Postal vote abuse fears in poll on Ian Paisley by-election
Concerns have been raised that postal voting on demand during the recall petition process set to be triggered by Ian Paisley's suspension from Parliament could leave the system open to abuse.
On Tuesday, the House of Commons voted to exclude the DUP MP for 30 sitting days - the joint-longest period for any member in almost 70 years.
He has also been suspended from the DUP "pending further investigation into his conduct".
Mr Paisley breached parliamentary rules by not declaring two luxury foreign holidays paid for by the Sri Lankan government.
During an election, members of the public who wish to vote by post must complete an application form specifying why they cannot go in person to vote at a polling station.
To be eligible for a permanent postal vote, a voter must demonstrate that they cannot reasonably be expected to go to a polling station or vote unaided due to disability, employment or education. To qualify for a temporary postal vote, a voter must demonstrate that they cannot reasonably be expected to go to a polling station on polling day for a short term reason such as a holiday, or short term illness.
However, the Belfast Telegraph can reveal that those wishing to have their names added by post to the recall petition, which could lead to a by-election with the potential to oust Mr Paisley from his north Antrim seat, can do so on demand. This is despite abuse of the postal voting system here in the past.
Chief Electoral Officer for Northern Ireland Virginia McVea told this newspaper that the mechanism was due to the lack of anonymity for those entering designated centres.
"People can use a postal vote on demand - normally you have to give reasons, but this is a less anonymous process than an election would normally be," she explained. "The difference is that when you go to a polling station to vote, normally people don't know what you do on your ballot. This time, people are going in to say the MP will be removed from the seat. So people may prefer a postal vote. The different ways to sign this will be by post, in person or by proxy."
It will be the first time that the Recall of MPs Act 2015 for a recall petition process has been triggered. If the petition is signed by 10% of the North Antrim electorate, Mr Paisley must stand down and a by-election will be called.
Ms McVea said that she received a letter from the Speaker of the House of Commons yesterday saying that Mr Paisley was subject to a recall petition process.
"That means that I have 10 working days from July 25 to announce two main things: when the petition will be open for signing, and the designated places where people have to go to sign the petition," she explained.
"All the people from North Antrim will be written to, telling them where to go. The petition will be open for six weeks.
"People who go to the designated places will sign the petition and put it into the ballot box, then we will tally that up.
"But we don't publish the outcome as we go along - there's not a running tally.
"At the end of six weeks we will look to see if it crosses the 10% threshold, and if it does we are into a by-election process."
It is understood that the recall petition process could run into September.
Ms McVea said she was "confident" that the Electoral Office for Northern Ireland is "well prepared" to handle the new legislation.
Should a by-election be triggered, it is understood that this process would start in the autumn at the earliest.
However, this raises the possibility that Mr Paisley may not have fulfilled the full period of his parliamentary suspension, which is likely to last until November, at the time of such a by-election.
DUP Lagan Valley MP Jeffrey Donaldson raised concerns over the potential abuse of the postal voting system.
"I understand that the objective is to make it as easy as possible for the electorate to sign a recall petition," he stated.
"Sadly, there is a history in Northern Ireland of the postal voting system being abused, and I hope this won't happen on this occasion, but the Electoral Office will need to be vigilant to ensure it operates the way Parliament intended and that applications by post are properly verified."
Former Parliamentary Standards Chair Sir Alistair Graham added: "I understand the concerns if there's a track record of abusing the system.
"The legislation has to apply, and I think the people to blame are the Northern Ireland MPs who didn't speak around the legislation when it went through Parliament."
Meanwhile, Ian Paisley's wife Fiona posted a picture of a shark on social media on Tuesday - hours after his suspension.
The picture, posted on her Twitter account, was captioned with the German word "schadenfreude' - meaning pleasure derived by someone from another person's misfortune.
Mr Paisley's twin Kyle, a Free Presbyterian minister in England, also defended his brother on social media.
What next... how the process will unfold
- The House of Commons voted to exclude Ian Paisley for 30 sitting days on Tuesday.
- On Wednesday, Chief Electoral Officer for Northern Ireland Virginia McVea received a letter from the Speaker of the House of Commons saying that Mr Paisley was subject to a recall petition process.
- It will be the first time that the Recall of MPs Act 2015 for a recall petition process has been triggered.
- Ms McVea has 10 working days from July 25 to set up a petition of recall.
- People will be able to vote via a postal vote on demand, by proxy, or in person at a designated centre.
- The petition will be open for six weeks.
- If 10% of the North Antrim electorate sign the petition, Mr Paisley must stand down, and a by-election will be called.
- It is understood that a by-election process would start in the autumn at the earliest.