Belfast Telegraph

General Election 2019

General Election: Aiken says UUP taking legal advice as chief electoral officer rejects claims votes were lost over NI registration processes

  • Ulster Unionist leader Steve Aiken confirms party taking legal advice
  • SDLP leader calls for full review of voting system
  • Chief electoral officer dismisses claims over registration process
Ulster Unionist Party leader Steve Aiken. Photo credit: Liam McBurney/PA Wire
Ulster Unionist Party leader Steve Aiken. Photo credit: Liam McBurney/PA Wire
A whistleblower has made claims about the Electoral Office

By Eimear McGovern

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

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The chief electoral officer Virginia McVea has dismissed the claims, which were 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 number of allegations about how voter registrations were handled in the lead up to the December 12 election.

It's raised questions about the outcome of the vote in seats with marginal majorities, 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.

New MP and leader of the SDLP Colum Eastwood has 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:

  • Valid applications for postal votes were rejected by the Electoral Office due to errors
  • 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
  • Potential voters were given an incorrect date for the deadline to submit additional evidence to support their application
  • Helpline operators on one occasion were asked to share one Nokia phone to field calls from all over Northern Ireland

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

"If the serious allegations from the whistle-blower are confirmed, then last weeks’ election was neither fair nor open for potentially thousands of voters across Northern Ireland.

"Allegations of members of the public being deliberately mislead 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 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 common-place.

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

The Chief Electoral Officer Virginia McVea released a statement to the BBC. She said: "The team at EONI work tirelessly for the people of NI and have done for many years. NI receives expert service from an expert team.

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Chief Electoral Officer for Northern Ireland Virginia McVea.

"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."

"Very importantly it is our whole team, including me, who 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 3 December at the start to be sure they would have it in in time.

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

Mr Eastwood described the claims as "significant".

"The claims made by a whistleblower this morning are significant and confirm reports we have received from a number of people who tried to vote in the election only to be told they were not on the register.

"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.

"People must have confidence in the democratic process. I understand that there was an immense amount of pressure on the Electoral Office and the closure of regional offices has contributed in a big way to that pressure. But there is no excuse for disenfranchising people.

"The SDLP has consistently made representations to the Electoral Office about comprehensive oversight of registration, postal and proxy voting. A full review is now necessary and I will be raising the matter with the Secretary of State today."

The whistleblower claimed he lost his job after advising a caller to the helpline to contact a local councillor with a complaint about the registration process.

"I felt like a lot of people were being impacted... a lot of people were very upset. Members of the public were phoning and finding out they wouldn't be able to vote in the election, people that had followed all the given steps and done everything correctly.

"There was a massive backlog of registrations that the electoral office needed to process and they didn't have the manpower to do it."

The whistleblower said that ten agents answered helplines in the office in a working environment he described as "chaos".

On one occasion, the helplines failed and they were given one Nokia phone to pass around to field calls from all over Northern Ireland, he alleged.

He said a backlog in voter registrations sat for several weeks, leaving voters only days to send evidence to prove address, which is usually only requested after an initial application is filed.

There was also internal confusion over when the deadline to register was, he said.

"A Thursday at the start of December, I came in and asked [if] the deadline was last night. And there was a 20 minute debate about when the deadline was. We told people that it was the third [of December], in reality it was actually the fourth.

"We were told "don't tell people it's the fourth". On the letters we sent out it was clearly given as the third. We didn't even know what time [the deadline] was."

The whistleblower said he was worried about the number of people the alleged issues around voter registrations may have affected.

"I would fear for the amount of people who just thought everything was OK. When it came to December 12, wait - what's going on here?"

"The only reason I know this is because people rang chasing it up," he said.

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

"It is a requirement in law that application forms are checked and we are required by law to seek additional advice if we cannot match the personal data against records.

"All absent vote application forms were processed in accordance with the law."

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 Molloy said: "If people can’t get registered then they are denied their most fundamental democratic right.

"There are clearly serious issues around the competency and effectiveness of the Electoral Office in relation to registration, postal and proxy voting applications and other matters during the most recent election campaign.

"There are allegations which go way beyond human error and incompetence. This needs urgently addressed.

"We also warned the Electoral Office that closing local offices would lead to further problems.

"If these serious and deeply worrying allegations are verified, and they certainly reflect the experience of people who contacted Sinn Fein, those responsible for the operation of the Electoral Office at its most senior level must be held fully to account."

People had until 11.59pm on November 26 to register to vote in the General Election.

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