ELECTORAL MALPRACTICE IN NORTHERN IRELAND
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. 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.
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.
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.
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.
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. 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.
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.
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.
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
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. 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. 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,
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.
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. 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.
It recognised that the "smart card" for election purposes
is probably "the most effective option for combating electoral
malpractice in Northern Ireland".
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
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.
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.
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
Ev.p.57; see Interim Report. Back
Q. 213. Back
Q. 14 and ev. p. 5. Back
Qq. 7&8. Back
Q. 202. Back
Q. 207. Back
Ev.p.93: Interim Review, para. 5.1. Back
Q. 186. Back
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
Ev.p.86: Interim Review, para. 4.2.12. Back
Q. 228. Back
Ev.p.88: Interim Review, para. 4.3.17ff. Back
Ev.p.89: Interim Review, para. 4.3.20; but see ev. p. 7 for the
Chief Electoral Officer's less enthusiastic view. Back
Q. 186. Back
Qq.217 and 257; and 2; and ev. p. 6. Back