Sunday Business Post

110,000 missing voters to hit Sinn Féin hopes

09/11/03 00:00

By Paul T Colgan

Sinn Féin's electoral fortunes in this month's Assembly elections in the North may be damaged by a huge drop in the number of registered voters.

The North's electoral office has confirmed that 110,000 voters failed to re-register following the introduction of an electoral fraud act last November. Many of those voters are in three key constituencies in Belfast: West, North and South Belfast. Sinn Féin is targeting extra seats in all three areas and says that the failure of many nationalist voters to re-register could have a major impact on its vote.

The electoral commission's figures represent a slight improvement on last year when about 130,000 voters had failed to claim their vote. However, as things stand, eight per cent of the North's electorate will not be voting in the Assembly elections.

"In going ahead with the elections, I can only assume that the government accepted that the fall in the electoral register did not affect one party more than any other," said Queens University politicslecturerDr Sydney Elliot. "However, I am very sceptical of such an assumption and will wait and see how the finished figures actually come out."

The electoral commission statistics indicate that most voters re-registered in the predominantly nationalist area west of the Bann.

But Sinn Féin will be concerned with the poor take-up in Belfast. The party is aiming to take an extra quota inWest Belfast at the expense of the SDLP. It also has high hopes for former Belfast Lord MayorAlex Maskey in South Belfast and an extra candidate in the tight North Belfast constituency.

West of the Bann, Sinn Féin is confident that most of its voters are registered. The return of two extra Sinn Féin MPs in 2001's Westminster elections saw the effective "greening" of the region, with nationalist MPs in Mid-Ulster (SF's Martin McGuinness), Fermanagh and South Tyrone (SF's Michelle Gildernew), West Tyrone (SF's Pat Doherty), Foyle (SDLP's John Hume) and Newry and Armagh (SDLP's Seamus Mallon).

Mid-Ulster, where Sinn Féin holds three Assembly seats, recorded the smallest drop in registered voters with only 3.8 per cent of a fall-off.

Following the first registration deadline last year, it was estimated that the names of one in five of those previously on the electoral register in West Belfast had disappeared. Sinn Féin claimed in January that 80 per cent of first-time voters had also missed the deadline.

Figures releasedinSeptember showed that while the electoral office has added 25,000 names to the North's overall list as part of a rolling registration process, serious deficits still remain in crucial areas. West Belfast has lost 13.6 per cent of its registered electorate, with South Belfast and North Belfast recording drops of 14.1 per cent and 13.9 per cent respectively.

The commission has spent the lastyear informing voters of the pitfalls of not re-registering, and activists from the main parties have done much of the leg-work in ensuring their voters are not disenfranchised.

"There is no doubt that the legislation targeted a section of the community more likely to vote Sinn Féin. That is the working class," said Sinn Féin director of elections Danny Power.

"We calculate that 50 to 60 per cent of young voters who could register to vote actually haven't. The electoral office reckons that the figure is more like 33 per cent. But even at that, it is a huge number of voters.

"Some of the other parties may be a bit nervous at the moment, having wrongly calculated that it would only affect us. It probably will affect us to a greater degree, but it will also have an impact across the board."

Recent figures show that, since 1994 - the year of the IRA's first ceasefire - 80 per cent of new Catholic voters have supported Sinn Féin.

Their parents,who lived through years of paramilitary violence and were subject to the anti-Sinn Féin policies and propaganda of the 1980s, may still it find it difficult to vote republican, but their offspring have no such qualms.

The SDLP, whose core vote is among middle-class, middle-aged nationalists, is unfazed by the new figures. SDLP voters are traditionally regarded as civic-minded, committed voters with a background in the civil rights politics of the late 1960s and early 1970s.They prize their right to vote.

Problems are also anticipated at the polling booths.The new electoral act stipulates that voters need to show a recognised form of identification, such as a driving licence or passport.

For those who don't have either, the electoral commission can produce standard identification cards. However party strategists say a significant number of elderly voters have been unable to acquire such identification.

The delivery of registration forms to voters in rural areas was delayed last year. The commission also came in for criticism from Sinn Féin for a delay in advertising the new system.

The Ulster Unionists warned of "electoral chaos" if people were not properly notified of the urgent need to return the forms.

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