Sunday Business Post

One in six excluded from Assembly poll

18/01/04 00:00

By Paul T Colgan

New analysis of voter registration figures in the North reveals that almost one in six people lost their right to vote in last year's Assembly elections.

Warnings from many of the Northern parties apparently went unheeded, most strikingly in the case of younger voters.The Electoral Fraud Act of 2002 - ostensibly designed to eliminate voter impersonation - has had a major impact on voter registration among those eligible to vote for the first time.

The legislation requires annual registration by voters. Previously, registration was done only once, on a household-by-household basis.

If the missing voters had been included on the register, the results in a number of key constituencies could have been much different, with a radical impact on the political landscape in the North.

In addition to the 110,000 people who failed to re-register after being removed from the electoral list, almost 58,000 voters entitled to vote for the first time did not claim their vote.

Figures from the census, published in 2002 by the British government research and statistics agency NISRA, when compared with voter registrations recorded by the Electoral Office, show that the vast majority of first-time voters did not claim their vote. The final number of the disenfranchised is thought to be even larger, taking into account the many voters who did not receive proper photo-graphic ID in time for the Assembly poll.

Some observers estimate that tens of thousands of voters were turned away at the polling booths for failing to carry proper ID as specified under the new legislation. This is thought to have hit the elderly the hardest.

Registration among potential first-time voters last year in some areas slumped from 80 to 50 per

cent. The trend is borne out across the North's 18 constituencies.

In South Down, only 1,283 of a potential 3,582 new voters registered - a deficit of 64.2 per cent. A nationalist stronghold,the constituency returned two Sinn Féin and two SDLP Assembly members in November's election. In many wards, more than 80 per cent of potential new voters did not appear on the electoral register. Unionist wards were also heavily affected - for example, 75 per cent missed out on registration in Kilkeel.

The Electoral Office and Electoral Commission, whose responsibility it is to ensure maximum levels of voter registration, have both come in for criticism over their handling of the process.

Sinn Féin Assembly member for South Down, Caitriona Ruane, questioned the integrity of the registration process. "We have two publicly-funded bodies, NISRA and the Electoral Office, operating at the same time, with very similar work to do - going door to door and getting people on the register or census.One of them,the Electoral Office, failed to register at least 57,683 new voters," she said.

"The question needs to be asked: is this professional incompetence or is it something much worse? The Electoral Office constantly argue that there is rolling registration, but the process is a joke. It is obvious to everyone that they are putting block after block to stop people registering."

Ruane,who is Sinn Féin's human rights and equality spokeswoman, said that registration forms were returned to people for slight errors and electoral hearings were organised at inaccessible hours in inappropriate venues.

Sinn Féin plans to counter the disparity in registration with a campaign designed to raise awareness of the new voting regime.

"I am calling on political parties who supported the Electoral Fraud Act from its inception to review their position on it and demand

changes. In England, Scotland and Wales, there are voter awareness programmes and they search for ways to get more people voting. Here,inthe Northof Ireland, it would appear that there have been considerable steps to disenfranchise people," said Ruane.

Critics point out that the Electoral Commission's planned publicity campaig n started two months later than it should have, large numbers of young people and first-time voters did not receive forms and photographic ID was not issued in time for the election.

"There were definitely people who did not get their photographic ID, either because of postal problems or because they applied too late," said Queen's University politics lecturer Dr Sydney Elliot. "The figures about first-time registration would certainly cause concern. Either the process is not sufficient in getting people onto the register or it is because many young people are not at home during the year. The mechanics of getting Johnny or Sean, who are in university in Glasgow or Bristol, to fill in the forms might just be too much for many parents.

"The new system now requires that people fill out forms as individuals. It is up to them, not the head of the house, to ensure they are registered.The new form needs a signature, a date of birth and a national insurance number. If one digit is wrong, then the form is returned to you. Many people may not have bothered filling in the forms again. We haven't got to the stage where the sense of the system has got through to people."

Elliot said that the Act would need to be re-examined in the coming months. "If all these procedures were needed to cope with whatever level of fraud existed - and that has never been quantified - and they are actually making it difficult for people to register, then you've got to look at those procedures.

"If the Electoral Commission is saying the current register is only 86 per cent effective,whereas a couple of months ago they claimed it to be in the region of 93 per cent effective,then it's got a lot of work to do," he said.

A n U lster Unionist Party spokesman said that the stop-start nature of the Northern Assembly had put off young voters, but that many of the UUP's voters had also encountered problems with the registration process.

"It was tough for a lot of people - there were all sorts of problems before the election, with people ringing in saying they had filled in forms correctly and hadn't received a vote.

"While we think the legislation is a good thing in many respects, there is no doubt that people found it difficult to register," he said.

The North's chief electoral officer, Denis Stanley, dismissed the criticisms as "complete and absolute rubbish". He said the Electoral Office had done its utmost to register people, though he acknowledged that there were particular problems in getting young voters to register.

"It is difficult to see how people could say we didn't go out of our way to register people. The onus is on the individual to register - we will continue to do our best to facilitate people in doing that," he said.

The new requirements may also have disenfranchised a significant section of the border community. Many residents of the Republic who have married someone in the North and now live north of the border are no longer able to vote as they don't have a British national insurance number.

Someone from Dundalk who moves across the border, marries and continues to work in Dundalk would not be entitled to vote.

Sinn Féin has made a number of recommendations to improve the registration system, including a lengthier period for registration, such as the lifetime of the Belfast Assembly or the British parliament. The party also proposes a "focused canvas" by the Electoral Office between elections, targeting young people, people with learning disabilities and areas of deprivation, as well as the installation of photographic ID booths at council offices and the inclusion of district councils in the registration process.

The new legislation is at odds with the policy adopted by the British government in England, Scotland and Wales. Critics point out that Tony Blair's government has taken a proactive approach in encouraging people to use their vote, concentrating particularly on ethnic minorities and deprived communities.

The legislation was introduced after claims that republican supporters had engaged in widespread voter impersonation. At one point in the 1980s,the British government claimed that 20 per cent of Sinn Féin's vote was obtained illegally.

Republicans say that the allegation has now been proved bogus. Sinn Féin recorded its largest-ever vote in the North last November, taking 24 seats in the Assembly and reducing the SDLP's share to 18.

This result was despite the new legislation and the fact that many of the party's core voters, the young,were unable to vote.

The British Electoral Commission has questioned the existence of widespread voting fraud, which the act was designed to counter. A report into the act published last month noted that "there are no statistics to support these widely-held perceptions and there have been few, if any, successful prosecutions."

The report concluded that "individual registration tended to have an adverse impact on the disadvantaged, marginalised and hard-toreach groups. Young people and students, people with learning disabilities and other disabilities, and those living in areas of high social deprivation were less likely to be registered and encountered specific problems with the new registration process."

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