Select Committee on Northern Ireland Affairs Second Report


Ways of cheating

10. Responsibility for the management of elections in Northern Ireland and the registration of voters lies with the Chief Electoral Officer for Northern Ireland. He is under a duty to report to Parliament annually about matters within his responsibility. He is otherwise formally independent - an independence which he cherishes.

The Chief Electoral Officer's evidence identified four main issues: multiple registration; personation; absent voting abuse; and undue influence.[7]

Multiple entries on the Register

11. The Registration Officer (in Northern Ireland this is the Chief Electoral Officer) has a general duty to prepare and publish a Register of electors and this includes the duty to take reasonable steps to obtain information required by him for that purpose.[8] This duty is essentially the same as that in the rest of the United Kingdom, except that there is a residence qualification in Northern Ireland which does not apply in the rest of the country.[9]

12. The system for collecting information for the Register is as follows. The household registration form,[10] which is the official vehicle for gaining the information about occupants of households, is posted to households. The householder is responsible for making an accurate return of all those living in the household who are entitled to vote. To avoid duplication, the form includes details of previous addresses where the address has changed in the previous 12 months.[11] The electors' list based on the returns is published, effectively as a draft Register. This is regarded as a major safeguard against fraud, as it allows political parties to scrutinise the list and identify suspicious entries and challenge them. Challenges to registered names are determined at a hearing attended by party agents.[12] After all necessary amendments, the draft list becomes the new Register of electors.[13]

13. Before 1988 the forms were sent back by post, but the Chief Electoral Officer changed this system in order to reduce the scope for fraud and to cope with incomplete forms.[14] Now, most forms are returned at the door to canvassers employed by the Chief Electoral Officer, who can help householders in completing the forms where necessary. Where forms are lost, a canvasser can issue a replacement. The following Table illustrates the drop in controversial cases, ie claims to be registered and objections allowed, over the time just before the new canvassing system was introduced and since then, although we note the sudden increase in the number of claims and objections in 1997.[15]

Draft Register

Claims Allowed

Objections Allowed


















new canvass system commenced









































According to the Chief Electoral Officer, these figures indicate that the Register is generally reliable in most parts of Northern Ireland, although, as he pointed out, these figures may also reflect a falling off in party activists' abilities to check names when more experienced party members retire.[16]

14. There may be multiple entries on the Register, where names are included of people who do not reside solely at one address. Frequently, this is because the person filling in the form will include absent family members who may be away studying or working. A typical example of this form of multiple registration, where a person may be on the electoral roll in two places, is that of a student who may be registered at his place of study during term time and at home in the vacation. As in the rest of the country, this multiple registration is not illegal (although previously it was, in Northern Ireland).

15. The danger with this flexible system, which is designed to allow maximum opportunity to everyone to register a vote, is that a second registration may be used either by the registered person to vote twice or by another voter who will personate the absent registered elector; in such circumstances it is often difficult to prove who has committed the offence. In the view of the Chief Electoral Officer, registration of family members and others who have since moved out is one of the main areas of abuse of the Register.[17]

16. Multiple entries on the Register can also be obtained through organised fraud. The BBC Northern Ireland programme "Spotlight", quoted in evidence by Councillor Attwood, indicated the use of accommodation addresses in Belfast where numbers of people were registered as living in one bedroom flats. Some of these people were also able to receive polling cards at various addresses and so vote many times in the same or in neighbouring constituencies.[18] In Mr Attwood's view, this snapshot of a limited area showed only a part of the problem, which was extensive.[19] The Chief Electoral Officer accepted that this multiple registration was "not appropriate". He pointed to the considerable difficulties posed in registering voters over the last twenty years.[20]

17. A further complication is that the motive for obtaining a false entry on the Register may have nothing to do with vote theft. There are examples of persons submitting a claim to be added to the Register in order to obtain a mortgage or credit. Some Building Societies and credit agencies use the Electoral Register as a means of checking credit worthiness and will only lend to those registered on the electoral Roll as living at a given address.[21]

18. The present system of compiling the Register is certainly not foolproof. It relies - as does much of the enforcement of the election rules - on the continued vigilance of party activists. This means that parties with a shortage of funds or volunteers will not necessarily be able to prevent fraud. Some constituencies in Northern Ireland may be seriously contested by only two parties. If one of them is less watchful or low on experience or local knowledge then there may be scope for considerable dishonest multiple registration. Although on paper the figures for doorstep canvassing of names for the Register is impressive,[22] at present they give no guarantee that in particularly hard fought areas there may not be a significant use of accommodation addresses for multiple registrations.

