LOCAL elections in Southampton have been plunged into chaos by the failure of a new anti-fraud system for postal votes.

Scanning machines introduced to stop people conning extra votes are failing to read up to 40 per cent of returned ballot documents, the Daily Echo can reveal.

It means officials are having to check them manually - a time-consuming process which threatens to derail the announcement of local election results after polls close on May 3.

The machines, introduced for the first time in Southampton this year, are supposed to read voters' signatures and dates of birth on statements returned with ballot papers so they can be checked against the council's records.

The system was designed to meet a new legal requirement to match the two sets of personal data on the postal vote application form and returned ballot statement to prevent people voting more than once by stealing someone else's identity.

The man in charge of running the Southampton election yesterday admitted that 2,000 of the first 5,000 completed statements put through the scanners this week had to be rechecked by hand because the computers could not recognise the personal data.

Malcolm Dumper, deputy returning officer for Southampton City Council, said there was a "severe problem with legibility".

More than 25,000 postal ballot papers had been sent out across the city and if the problem continued the election results could be delayed by days - or even weeks, he said.

Mr Dumper, who is also a member of the Association of Election Administrators, said: "The scanners have difficulty picking up faint signatures, those in different coloured inks and dates of birth which are not written down in the order requested.

"Clearly the process of this manual checking is going to take a considerable amount of time."

Mr Dumper said there was the "potential" for "days and weeks" of delays. But he said that was the worst case scenario and he expected to "rise to the challenge" of finding a solution in the coming days.

He blamed the Government for forcing in the new system without proper trials first.