POLICE are investigating the 'disappearance' of 18 ballot boxes after May's local elections in South Tyneside.
Frantic searches were carried out at South Shields Town Hall after the boxes, containing hundreds of rejected postal votes from all 18 wards contested, were lost.
Despite several attempts to locate the boxes, they have never been found.
An investigation by senior council managers concluded that a casual porter had inadvertently removed the papers from ballot boxes and put them in a waste skip in the town hall car park.
But the worker blamed for the error has denied doing any such thing.
Council bosses today put the missing boxed down to a "mistake" and vowed to put steps in place to make sure it doesn't happen again.
Police are now carrying out an inquiry, headed by Chief Superintendent Mark Dennett, Area Commander for South Tyneside. Under election law the authority has a duty to retain votes for 12 months.
The revelation emerged in the light of a legal fight by South Shields businessman Ahmed Khan.
Independent candidate Mr Khan launched an election petition challenging the result in the Beacon and Bents ward, which he lost by just 33 votes to Labour's Audrey McMillan.
Mr Khan said today: "I don't accept for one minute that these ballot boxes have simply gone missing.
"At best we're looking at malpractice, at worst, we're looking at theft."
He added: "The missing votes weren't made available for inspection before or during the count, and it took until October, when we threatened the council with separate legal action, that it was finally revealed that they had gone missing."
At Newcastle County Court last week, a judge rejected his application for access to 88 rejected postal votes.
A council spokesman said today: "After an election count, all election documents are packed away, sealed and kept for 12e months.
"A number of postal vote envelopes were rejected because they were not accompanied by a valid security postal vote statement, or the date of birth and/or signatures on the security statements did not match. The envelopes were never opened and no one knows whom those votes were for.
"Those small numbers of rejected envelopes were lost, together with the security statements, during the packing away of documents after the election.
"There are, however, scanned electronic copies of the security statements so it is perfectly possible to check whether the votes were properly rejected.
"We do not know for sure how the hard copies of the documents were lost, but we have no reason to believe that this was anything more than a mistake after the election, when papers were being retained or disposed of in accordance with our normal practice and election rules."
The council spokesman added: "The fact that the County Court dismissed Mr Khan's application, knowing the full facts, and ordered him to pay the legal costs of both the Returning Officer and the successful candidate, suggests the irrelevance of the missing documents to Mr Khan's application.
"While the loss of the documents is very regrettable and further steps will be taken to ensure that this cannot happen in the future, we must stress that no ballot papers which were or ought to have been counted are missing. The rejected documents have no relevance to the outcome of the Election itself."
Today Coun Jane Branley, leader of the Independent group on South Tyneside Council, refused to accept the council's explanation.
She said: "All of the rejected postal votes for the entire borough have disappeared and the explanation of how this happened by the council is ludicrous."
A spokesman for Northumbria Police said inquiries are ongoing."