Select Committee on Northern Ireland Affairs Second Report


Quality of available evidence

46. A frustrating aspect of this enquiry is the quality of the evidence on which to base findings. Although we wrote to all the political parties in Northern Ireland, the response was varied. There was some evidence based on particular cases and much useful coverage of the impression which exists about the integrity of the electoral process in Northern Ireland, but there was limited coherent evidence of the extent of vote stealing. We were not alone in finding evidence hard to collect. In its initial evidence to us the Northern Ireland Office commented on the disappointing amount of evidence sent in to the official Electoral Review.[67] There have been many allegations of voting fraud, in particular made by representatives of political parties, but the allegations have not always been precise. Much of the evidence of fraud is anecdotal and circumstantial. Gossip has not translated into hard evidence. In particular, there is a notable lack of concrete information on the prevalence of voting fraud. As a result, the extent of the problem is hard to define. It is possible that the fear of intimidation has contributed to this reticence.[68]

47. The Chief Electoral Officer himself is unsure about the extent of the problem. He has asked those political parties who have complained about personation for specific details that would enable him to start an investigation which could ultimately involve the police. He told us that he has still not received any specific instances.[69]

48. We found it difficult to gain a clear picture of the extent of the problem from Mr Bradley. For example, on page 1 of his report, paragraph 2.3, headed "Multiple registration", the second sentence says: "There have been allegations of deliberately false multiple registrations in some constituencies as part of a planned electoral abuse campaign." Mr Bradley's response was unclear when we asked him how many of those allegations there had been.[70]

49. As a result, some may argue that the amount of vote stealing in Northern Ireland is less then many allege. For example, Sinn Féin in their written evidence told us that the issue is exaggerated by parties opposed to Sinn Féin's participation in elections.[71] We do not accept this view, however. Police searches have revealed that medical cards can be expertly forged and absent voting applications fraudulently prepared and indicate the existence of very professionally organised vote stealing. Councillor Attwood estimated that the votes stolen on polling day within one constituency are between 1,000 and 2,000, on the basis that the polling stations are open from seven to ten with 75 or 80 boxes and assuming a regular trickle of votes to be stolen at each box during each hour of the polling day.[72] This is hardly a scientific method of assessment, but it is one founded on long experience of campaigning in one area. We have no reason to suppose that the estimate is wildly wrong, at least within the area where he is an active politician. On the basis of the wide experience of those active in political life in Northern Ireland and, in particular, the product of police searches and enquiries revealing organised arrangements for forging medical cards and abuse of absent voting applications, there is sufficient evidence of organised voting theft to indicate that the problem of electoral malpractice in Northern Ireland is serious.

50. Witnesses were careful to avoid saying that any particular parliamentary result was obtained in effect by fraud. But there are elections where narrow victories are secured which must throw serious doubt on the integrity of the process. There are circumstances where not only the result but also the margin of the victory are of public interest. Vote stealing does result in electoral advantage, particularly in multi­seat constituency elections and in particular in district council areas. We note that in the Forum election of 1996, in West Belfast the SDLP lost out on a second seat by 43 votes. Mr Attwood was in no doubt that in that election another party gained fraudulent votes.[73]

51. Despite our certainty that vote stealing is a serious problem in Northern Ireland it is difficult to collect evidence. Although we have come to conclusions about some useful changes to the electoral system, there is a danger inherent in attempting to remedy a problem without having sufficient facts on which to base new policy. When we deliberated on the possible methods by which vote stealing might be successfully combated, we bore in mind the comparative uncertainty of much of the evidence.

Possible solutions

52. The subject of electoral malpractice is at present being studied closely by Government. The Secretary of State has received her Review Body's Interim Report. The Report is provisional, with reservations being placed on the findings that more consideration of the issues and more research are needed before final conclusions can be reached. Nonetheless, the Report notes, rightly, the perception among those in political life in Northern Ireland that electoral abuse is widespread.[74]

53. The Home Office is also engaged in a review of the United Kingdom arrangements for running elections. It may be that some of the recommendations which emerge from central Government will render the suggestions contained in this Report obsolete.

54. The most obvious example of a reform which would significantly alter the scope for vote stealing is the introduction of national or general identity cards. In the absence of a change which involves the entire country, we do not regard such identity cards as a realistic option for Northern Ireland. We do, however, return to electoral identity cards in paragraph 64 below.

55. One of the chief shortcomings of the present system is the reliance for upholding the law on temporary staff, who are open to intimidation or who have very restricted powers, and party agents, who may not be present at a particular polling station.[75] The present system ensures that those attempting to steal votes have a high chance of escaping detection or, if detected, that they can avoid prosecution. Our basic aim is to suggest a mechanism which is reliable and restricts as far as possible the need to rely on the exercise of discretion or judgment by temporary officials or party agents in polling stations. Where possible, the refusal to issue a ballot paper should be automatic. It follows that the system of checking applications for votes must be more secure. The level of abuse demands better verification procedures in the entire election process. The various methods of suppressing abuse must interconnect to form a more organised set of safeguards.

