Belfast Telegraph

Tuesday 2 September 2014

Every vote counts - but what are we voting for?

Northern Ireland will hold three polls on one day next May. What problems does that pose, asks Jenny Watson

There have been nine elections in Northern Ireland in the last decade, but the last time voters took part in a UK referendum was in 1975, when the electorate voted in favour of remaining in the EC.

If the UK Parliament gives the go-ahead, there will be a referendum on May 5 next year on the voting system used to elect MPs to Westminster - the same day voters in Northern Ireland will be asked to vote in Assembly and local elections.

This will mean that more than one million voters in Northern Ireland will be electing 108 MLAs, 582 councillors and having their say on the voting system used to elect MPs.

There is no denying the challenge of running two elections and a referendum on the same day - not only for those running the polls, but also for those taking part.

As chair of the Electoral Commission, I will be the chief counting officer for the referendum and will be responsible for its conduct and for the accuracy of the overall result.

I will also be working alongside the new chief electoral officer, Graham Shields, who has overall responsibility for the Assembly and local government elections.

From the outset, I have been clear that all those involved in the polls on May 5 should approach them from the point of view of the voter.

Voter confidence in each of the elections and the referendum come polling day is essential. That's why I will be meeting with politicians and those with an interest in the elections to hear their views and explain what is being done to ensure that the needs of voters are met.

There are only six months to go before the May elections and substantial preparations are already being put in place.

Legislation is already working its way through Parliament to ensure that voters can expect a high-quality service when they come to vote.

The commission has also established a UK-wide steering group to co-ordinate the planning of the referendum and elections. We are already talking to voters. Under law, the commission was required to assess the wording of the proposed referendum question to ensure that it is clear and straightforward for voters to understand.

After completing our research with voters, we recommended to the UK Parliament a redrafted question that should be easier for voters to understand. I am pleased to say that Parliament has supported it.

Even though voters in Northern Ireland are used to using two different voting systems, our research showed that people had a limited understanding of the voting systems that they will be asked to choose between for Westminster.

It should not be assumed that voters understand the consequences of different voting systems, such as first past the post or the alternative vote. The commission will be sending 700,000 booklets to every household in Northern Ireland.

But the arguments put by the Yes and No campaigns will also be important - as will media coverage. The commission will continue to play an important role in ensuring that those taking part in the elections and/or the referendum comply with the rules on campaigning and expenditure.

We will be registering organisations or individuals who wish to campaign in the referendum as well as monitoring their spending. We will also appoint lead campaigners for each referendum outcome, giving them access to free mail-drops and television broadcasts.

The electoral landscape has transformed over the last decade in Northern Ireland. May 2011 will provide a valuable insight into how our democracy functions.

You can find out more about the elections and proposed referendum, as well as completing an electoral registration form, on our website: www.aboutmyvote.co.uk

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