19. There is some official cross-checking. Unlike in the rest of the United Kingdom, the Registrar of Births, Deaths and Marriages does send details of deaths to the Chief Electoral Officer. At the last election, Mr Bradley came across five postal vote applications for dead people. Curiously, the Chief Electoral Officer does not have the power at present automatically to remove the names of dead people from the Electoral Register.[23] As the law stands a person turning up at a polling station with one of the identification documents in the name of a dead person cannot be refused a ballot paper by the clerks. On notification by the Registrar of Births, Deaths and Marriages of a person's death, the Chief Electoral Officer should have the power to remove their name from the Electoral Register immediately. Stealing votes from the dead is, however, a minor problem compared to the theft of votes particularly from those who are away from home or who do not normally vote.[24]

20. There are already informal arrangements for informing the Chief Electoral Officer about changes in properties by the Planning Service and other official bodies, so that he can take into account which houses have been demolished or turned into flats or otherwise altered. This allows the Electoral Office staff to make spot checks on claims for registration which are received by post. The Secretary of State's Electoral Review team in their Interim Report note the possibility of formalising these arrangements, subject to overcoming any problems about data protection.[25] Cross-checking with information from the Planning Service and local authorities is a useful way of combating organised fraud, especially when inappropriate numbers of occupants are shown in relation to small flats or even when derelict properties are used as accommodation addresses. The present arrangements for doing this should be formalised. The registration form could usefully include a section for the householder to include details of the number of bedrooms in the property.

21. The complete extent of multiple registration whether on an organised scale or not is unknown. Nonetheless, the SDLP have produced some evidence that indicates that there are a surprisingly large number of voters in Northern Ireland who have the same name. Before the 1997 General Election, the SDLP discovered 18,000 names in West Belfast which appeared more than once on the electoral Register for the area. This compares with 6,000 on a London Register for an area which has a large Irish community. While this evidence is in no way conclusive, it raises some doubt about the reliability of the West Belfast Register.[26] There can be no doubt about some cases, however. The SDLP challenged 204 entries on the Register for a small area of the Lower Falls in late 1996, partly to demonstrate the unreliability of the system. 101 of the objections were allowed. [27]

22. It is misleading to speak of vote stealing throughout Northern Ireland as if the level was constant. There are problems in specific areas which are hard to canvass. Although he was speaking in the context of absent voting abuse, Mr Bradley did identify concentrated areas of abuse in a sector which stretches from Newry, Armagh right along the border, through County Fermanagh and County Tyrone right up to Londonderry and which encompasses the most highly contested electoral areas.[28] It is hard to resist suspecting that these areas produce the most questionable registration claims. In particular, West Belfast is, in Mr Bradley's opinion, "one of the most difficult, if not the most difficult" area in the British Isles for canvassing purposes.[29]

23. An accurate Register is vital. Without a trustworthy Register, there can be no secure confidence in the electoral system. At present, it is not absolutely clear how reliable the Register is. We do not share the confidence of the Interim Review Report that "while there may be some scope for some minor adjustments to the current system for the registration of electors in Northern Ireland, in actual terms the accuracy of the Register is not seriously in question."[30] On the contrary, in our view the evidence indicates that there may be a serious level of multiple registration, at least in some parts of Northern Ireland.

