Belfast Telegraph

UUP and SDLP seek answers over whistleblower's claims that many were denied vote

SDLP leader Colum Eastwood
SDLP leader Colum Eastwood
UUP leader Steve Aiken
Chief electoral officer Virginia McVea

By Eimear McGovern

Ulster Unionist leader Steve Aiken has said the party is seeking legal advice after claims by a whistleblower that many voters in Northern Ireland were denied the right to vote in last week's election.

Chief electoral officer Virginia McVea has dismissed the allegations, made by a temporary helpline operator to the BBC's Nolan Show.

The 23-year-old whistleblower, who was sacked from his role, made a series of claims about how voter registrations were handled in the lead-up to the December 12 election.

It has raised questions about the outcome of the vote in marginal seats, including Fermanagh-South Tyrone. Sinn Fein's Michelle Gildernew won the seat with a majority of just 57 votes over the UUP's Tom Elliott.

A candidate who wants to contest an election result has only 21 days to do so.

SDLP leader Colum Eastwood, the new MP for Foyle, called for a full review of Northern Ireland's voting system and Electoral Office processes. Mr Eastwood said he will raise the matter with the Secretary of State Julian Smith.

The whistleblower told the BBC that:

l Valid applications for postal votes were rejected by the Electoral Office due to errors;

l Some applications to register to vote were only processed 24 hours before the deadline to submit additional evidence, such as proof of identity or address;

l Potential voters were given an incorrect date for the deadline to submit additional evidence to support their application; and

l Helpline operators on one occasion were asked to share one Nokia phone to field calls from all over Northern Ireland.

Mr Aiken said: "Confidence in the electoral system is absolutely essential.

"If the serious allegations from the whistleblower are confirmed, then last week's election was neither fair nor open for potentially thousands of voters across Northern Ireland.

"Allegations of members of the public being deliberately misled over deadlines would be especially unforgivable if proven to be true.

"Even before these latest allegations came to light, my party had serious concerns regarding the recent operation of the Electoral Office of Northern Ireland (EONI) and we had planned to pursue this directly with the organisation.

"We were aware of examples of hand-delivered applications for votes - for both new registrations and for absent votes - simply never being processed, and when we sought explanations we were told the forms were never received.

"Crucially, we have examples of such forms being delivered in person to Belfast for voters in the Fermanagh-South Tyrone constituency.

"The centralisation of the EONI to Belfast has been a total disaster. Phone lines were jammed, paperwork was going missing and clerical errors were commonplace," he claimed.

"We are currently taking legal advice in relation to what steps we may now take."

Ms McVea told the BBC: "The team at EONI work tirelessly for the people of Northern Ireland and have done for many years. Northern Ireland receives expert service from an expert team.

"We, like every electoral team across the UK, have to employ temporary staff at election times to answer the thousands more calls we get.

"Our phone system is adequate but BT lines were down in Belfast one day.

"We followed their advice on what to do and were treated as priority urgent customers but we have no way to control external infrastructure failures. The staff are well trained over a number of days and continually supported."

Ms McVea said staff were available to answer queries and resolve issues through the election period by phone, email and in person.

"We are very well used to dealing with queries as our team is expert. Staff advised the public to get evidence in by December 3 at the start to be sure they would have it in on time," she added.

"In the last few days of the lead-up, staff told people December 4, and every single piece of evidence to midnight on December 4 was processed.

"I have been able to double-check that. All election timetable dates were on our website and available throughout the election.

"We are duty-bound by law to keep processing until the deadline and so it's true sometimes we have to ask for evidence right up to the last hours, even if we think a person could not get information in on time, because that is the right of the public and indeed they will go on the register albeit if too late for voting that time."

In a further statement, Ms McVea said: "All applications received before the deadline were processed in time for every successful applicant to be on the register in time to vote on December 12 election."

Sinn Fein MP Francie Molloy has said the Electoral Office must be held fully to account in the wake of serious allegations about the operation of the office.

Mr Eastwood said: "The SDLP raised concerns on an individual basis with the Electoral Office but it's clear that there must be a full review of the processes which led to this."

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