Belfast Telegraph

Thursday 18 September 2014

War of words breaks out as voting shambles revealed

A remarkable war of words has broken out after new figures revealed that Northern Ireland’s electoral register is a shambles.

The new report from The Electoral Commission has found that a staggering 400,000 people are not listed at their correct address in the voting list.

The Electoral Commissioner has warned that the failings have the potential to undermine how elections are run here and the public’s confidence in them.

But the chief electoral officer Graham Shields, who was responsibility for the register, hit back on Monday night stating that he would not accept the criticism and was doing the best job he could.

But the commission has now recommended that every household in Northern Ireland should be visited by electoral officials in a massive canvass of the province.

The report also found that an estimated one in five of the entries are inaccurate and that the accuracy of the register had dropped from 94% in 2008 to just 78%.

Many of the errors involve people who don’t live in Northern Ireland anymore or who are registered at the wrong address. The report also revealed that people under 25, people with disabilities and those on low incomes are the least likely to be registered.

Anna Carragher, Electoral Commissioner for Northern Ireland, said: “The findings of our research are a matter of serious concern. They could have far-reaching consequences for both participation and public confidence in elections in Northern Ireland.

“We have important elections coming up over the next four years which will depend on complete and accurate electoral registers. Continuing with the status quo for managing the register is simply not an option.”

But when approached by the Belfast Telegraph, Mr Shields hit back: “I will not accept criticism of the process as implemented by us. There are a number of factors that play into the whole thing.

“I am not saying the process is perfect by any means, but we do all that we can with the tools that are available to us.”

Mr Shields, who earns more than £70,000, previously faced criticism for his management of the count during last year’s Assembly elections which ran into three days. The latest revelations are sure to heap further pressure on the chief electoral officer.

Just over two months ago he presented a report to Parliament in which he said all his targets and development objectives had been met.

The report recommended:

  • A comprehensive action plan to begin in early 2013 by the chief electoral officer, which includes contact with every household in Northern Ireland, to verify and update entries on the register and to identify new registrants.
  • A change in electoral law to allow for a more flexible form of annual canvass whereby households as well as individuals can be asked to update their registration details.
  • A review of current arrangements for data matching.
  • A performance standards framework in place for the chief electoral officer so that he can measure his performance against independently set standards.

Ms Carragher said: “It is essential that this programme of work gets under way well ahead of the European Parliamentary election and possible local government elections in 2014.”

This high number of errors has serious implications in local government polls where a relatively small number of votes in the wrong area could change results.

There is the prospect of people not being allowed to vote from their current addresses at a time when participation in elections and confidence in the political system is already falling.

The report also finds that not all those eligible to vote have been added to the register. The old are more likely to be registered than the young, and homeowners are more likely to get a vote than tenants. And people who have left Northern Ireland or died have not always been removed.

As a result the register has been “inflated” by inaccurate entries and has grown in size despite the fact that many people entitled to vote are not on it.

The research was carried out by ICM Research, an independent market research agency. A sample of 1,500 addresses was randomly selected from across Northern Ireland from March to July 2012

Background

The Electoral Commission is a UK-wide regulatory body set up to monitor party donations and ensures that elections are run fairly and accurately. Last year it criticised the running of the Assembly elections, when there were long hold-ups. Its local Electoral Commissioner is Anna Carragher, the former controller of BBC Northern Ireland. It regulates the Electoral Office headed by the chief electoral officer (CEO). Graham Shields, a former senior police officer, took over from Douglas Bain as CEO in October 2010.

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