Belfast Telegraph

Slow count was bad for democracy

Editor's Viewpoint

There were some valid reasons for the lengthy count in Northern Ireland's European election. Turnout was higher than in the previous Euro election; there was a record number of candidates; every candidate wanted to make sure they got the maximum voting return to potentially save their deposits and the closeness of the race for the third seat meant multiple counts.

Chief electoral officer Graham Shields, quite rightly, felt his priority was to ensure the returns were accurate no matter how long they took.

Yet there are equally valid criticisms which led MP Nigel Dodds to brand the count as a shambles that made Northern Ireland a laughing stock. Even with the reasons outlined above, this is a tiny region of Europe and yet it took much longer than elsewhere to complete the count. This criticism could also be directed at the Republic where counting began a day ahead of Northern Ireland. Were there enough tellers and were they sufficiently trained?

There was a very keen contest for the third European seat between the sitting MEP Jim Nicholson of the UUP and the SDLP's Alex Attwood, but the protracted nature of the count meant that the fascinating fight became a bore before Mr Nicholson was returned. That is not good for democracy, especially at a time when public opinion on politics here is at a fairly low ebb.

Mr Shields says we should introduce an electronic counting system similar to that used successfully in Scotland. That was demonstrated here two years ago but requires legislation initiated by the Secretary of State. Perhaps if politicians are unhappy with the present counting system, their best option would be to pressurise Theresa Villiers to introduce the new system which the chief electoral officer prefers.

There are only two years to go to the Assembly elections and if politicians want to avoid a repetition of this week's slow count then they have little time left in which to change the system.

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