24. The doubt over the accuracy of the Register raises the question whether multiple registration should continue as a right. There are several arguments in favour of a continuing right to register in more than one place. Clearly those who regularly travel to take up jobs elsewhere in the United Kingdom or who study away from home should not be denied the right to vote at home. With parliamentary elections being subject to short notice it is not automatically possible to protect the right to vote by regarding the workplace or place of study as the appropriate place to register. Generally, it is desirable to make the electoral process within the United Kingdom as uniform as possible - the right to register in more than one place exists throughout the country. We also note the view of the Interim Review that multiple registration is not a problem, but that multiple voting is.[31] However, the right to multiple registration seems to be a cause of avoidable doubt in the accuracy of the Register - perhaps innocently, where people living at more than one address may find themselves registered in more than one place. It contributes to the difficulty of prosecuting successfully those who steal votes and identifying responsibility for wrong entries in registration forms because of the possibility of genuine mistakes. We acknowledge that registration in more than one place is a useful right for students and others. Those who have a legitimate reason to register in two or more places should be allowed to do so, but should be under a duty to indicate that they are doing so and where the other registered addresses are.


25. Personation is where a vote is stolen by someone who pretends to be another person entitled to vote. In previous years there was extensive personation. The Chief Electoral Officer was shocked by the organised personation which he saw during his visits to polling stations during the two 1981 by-elections in Fermanagh­South Tyrone. Afterwards, he reported his concern to the Secretary of State.[32] His protest led to the introduction in 1985 of the requirement to produce a form of identification before a ballot paper will be issued. In Northern Ireland, therefore, personation now necessarily involves producing a form of identification that is forged or stolen.

26. The documents which can be used as identification are defined in the Representation of the People Act 1983, Schedule 1 (Parliamentary Elections Rules), as amended, and include a current driving licence, current United Kingdom or Republic of Ireland passport, current Department of Health and Social Security payment book for pensions or allowances, a medical card issued by the Northern Ireland Central Services Agency for the Department of Health and Social Services, a marriage certificate (if the voter is a recently married woman) or a British seaman's card issued under the Merchant Shipping Act 1970.[33] The reason for the long list of documents which can be accepted is that not everyone possesses a Northern Ireland driving licence or passport, both of which include a photograph of the bearer. The list therefore includes widely used cards which are easily obtainable free of charge. A shorter list restricted to documents with a photograph would risk disenfranchising those in poorer social groups, who are less likely to have a car or travel abroad.

27. The introduction of a requirement for identification before a ballot paper can be issued has not removed the possibility of personation and has created further administrative problems. Because there is a fairly wide range of potential documents to scrutinise, polling station officials (many of whom are temporary staff) often have difficulty in checking that a particular identification document is valid. Even Mr Bradley has been caught out. He recounted a story of when he had refused the votes of three people at a polling station on the grounds that he was not satisfied with the medical card produced as proof of identity. Within about 15 minutes the people returned and convinced him beyond any shadow of doubt that they were genuine voters.[34]

28. At every election local offices make returns of arrests for personation or complaints that they receive. These statistics are inevitably unrelated to the actual extent of personation in Northern Ireland, since there are cases where, in the absence of a person authorised to make a challenge, a ballot paper will be issued and someone who is clearly suspect will be able to vote.[35] As a result of the restriction on the right of challenge, as well as the genuine difficulty in distinguishing cleverly forged medical cards from real ones, it was difficult for the Chief Electoral Officer to give clear evidence about the extent of vote stealing. When we asked him whether he had any means of quantifying how many fraudulent attempts had been made to obtain votes through the use of forged medical cards he could only guess that in the last ten years there were not much more than 20 specific proven instances. This gives a false picture of the extent of the problem, however. A police search of a house in Londonderry found burnt remnants of false medical cards where clearly there had been sophisticated attempts at forgery.[36] We note Mr Bradley's view that while medical cards remain as one of the accepted identity documents there will be problems associated with abuse.[37]

29. It is apparent that medical cards can be easily forged or applied for fraudulently. This may apply to other documents on the list of accepted proofs of identity, such as allowance books. The Chief Electoral Officer referred to a perception among his staff of a well organised campaign of forgery of medical cards. The forged cards are convincing and have improved in quality.[38] Medical cards do not provide adequate safeguards against forgery (and, we suspect, may easily be obtained by fraudulent applications to the authorities). The medical card is not a sufficiently protected document to provide safe identification and it should no longer be included in the list of accepted identifiers for polling purposes.

