ON the eve of a crisis meeting between police and electoral officials to discuss potential fraud, The Northern Echo has discovered a huge surge in applications for postal votes across the region.

In some constituencies, such as Durham North, as many as one in four votes will be cast in the General Election through the post, and others, including Stockton North, have seen a 600 per cent increase in applications for a postal ballot.

Voters have until next Tuesday to ask for a postal vote, but the rush of applications already means that at least 296,000 votes in the region will be cast through the post box rather than the ballot box - treble the number of four years ago.

Earlier this month, six councillors in Birmingham were found guilty of ballot-rigging in a postal fraud, while last year there was outrage when it was announced the referendum on a directly-elected assembly for the North-East would go ahead, despite Electoral Commission recommendations it be the last all-postal ballot to be held because of fears of abuse.

This morning, the Association of Chief Police Officers and the Electoral Commission will discuss further measures to ensure there is no repetition during the General Election campaign.

All-postal votes have been pioneered in the region, with pilot projects in Gateshead held in the 1990s.

In Chester-le-Street, which falls in the Durham North constituency, applications for postal votes have risen from 4,200 in 2001 to almost 17,500 this time, out of an electorate of 68,000.

Colin Turnbull, the district's electoral returning officer, said: "Postal voting has proved to be a very successful and popular method of voting, and encouraging people to engage with the democratic process is something we positively set out to achieve."

He added: "The increase in turnout is clearly good news for democracy."

With almost a week to go before the registration deadline, Darlington has seen applications almost treble, from 2,730 to 8,172. A borough council spokesman said: "The increase is huge and, of course, the figure is likely to go up.

"People have found postal voting a lot more convenient and they are saying so by opting to vote by post."

But fears have been expressed about the potential for electoral fraud, with all parties, with the blessing of the Electoral Commission, advising voters on how to go about getting a postal vote.

Some of the greatest increases have been concentrated in the region's most marginal constituencies.

Durham City will have just short of 6,900 postal votes, almost four times the number last time around; Stockton South will have 11,900 postal votes, up from 3,400 last time; while in Newcastle Central, 22,966 votes will be cast by post out of a potential electorate of 62,700.

Neil Herron, who is standing as an Independent candidate in Sunderland North, said: "There is the potential for the Birmingham situation to be repeated in the North-East."