ELECTORAL MALPRACTICE IN NORTHERN IRELAND
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
The Chief Electoral Officer's evidence identified
four main issues: multiple registration; personation; absent voting
abuse; and undue influence.
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. 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.
12. The system for collecting information for the
Register is as follows. The household registration form,
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.
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. After all
necessary amendments, the draft list becomes the new Register
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.
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.
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.
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.
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
In Mr Attwood's view, this snapshot of a limited area showed
only a part of the problem, which was extensive.
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
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
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,
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.
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.
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.
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
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. 
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.
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.
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
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.
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.
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
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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
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.
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. 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.
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.
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, 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. 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.
The present system of relying on party agents to challenge
in cases of personation is unrealistic and provides inadequate
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.
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.
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:
Newry and Armagh
Fermanagh and South
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
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.
The Chief Electoral Officer personally examined every single
application that was received for the last three elections in
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.
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.
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
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.
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.
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.
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.
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
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.
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
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.
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.
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
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.
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
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.
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.
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
Ev. p. 1ff and qq. 1 to 84. Back
See s. 9, Representation of the People Act 1983. Back
See s.1 (2), Representation of the People Act 1983. Back
"FORM A" Back
Ev.p. 104. Back
footnote 27 below. Back
Ev. p. 1 and Q. 4. Back
Q. 187. Back
Ev. p. 2. Back
Qq. 59 to 61. Back
Q. 61. Back
Ev.p.86: Interim Review, para 4.2.8. Back
Ev.p.108; those challenges account for the rise in successful
objections recorded for 1997 in the table in paragraph 13. Back
Q. 75. Back
Ev.p.87: Interim Review Report, para 4.2.17. Back
Ev.p.86: Interim Review, para 4.2.6. Back
Q. 11. Back
Northern Ireland's special provisions to curtail voting fraud
are contained in the Elections (Northern Ireland) Act 1985, which
amends the 1983 Act. Back
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
See ev.p.91: Interim Review, para 4.4.9. Back
See Parl. Deb. (HC) 22 July 1997, col 547-8. Back
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
Ev.p.90: Interim Review, para 4.4.1. Back
Ev.p.91: Interim review, para. 4.4.13. Back
Q. 231. Back
Cf Ev. p. 2. Back
Q. 193. Back
Q. 200. Back
Q. 193. Back
Q. 211. Back