56. The backbone of the system is the Register. As we have already noted (paragraph 23), without a reliable list of those able to vote there can be no effective limit on voting fraud. Further information about voters will help officials to verify household returns for the Register or check absent voting applications. No single piece of information is going to provide an absolute guarantee against fraud, but the harder it becomes to falsify proof of identity the more the balance of effort and gain turns away from favouring vote cheats. Useful identifiers which might be included in applications to register as a voter are the date of birth (which would have the practical effect of preventing a father from voting in his son's name) and the voter's national insurance number. Neither of these pieces of information is completely secure, particularly against organised vote theft, but their use would deter opportunistic fraud.

57. The Chief Electoral Officer favours including each voter's signature on the application for registration. The signatures would then be held on a central database for cross-referencing applications for postal or proxy votes. Electors would be asked to sign for their ballot paper, with their signatures being checked by machine.[76] We note the Interim Review Report's comment that this might place too much burden on electoral officials in certain areas where the prospect of intimidation might further deter staff from serving. Although the problem of intimidation must not be underestimated, in our view this objection falls if a machine is used to check signatures. We regard this as a useful addition to measures to fight fraud. If this were implemented, in a short time the Chief Electoral Officer will have a computer database of all electors' signatures. This would allow cross checking of signatures on applications for absent voting.

58. An essential component of checking should be the inclusion of every elector's signature on the Register and on an application for absent voting. The signatures collected should be digitised and accessible in polling stations. When voters apply for a ballot paper, subsequent to the presentation of personal identification documentation, they should sign for it; their signature as a matter of course should be compared with the copy on the Register. The signature should be the basis of the decision, to be taken by the presiding officer, whether a ballot paper should be issued. In cases of doubt, the elector could fill in a tendered ballot paper.

Registration forms should contain more identifying details to overcome the problem of illicit multiple registration and to make fraudulent applications in another's name harder. These should include date of birth, a signature and the National Insurance number of the voter.

Where possible, applications for postal votes should include a telephone number to allow verification either on a routine basis or as spot checks.

59. One of the means by which votes are stolen is theft of application forms from the post. Delivery and collection of all voting forms by canvassers at the door would prevent abuse arising from interception of postal voting forms which are delivered at present by the ordinary mail. There is evidence (referred to above) which indicates that door to door canvassing is effective. We note the assertion in the Interim Review Report that it is not possible to collect forms from every household,[77] but we regard door to door canvassing as a useful addition to the protection of the Register's accuracy. This is particularly important in checking absent voting abuse. Where possible, all registration should be carried out by door to door canvassers. In cases involving absent voting applications, the voter should be required to fill in a card with their signature, which can then be sent to the Chief Electoral Officer.

60. If the Committee's recommendations are put into effect the need for a reliable Register to be compiled will be even greater, since the registration process will in practical terms be starting afresh. The Chief Electoral Officer's duty to compile a trustworthy Register, especially on the first occasion after implementing our recommendations, should require him as a matter of universal practice in Northern Ireland to ensure that canvassers deliver forms to each household. Where the householder is absent, the canvasser should call again, leaving a card if there is still no one at home which will say when the canvasser will call again. The canvasser should call a third time and if no one is still at home, leave a copy of Form A to be returned.

61. The Chief Electoral Officer has already put significant effort into improving the use of information technology in administering the voting system. The potential for new technology to improve the security of the poll is considerable. Computers could collate information using sources of corroborative information: telephone numbers; National Insurance numbers; and addresses. The address would give an indication of the likely number of people who could be expected to live there from the type of house or flat that exists in a particular area. In cases where there was a suspiciously large number of electors registered at one address, the Chief Electoral Officer could investigate whether the premises were serving as an accommodation address for dishonest multiple registration. The system would be able to identify duplicate names which might need investigation. Those moving house could be automatically updated, on application. Notes could be kept of applications for absent votes or proxies and the reasons, as well as multiple registrations. It is essential that the Chief Electoral Officer be given the technology he needs to collate useful corroborative information for checking details on the Register and applications for absent voting.

62. A "rolling Register", which would be constantly updated, would remove surges of work. It would allow random checks of those registered at particular addresses. It would overcome the problem of multiple registration by allowing regular changes to reflect where a voter was to be on any particular polling day. There may be practical problems with establishing a rolling Register only for Northern Ireland without establishing one in the rest of the United Kingdom, but such a move would be of practical help in maintaining a trustworthy list of electors. We recommend that the option of setting up a rolling Register in Northern Ireland be considered.

63. Sinn Féin expressed support in their memorandum for abolition of all forms of identification, which they regarded as unnecessary and discriminatory.[78] We do not regard it as realistic to remove the requirement for identification at polling stations; its only effect would be to give complete freedom to criminals wishing to personate voters. Modern society requires most citizens to carry extensive identification documents whether in the form of credit cards, cheque cards, identification at work or other documents. The additional requirement to produce a recognised form of identification on polling day does not represent a significant intrusion on civil liberties. What is clear is that the present list of documents is unsatisfactory as they do not provide adequate guarantee against forgery or fraudulent applications. The present list of identification documents which entitle a voter to a ballot paper must be replaced.

