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Suspected abuse of proxy system could lead to results being challenged in court

By Donna Deeney

A leading academic has said the present proxy voting system is “nonsensical” and needs to be examined after suspicions were raised about electoral fraud yesterday.

Legal challenges to results could follow if there are widespread suspicions over the legitimacy of results in close-run races, Professor Jon Tonge from the University of Liverpool suggested.

Describing the recent rise in proxy vote applications here as “eyebrow-raising”, he said: “There is too much suspicion over proxy votes.”

“They are nonsensical in the 21st century.

“If someone felt there was widespread abuse, results could be open to challenge.”

Prof Tonge made clear his opposition to proxy voting, arguing that postal votes and the ballot box provided better checks.

Legal challenges could be most likely after very close results, especially if the number of proxy votes exceeds the margin of victory.

One potential candidate could be Fermanagh and South Tyrone, where in 2010, a legal challenge in one of the UK’s tightest ever votes went all the way to the High Court.

The number of proxy applications in Fermanagh this year is 1,700 compared to 1,400 in 2015.

The law allows the result of an election to be challenged if there is a belief it wasn’t run properly, for example if the votes weren’t counted correctly or a candidate broke the law.

A petition can then be issued to kick-start a legal proceess.

Calling for a full review of the proxy system — where someone votes on another person’s behalf — Prof Tonge added: “If cases start emerging, it leads to suspicion over the legitimacy of the result.”

A surge in the number of proxy vote applications to from across Northern Ireland for today’s poll has seen the figure more than doubled in some constituencies.

In Foyle the number of applications jumped from 330 in 2015 to 1,200 this year.

There are around 10,000 proxies eligible to vote on someone else’s behalf today.

Prof Tonge, who has carried out detailed research into Northern Ireland’s political system, suggested that the checks provided by voting at the ballot box and postal votes were adequate and questioned the need for proxies to exist at all.

In May, DUP leader Arlene Foster expressed concerns over the rise in proxy vote applications.

A DUP spokesman said last night: “If there are concerns of fraud, particularly over proxy votes, and if that had an impact on the election result, legal options would be considered.”

Debate was sparked after a pensioner claimed that her vote had been stolen in Foyle by unscruplous canvassers who duped her.

The pensioner believed she had signed up for a postal ballot — only to find out later that someone she doesn’t even know would be casting a vote on her behalf instead.

One woman in Foyle only became aware that an application for a proxy vote had been submitted for her without her knowledge when she received notification from the Electoral Office.

Wishing to remain anonymous, she said: “I was on the understanding that I was getting a postal vote because both me and my husband had postal votes in the past.

“These people knocked on my door said they would help me to apply for a postal vote.

“No-one mentioned a proxy vote, I certainly did not want that.

“I signed the form for postal votes, and while my husband’s postal vote arrived, I got a vote by proxy.

“I don’t even know who the person is that is suppose to be voting for me, I don’t know if they exist or not.

“I am really angry at this because I think I have the right to decide which party I vote for.”

The PSNI said: “The PSNI are investigating a small number of reports of electoral fraud following referral from the Electoral Office of Northern Ireland.”

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