30. As the law now stands, a person wishing to vote is entitled to a ballot paper once he has satisfied the official that he has a valid identification document. Staff are not entitled to challenge a would-be voter unless there is reasonable doubt in the documentation.[39] Where polling staff have doubt about a particular person, they are not entitled to make any enquiries other than the regulation questions: whether the person wishing to vote is the person registered at a particular address; and whether they have voted in that election already.[40] Even if a polling clerk is entirely certain that the person is not who they claim to be, he or she is obliged to issue a ballot paper.[41] By asking these questions, the officials put the party agents on notice that there is some possible doubt about the person asking for a ballot paper.[42] It is then up to the party agents to challenge the credentials of the person attempting to vote.

31. Although the Chief Electoral Officer has attempted to help party agents with their duties scrutinising claims for ballot papers,[43] the reliance exclusively on the party agents does not amount to a reliable safeguard against personation. It assumes that parties will put polling agents into every polling station, which they do not.[44] If there is a shortage of manpower, party workers are much more likely to be employed in bringing supporters to the polling stations. In many cases officials are the only people who are on hand to ensure compliance with the law.[45] The present system of relying on party agents to challenge in cases of personation is unrealistic and provides inadequate protection.

Absent voting abuse

32. As elsewhere in the United Kingdom, if voters are unable to attend at their local polling station on election day they may apply for an absent voting paper or a proxy vote. To do so, a voter does not need any proof of identity, as he would if he were to attend personally to vote. There is a permanent list of absent voters, made up of those who are too ill to attend or who have some other permanent cause which prevents them from attending at the polling station. In addition, voters may apply for a postal or proxy vote for a particular election. In the case of parliamentary elections particularly, because of the short notice period, there is a rush of last minute applications from those who are not on the permanent list, in the main submitted by political parties.[46] For example, before the General Election on 1 May 1997, the chief Electoral Officer received ten thousand applications just hours before the deadline. A large proportion of these were from one political party.[47] This clearly makes close scrutiny of applications very difficult for the Chief Electoral Officer and his staff.

33. There is a remarkably high rate of absent voting in some areas. Postal votes are claimed by a larger number of people than might be expected given Northern Ireland's population. The following Table sets out the numbers of absent voting papers issued in each of the parliamentary constituencies in Northern Ireland for the General Elections of 1992 and 1997:[48]

Parliamentary constituency

Absent voting




North Down








South Down




Lagan Valley




Upper Bann




Newry and Armagh




Fermanagh and South













East Londonderry




North Antrim




East Antrim




South Antrim




Belfast North




Belfast East




Belfast South




Belfast West




West Tyrone[49]








There is a surprising difference in the number of postal votes issued between constituencies, nearly by a factor of ten. The fact that postal votes are issued in hard-fought constituencies

does not prove fraud, since it may simply be the effect of greater keenness among voters and political parties, but it does create considerable suspicion.

34. The Chief Electoral Officer has acted on this suspicion. After elections he has scrutinised many applications for absent voting.[50] The Chief Electoral Officer personally examined every single application that was received for the last three elections in Northern Ireland.[51] These were sorted out into alphabetical sequence within each ward which allowed comparison of signatures which ostensibly were from the same person. His office analysed the reasons given on the application form for the person's being unable to vote. In some cases these were contradictory. For example, a person might be described as being totally incapacitated on one form but be said to be abroad on his holidays on another. In one case a doctor attested that an applicant could not leave their home, but a statement on another application for the same person for a different election said that the person was a long-distance lorry driver.[52]

35. As a result of this work, the Chief Electoral Officer referred 361 suspect applications to the police for investigation. A sample of 95 cases were investigated. 73 were believed fraudulent and 22 proved to be genuine. According to the police, the main method of fraud involved applications using an elector's name and address to make an application; the form sent to the applicant would then be intercepted in the post. The target group for having their votes stolen were those who were judged least likely to vote, namely: the infirm; the old; students; known alcoholics; or those who had never voted in the past. The information on suitable targets was collected through a combination of local knowledge and use of the marked-up Registers for previous elections, which show the names of those who did not vote. The votes of such people can easily be stolen without trace.[53]

36. It is comparatively simple to isolate cases where there is some doubt about applications. The Chief Electoral Officer emphasised, however, that it was impossible at present finally to decide which case is genuine and which false because there is no collection of specimen signatures on file. Three applications with three different signatures may or may not mean that all three are false. Before a poll when time is short he does not know which to disallow without having genuine signatures to compare them against.[54]

