Belfast Telegraph

Count delays will recur in 2016 if we don't act now: poll chief

By Noel McAdam

The next Assembly election will be dogged by complaints over delays unless a new voting system is adopted, it has been warned.

As a two-day, 27-hour marathon Euro-count finally drew to a close, chief electoral officer Graham Shields revealed he has formally recommended a new electronic counting system which would ensure future counts are completed in a day.

His recommendation has been sitting with Secretary of State Theresa Villiers for almost 18 months – since December 2012.

Under fire from politicians yesterday, Mr Shields defended his handling of the European Parliament race and insisted his priority was that the count at the King's Hall was conducted properly.

Ulster Unionist leader Mike Nesbitt called on Mrs Villiers to initiate consultations over the proposed e-vote mechanism – already used in Scotland – to prevent a repeat of this week and the lengthy counts at the last Assembly battle in 2011.

Changing the present manual voting system will require a change of the existing legislation at Westminster, which Mrs Villiers would also be required to inititiate.

The long hours at the count in the last two days are the first time in 25 years that the European election has gone to more than three counts – in 1979 there were six.

This time, partly as a result of 10 candidates chasing the three seats, there were eight counts.

Candidates also held on in the hope of gaining a 5% share of the total vote, which would have allowed them to keep their deposits.

Many staff involved in the 8am to 1.30am count on Monday were unable to return for a second day.

A dozen staff were sent down from Newtownabbey Borough Council to help fill the gap.

Politicians were not giving the organisation of the count their vote, however.

DUP deputy leader Nigel Dodds, whose wife Diane finally crossed the quota line around 4pm yesterday, said: "I think it is a disgrace that once again the Electoral Office has operated things here at a count which has made Northern Ireland look a complete shambles.

"For Northern Ireland, it's not a good image to send out."

Mr Shields told the Belfast Telegraph: "The important thing was to get it right, to get the procedures right and make sure the votes were counted correctly. I did not want to end up with any mistakes."

UUP leader Mike Nesbitt said: "It is the same system of manually counting the votes they do in England so we need to know if the level of staff here compared to the counts there given the turnout and so on.

"I would be in favour of electronic voting. I have seen a demonstration given by the electoral office and I was very impressed."

Mr Shields warned: "This probably will come back again in 2016 in the Assembly elections when we will again reheat the same arguments. We really need to sort this out later this year.

"I recommended electronic counting should be introduced in December of the year before last and it has been with the Northern Ireland Office since then.

"The biggest thing is to get the politicians signed on for it."

The elections chief said leasing the state-of-the-art machinery involved an 18-month procurement period.

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Criticism followed the Assembly elections of May 2011.

On that occasion, there were reports of voting slips being dried with hairdriers, election staff failing to turn up and fatigue. An Electoral Commission report pointed to poor staff training, questioned the suitability of some count venues and was critical of the quality of paperwork returned by some presiding officers.

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