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Last Updated: Monday, 24 November, 2003, 12:44 GMT
Policing the electoral register
By Joe Connolly

November is not the best time of year for Northern Ireland's electors to be heading to the polls.

The political parties are anxious about bad weather reducing the turnout and the experts are already predicting who will be the winners and losers as a result of this late autumnal date.
The 2001 register was based on a qualifying date in September 2000
The 2001 register was based on a qualifying date in September 2000

Since 1973, the Northern Ireland electorate has voted at 26 elections and three referenda, plus numerous by-elections.

It is a franchise that was achieved after many years of agitation and struggle.

With so many elections it is easy to forget it is only 34 years since all forms of plural voting and the ratepayer franchise were abolished.

It was claimed "one man - one vote" had finally arrived in 1969 - but had it?

All the evidence confirms that personation or vote stealing permeated every election since - and before - 1969.

Legislation from the Ballot Act 1872, a series of Corrupt Practices Acts and the more recent Representation of the People Acts reduced, but did not remove, opportunities for vote stealing.

'Tougher legislation'

Many thousands of correctly registered electors who rarely if ever voted, could be exploited.

Further opportunities were deliberately created by false or fraudulent registration. For example, the personator getting to the polling station before the genuine elector, which led to the often heard saying "vote early - vote often".

Where is the evidence for personation and how has it been addressed?

Ballot box
Registration is on an individual, not a household basis

During the 1980s and 1990s, every annual report by the chief electoral officer documented abuse and called for tougher legislation to combat vote stealing.

Although parliament responded to it in 1985 by requiring a number of identity documents to be produced at the polling station, only two of those most commonly used contained the voter's photograph.

Widespread forgery of medical cards made personation less difficult, and easier access to postal votes became another opportunity to consolidate abuse.

This was clearly demonstrated during the 1989 local government elections, when there were 548 cases of attempted abuse in one council area. This pattern continued through the 1990s.

Recent legislation means people are added and deleted from the electoral register at any time of the year.

'Considerable variation'

Registration is on an individual, not a household basis, and must include the voter's signature, date of birth and national insurance number, as well as the production of prescribed photo identity when they go to vote.

These strict rules represent the most significant changes to Northern Ireland's electoral laws since 1969, and while there is a temptation to suggest that vote stealing has finally been dealt with, judgement can only be made after 26 November.

However, there are both encouraging and discouraging factors that must form part of any interim conclusion.

Significantly, there are 93,483 fewer people entitled to vote on 26 November compared with the 2001 parliamentary election.

Postal votes are also now subjected to stricter controls and 'tied' to the applicant's registration form

This figure includes all 18 constituencies, ranging from 1,295 voters in Mid-Ulster to 9,588 in Belfast North. The considerable variation requires qualification.

Firstly, because of the new registration process, it is discouraging that a number of those entitled to vote are not included.

Unlike the "rolling registration" we have today, the 2001 register was based on a qualifying date in September 2000 and people who had died or moved house remained on the register.

However, as the electorate has always risen between elections, such discrepancies are traditional features.

A second and more encouraging factor is that stricter controls may have persuaded those with two addresses to register for one only. In past registers, there is documented evidence that many names were incorrectly included.

This occurred deliberately to make fraud more convenient and by householders innocently believing that family members living away might return home some day.

Absent voting

There is a third and even more interesting perspective regarding absent or postal voting - the greatest and almost undetectable source of electoral fraud.

At the 1998 assembly and 2001 parliamentary elections, 48,385 and 41,119 respectively exercised this facility.

Only time will tell if electoral fraud has finally been stamped out and if Northern Ireland has achieved 'one man - one vote'

While the electoral office is not yet in a position to give details of the figures for 26 November, there are indications that absent voting could be down as much as 50%.

Postal votes are also now subjected to stricter controls and 'tied' to the applicant's registration form.

The fact that November is not a holiday period would suggest a lower demand for postal votes.

A final factor in explaining the decrease within the new register, is the new provision allowing the presiding officer at the polling station to seek the elector's date of birth.

Only time will tell if electoral fraud has finally been stamped out and if Northern Ireland has achieved 'one man - one vote'.

The Electoral Commission's report - postponed to December - on the working of the 2002 Electoral Fraud Act will make interesting reading.

Joe Connolly is a former deputy returning officer.

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