37. Despite the difficulties of finally assessing the extent of this form of abuse, Mr Bradley is satisfied beyond any shadow of a doubt that the problem is extensive and involves otherwise law-abiding citizens. In the month before he came to give evidence to the Committee he personally identified some 100 cases of people from varied backgrounds who have included the householder's children who had not been there for a number of years on the household registration form.[55]

38. Abuse of absent voting is not new: in 1989, for example, there were 548 specific cases in the Newry-Armagh area of suspected postal vote abuse in which the police determined at least one­half of those were definitely fraudulent.[56] In Mr Bradley's view, it constitutes the commonest form of vote stealing in Northern Ireland. Although the regulations requiring identification have not by any means eliminated personation, they have made it harder to personate successfully; fraudulent applications for absent votes provide a comparatively easy and safe way to steal votes. Absent voting provides a serious threat to the integrity of the electoral system in Northern Ireland - a view with which the Interim Review agrees.[57]

39. The rules regarding applications for absent voting are oddly lax, in comparison with the requirements for those who vote in person. The means of proving that the application is genuine is attestation by a witness who may be a doctor, nurse, or Christian Science practitioner. The attestation does not make it plain that the health worker is treating the applicant, merely that they think the applicant "to the best of [their] knowledge and belief" cannot reasonably be expected to vote because of physical incapacity. In practice, this means that prosecution for fraudulent attestations are next to impossible. This problem was noted in the Interim Review Report.[58] Those attesting absent voting applications should be required to declare that they are treating the applicant for the physical incapacity which prevents them from voting or, in cases where there is no continuing treatment, that they are the applicant's medical practitioner.

40. The Registers for previous elections, which are marked up by polling clerks showing the names of those who have voted, are available to political parties after polling day. The purpose of giving out the information is to permit legitimate canvassing of those who need encouragement to vote. The marked-up Register provides a simple way for assessing which people do not vote normally. As we note above [paragraph 35], in the context of Northern Ireland this also means that valuable information is handed to those who use it to cheat either by applying for absent votes in the names of those who are shown as not usually voting or by personating them.

  41. We raised with the Secretary of State the question of keeping marked-up lists secret. She was cautious about the reaction of Northern Ireland political parties to withdrawal of the right to see marked-up Registers.[59] For example, in their written evidence to us Sinn Féin said that the Register as marked up should continue to be available to "ensure a greater participation by the electorate in the election process".[60] We recognise the value to political parties - and to the electoral process as a whole - of keeping marked-up Registers in the public domain. Nonetheless, because of the ease of voting fraud, the Chief Electoral Officer should examine experience in the next five years and report on whether the problem continues.

Undue influence

42. Although undue influence was one of the categories of electoral malpractice identified by witnesses, in particular by the Chief Electoral Officer, there was comparatively little evidence given of its extent. It is probably the form of voting abuse least easy to measure, since it includes a wide range of activity. Section 115 of the Representation of the People Act 1983 refers to the threat of, or use of, any force, violence or restraint to induce or compel any person to vote, or refrain from voting, but also where there is the use of any fraudulent device or contrivance to obtain the same end.[61] Mr Bradley included under this heading not only intimidation, but also the use of activists to follow postmen delivering postal votes and then to call at houses to collect the postal vote forms or the votes themselves. He had received complaints about this kind of illegality both from political parties and individual electors.[62]

43. Councillor Attwood referred to the management of the polling station on the day of an election as enabling undue influence to exist. He pointed to anecdotal evidence that information is passed out of polling stations to activists in order to determine who has not voted either to encourage those people to vote or to get somebody to vote fraudulently on their behalf. In addition, he referred to the very heavy concentration of resources in and around polling stations by one or more political parties. For example, he told us that in West Belfast there are regularly large numbers of people outside polling stations canvassing for political parties, with tally vans where people go and record that they have voted and where party workers determine who has not voted. As a consequence, he thought that there was an adverse environment created whereby people feel under pressure on the way in to polling stations to vote.[63] Violence is never very far from the surface in such circumstances: Councillor Attwood has himself been assaulted - once while pursuing would-be personators in order to find out where their centre of operations was.[64]