64. We considered the possibility of introducing an electoral registration card for those without official means of identity which include a photograph. The Secretary of State, rightly, expressed dislike for a system which provided for different types of documentation, according to whether a voter drove a car or had travelled abroad. She felt that this was divisive and we agree.[79] For this reason, we do not recommend that the present identification documents, which are accepted at polling stations and which seem to be easily forged, be replaced with an identity card for those without driving licences or passports. Any new system of identification should be common to all voters in Northern Ireland. The Interim Review considered the option of an identity card specifically for elections with approval, subject to the need to carry out more research.[80] It recognised that the "smart card" for election purposes is probably "the most effective option for combating electoral malpractice in Northern Ireland".[81] We agree. We therefore recommend that the present list of documents which prove identity should be replaced by a new, universally issued electoral card. This card would be read electronically and if a valid vote had already been cast in that election then the presiding officer would be required not to issue a ballot paper.

65. It follows that possession without lawful excuse of more than one such card should be an offence.

66. The electoral system requires a credible form of enforcement of the law. At present, we regard the low figures for successful prosecutions for vote stealing to be an indictment of the present system of enforcement which is unacceptably weak. There are understandable reasons why the police often find collecting evidence difficult. There are circumstances where it may not be possible to identify, to the standard required to obtain a criminal conviction, those guilty of electoral fraud. Nevertheless, it is unacceptable that there should be both untraced vote stealing on a wide scale and, when electoral theft is uncovered, that there should be such a poor record of successful prosecutions.

67. The enforcement of the law relating to voting and the presence of the RUC are difficult questions. There can be great sensitivities surrounding the presence of police or army units in or around polling booths. Although the present rate of prosecutions for vote stealing show a serious ineffectiveness in the system of enforcement of the law, we do not recommend that the RUC should take on an increased role in challenging suspect voters in polling stations.

68. Usually personators run away when challenged, but there are cases where they may stand their ground; this will particularly be so when a voter has used a stolen vote the first time and has returned to cast a valid, legal vote the second time. There are civil remedies available to those who are falsely challenged. The penalties for false challenge arising from a civil bill for false imprisonment are considerable and can act as a deterrent to proper challenges.[82] It is difficult to balance properly the rights of citizens to cast their votes without challenge and the rights of society to maintain the integrity of the electoral process. If greater corroborative data is kept and a more secure system of identification is introduced it should be easier to show reasonable grounds for suspicion. For example, if universal voter cards are introduced, any that are produced in suspicious circumstances might be kept in a plastic bag and fingerprinted later. Therefore, in circumstances where a party agent does draw the attention of the presiding officer to a suspected irregularity, there should be no liability resting on the agent for such a challenge - except in cases where the challenge is proved to be malicious.


69. Although overall it is desirable to keep the electoral system in Northern Ireland as similar to that in the rest of the United Kingdom as possible, circumstances in Northern Ireland are different. Whatever political settlement may be obtained in the future, past experience with the terrorist threat, intimidation in some areas and the highly charged political atmosphere demands greater safeguards than in the rest of the United Kingdom. These considerations justify a close control over the electoral process. This already exists to some extent, but it must be improved. As witnesses pointed out, there has to be a balance between security and intrusion on personal liberties. We believe that our proposals keep that balance by maintaining wide access to voting with protection of the voting process.

70. We have suggested a package of measures which, taken together, will make vote stealing much harder. No safeguards can completely deter practised, professional criminals, but they can radically alter the ease with which offences are committed and the gain to the perpetrator. The recommendations in this Report should significantly reduce opportunistic theft of votes and increase the chance of detection and successful prosecution of organised electoral malpractice.

71. The need for reform of the voting arrangements in Northern Ireland is pressing. We accept the realism of the Secretary of State's view (shared with that of the Chief Electoral Officer) that there is insufficient time to put substantial change in place before the people of Northern Ireland may be asked to vote on their future form of Government later this year.[83] We note that the Secretary of State did leave open the possibility that change might be effected in time for the European elections in 1999: we expect that any recommendations that we have made, if acceptable, should be implemented at the earliest possible date. The public in Northern Ireland deserve nothing less than the confident assurance that, whatever the result of their votes, the outcome will have been fairly reached and will reflect their true opinion.

67   Ev.p.57; see Interim Report. Back

68   Q. 213. Back

69   Q. 14 and ev. p. 5. Back

70   Qq. 7&8. Back

71   Ev.p.75. Back

72   Q. 202. Back

73   Q. 207. Back

74   Ev.p.93: Interim Review, para. 5.1. Back

75   Q. 186. Back

76   Ev. p. 7; and ev.pp.88 and 89: Interim Review, para's 4.3.10 and 4.3.23 - a reading device could verify whether 17-18 out of 20 pressure points match. Back

77   Ev.p.86: Interim Review, para. 4.2.12. Back

78   Ev.p.75. Back

79   Q. 228. Back

80   Ev.p.88: Interim Review, para. 4.3.17ff. Back

81   Ev.p.89: Interim Review, para. 4.3.20; but see ev. p. 7 for the Chief Electoral Officer's less enthusiastic view. Back

82   Q. 186. Back

83   Qq.217 and 257; and 2; and ev. p. 6. Back

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