Elections BC does not investigate these kinds of complaints.

The RCMP issued a statement Monday saying that police had received complaints from both a third party and the elections officer, which are being investigated.

“Given that this matter is time-sensitive, this review and investigation have been prioritized by our Investigative Services section,” the statement said.

A spokesman from the Surrey anti-crime activist group Wake up Surrey said it reported its suspicions to Surrey RCMP and Elections BC, saying the group believed there was a co-ordinated plan among one or more parties to get people from the South Asian community to request absentee ballots so that those ballots could be filled in and mailed back by a campaigner.

Sukhi Sandhu, with Wake Up Surrey, said his group discovered the plan because 60 poll captains were being asked to come up with 25 names apiece to get absentee ballots for them. They were contacting employers to get information about their staff, Mr. Sandhu said.

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Surrey city staff say they made their discovery even before Wake Up Surrey broadcast news late Thursday night that it had uncovered evidence of campaigners from “one or more” political parties trying to scam absentee ballots.

Mr. Capuccinello said he couldn’t say what the penalties might be, since the unlawful activity covered a broad spectrum from possible Criminal Code violations to infractions of local voting laws.

All of the parties in Surrey’s contentious election campaign have issued statements deploring the possibility of voter fraud and saying they are working to keep the election clean.

But one group said the scandal could have long-term ramifications.

“Whoever is responsible for this has done lasting damage beyond the few votes here that are in play,” said Stuart Parker, a council candidate with Proudly Surrey. “This kind of thing has largely been seen as a myth. But with this, it could be used now for voter suppression.”

Mr. Sandhu said too many campaigns have looked at South Asians as a voting bloc they can corral and get to vote any way they want.

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The Surrey election is just the latest and most blatant example, he said.

“It’s quite obvious there is a political nexus that is trying to hijack this election … to get development projects passed,” he said.

The two front-running mayoral candidates, Tom Gill of Surrey First and Bruce Hayne of Integrity Now, said they were dismayed by the allegations, although relieved to find out only 160 absentee ballot applications appeared to be involved.

Mr. Gill said his team’s poll captains are always encouraged to contact friends and family and urge them to vote, but that is as far as it goes.

Mr. Hayne said he’s still concerned that unethical campaigners will look for other ways to cheat now that this one has been closed off. “They’ve caught this one but where there’s a will, there’s a way.”

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