44. Mr Attwood's preferred solution to this form of undue influence was to create an exclusion zone in and around polling stations where no party would be allowed to canvass, to loiter or to try in any way to influence how people are voting. He noted that under electoral law in the Republic of Ireland there is an exclusion zone of 100 metres from a polling station where nobody is allowed to gather if their purpose is to try to influence in any way the outcome of an election.[65] He recognised that such a rule would create a difficulty of enforcement, especially in areas such as West Belfast, but thought that public opinion and press attention on any breaches of such a rule would act as sufficient deterrent to law breakers.[66]

45. We gave his proposal careful thought. We do not share his confidence that public opinion and press attention would act as a sufficient guarantee that any such law would be obeyed, much as we sympathise with the genuine problems which he and others face in operating within an area that has known a high level of violence. In the often feverish atmosphere of an election, a genuine expression of strong local opinion which is regulated by a police presence might effectively cause more problems that it would solve. The police themselves might be left vulnerable to accusations that they were putting local people under undue pressure. On balance therefore we do not recommend that there be an exclusion zone for canvassers outside polling stations.

7   Ev. p. 1ff and qq. 1 to 84. Back

8   See s. 9, Representation of the People Act 1983. Back

9   See s.1 (2), Representation of the People Act 1983. Back

10   "FORM A" Back

11   Ev.p.104. Back

12   Ev.p.105. Back

13   Ev.p.104. Back

14   Ev.p. 104. Back

15  See footnote 27 below. Back

16   Ev.p.105. Back

17   Ev. p. 1 and Q. 4. Back

18   Q.187ff. Back

19   Q. 187. Back

20   Ev.p.105. Back

21   Ev. p. 2. Back

22   Ev.p.104. Back

23   Qq. 59 to 61. Back

24   Q. 61. Back

25   Ev.p.86: Interim Review, para 4.2.8. Back

26   Ev.p.44. Back

27   Ev.p.108; those challenges account for the rise in successful objections recorded for 1997 in the table in paragraph 13.  Back

28   Q. 75. Back

29   Ev.p.105. Back

30   Ev.p.87: Interim Review Report, para 4.2.17. Back

31   Ev.p.86: Interim Review, para 4.2.6. Back

32   Q. 11. Back

33   Northern Ireland's special provisions to curtail voting fraud are contained in the Elections (Northern Ireland) Act 1985, which amends the 1983 Act. Back

34   Q.33. Back

35   Q.32. Back

36   Q. 34; and see ev.p.76, letter from the RUC, dated 11 February 1998: the Felon's Club, Andersonstown Road, Belfast was searched on 27 January by the RUC as part of an investigation into alleged irregularities under the Registration of Clubs (Northern Ireland) Order 1998. Approximately 200 blank application forms for duplicate medical cards (Form HS100) were found in the manager's office along with two Registers of Electors for Ward 2630 Upper Springfield. Names and addresses in one copy of the Register were highlighted. Back

37   Q.34. Back

38   Q.33. Back

39   Q.31. Back

40   Q.23. Back

41   Q.26. Back

42   Q.25. Back

43   Q.28. Back

44   Q.201. Back

45   Q.32. Back

46   Q.12. Back

47   See ev.p.91: Interim Review, para 4.4.9. Back

48   See Parl. Deb. (HC) 22 July 1997, col 547-8. Back

49  West Tyrone is a new constituency, made up of areas which were formerly in Foyle and Mid-Ulster. The new constituency of Mid-Ulster includes parts of the former Mid-Ulster constituency, East Londonderry and Fermanagh and South Tyrone.  Back

50   Q.4. Back

51   Q.5 Back

52   Q.11. Back

53   Ev.p.75. Back

54   Q.14. Back

55   Q.4. Back

56   Q.5. Back

57   Ev.p.90: Interim Review, para 4.4.1. Back

58   Ev.p.91: Interim review, para. 4.4.13. Back

59   Q. 231. Back

60   Ev.p.75. Back

61   Cf Ev. p. 2. Back

62   Ev.p.2. Back

63   Q. 193. Back

64   Q. 200. Back

65   Q. 193. Back

66   Q. 211. Back

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