Government Response to the Northern Ireland
Affairs Committee Conclusions and Recommendations on Electoral
1. The Northern Ireland Affairs Select Committee
Report published in March 1998 has made an important contribution
to Government thinking on electoral procedure in Northern Ireland.
2. Many of the Select Committee's recommendations
will be put into practice when the Government makes its planned
moves to individual registration and signature verification leading
to an electoral card. These steps, along with investigation teams
to identify fraudulent applications are intended to eliminate
abuse of the voting system and reinforce the integrity of the
3. Our response to the Select Committee's individual
recommendations is detailed below.
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 (paragraph 19).
Unlike claims for the inclusion on the register which
can be heard throughout the year at monthly intervals, objections
can be made to the draft register only between its publication
date and noon on 16 December of each year. After this date, the
Chief Electoral Officer has no statutory power to strike names
from the register even if he has proof that a particular entry
is no longer valid.
There would appear to be significant gains to be
achieved from the parties and the public taking a greater interest
in checking the register. However we consider that a continuous
system of claims and objections needs to be further explored to
maximise the benefits of the Chief Electoral Officer's liaison
with housing authorities and the Registrar General.
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 (paragraph 20).
It has been suggested that an interface be set up
with agencies such as housing bodies and the DHSS which would
make it possible to update and verify information on registration
forms. The CEO already liaises with housing and planning authorities
who inform him of any changes in the status of properties i.e.
houses split into flats, properties being condemned etc., as well
as notifying him of any new building appointments. We recognise
that there may be benefits in the Chief Electoral Officer having
a more formalised arrangement whereby all property and planning
organisations are statutorily obliged to inform the Electoral
Office of any changes. The implications of this will be examined
in the light of other developments to combat electoral abuse in
The evidence indicates that there may be a serious
level of multiple registration, at least in some parts of Northern
Ireland (paragraph 23).
Multiple registration is not illegal and is not necessarily
a sign of electoral fraud. However illegal multiple voting is
an issue which needs to be addressed.
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
Government became aware during the Elections Review
that there was some support for an end to the legal practice of
multiple registration on the basis that it is difficult to prevent
an elector who is registered more than once from voting more than
once. At present, multiple registration is not a offence. The
issue of multiple registration is one which Government will be
addressing as part of the move to individual registration.
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
It is accepted there are problems associated with
the current list of specified documents. The medical card is one
of the easier documents to forge and so is an easy target for
any individual or group to abuse. Likewise, it is recognised that
the other documents are also far from secure. However, if medical
cards were simply removed from the list of specified documents
it would certainly result in eligible electors being disfranchised.
It is also likely that those looking to forge identification documents
would switch their attention to the next most susceptible of the
Government would therefore accept the Committee's
concerns. As indicated in our Review, the measures we are considering
implementing i.e the move towards an electoral card represents
the best way forward.
The present system of relying on party agents
to challenge in cases of personation is unrealistic and provides
inadequate protection (paragraph 31).
This aspect was of most concern to political parties
where responsibility for challenges suspected personators lies
with the party appointed Polling Agents. There is considerable
support among the Northern Ireland political parties for removing
this responsibility. In many cases, the Electoral Office already
have difficulties finding staff for polling stations in particular
areas. If Presiding Officers were made responsible for identifying
and challenging suspected personators the staffing of problematic
areas would become even more difficult, if not impossible in some
Absent voting provides a serious threat to the
integrity of the electoral system in Northern Ireland - a view
with which the Interim Review agrees (paragraph 38).
Concern about the potential for abuse is probably
greatest with regard to the absent voting facility. It is the
belief of the Government that these concerns are well founded.
This is largely because of the lack of verifiable identification
required of applicants. The Chief Electoral Officer for Northern
Ireland believes that up to half of all the absent vote applications
for the 1997 Local Government Elections were suspicious.
The Government's recommendations on individual registration,
signature verification and investigation teams are aimed at combating
this form of abuse.
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 (paragraph 39).
This problem has already been addressed by the Government.
Under previous regulations an application for an absent vote for
an indefinite period on medical grounds was attested by a medical
practitioner, a nurse or a Christian Science Practitioner. The
attestor in these cases was required to confirm that the applicant
is receiving treatment from them already or was under their care
for the condition. This requirement was introduced to discourage
medically qualified attestors from attesting applicants 'blind'
which was considered to have happened in the past. In November
last year Government introduced the Representation of the Peoples
Act (Northern Ireland) (Amendment) Regulations 1998, and the Local
Elections (Northern Ireland) (Amendment) Order 1998. These provide
a similar requirement for the medical attestation statement in
respect of 'one-off' absent vote applications on medical grounds
for a specific election. This requirement should, therefore, discourage
false attestations or make it easier to prove if a health worker
has falsely attested an application, and enable prosecutions to
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
The availability of the marked electoral register
has been highlighted in the past as giving cause for concern.
Its existence enables anyone who has access to it to compile a
list of names of those eligible electors who regularly choose
not to exercise their vote. Absent vote applications are then
requested in respect of these individuals. The eligible elector
will thus be unaware that their vote has been used. It also enables
some party organisations to target those who did not vote by sending
dubious accusatory letters which some electors find offensive.
This alone could be reason enough to disallow copies of the marked
register to be made available.
Government accepts the Committee's recommendation
and will be asking the Chief Electoral Officer to keep the position
We do not recommend that there be an exclusion
zone for canvassers outside polling stations (paragraph 45).
Government agrees with this conclusion. During the
consultation period of our Review some of the political parties
made representations suggesting that a ban be placed on all electioneering
activity on the actual day of elections, as voters may feel intimidated
when they see canvassers or other party activists or supporters
near polling stations. However we are not aware of any complaints
made about specific incidents of political activists intimidating
electors in or around polling stations on polling day.
There is sufficient evidence of organised voting
theft to indicate that the problem of electoral malpractice in
Northern Ireland is serious (paragraph 49).
Government acknowledges that electoral malpractice
is a problem in Northern Ireland but it was also the conclusion
of our internal review that hard evidence of electoral malpractice
is difficult to obtain. Government believes the best way forward
is to introduce the planned measures of individual registration,
signature verification and investigation teams.
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 (paragraph 58).
Government supports the thrust of this recommendation
and as stated elsewhere, the proposed measures on individual registration,
signature verification and investigation teams should combat the
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.
The Government's planned move to individual registration
will automatically capture the signature of each individual registered.
Further consideration will be given to what additional information
would be of greatest value in combating electoral fraud.
Where possible, applications for postal votes
should include a telephone number to allow verification either
on a routine basis or as spot checks (paragraph 58).
Government does not accept that telephone numbers
would give an accurate verification of applications for postal
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 (paragraph 59).
While door to door canvassing is the basis of registration
in Northern Ireland, the Government does not believe that it is
a practical way to deal with absent vote applications. Our own
proposals concerning absent vote applications are designed to
reduce the scope for fraud.
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
There are already measures in place to ensure that
canvassers deliver registration forms to every household in Northern
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 (paragraph 61).
Government recognises the importance of ensuring
that the Chief Electoral Officer has the technology he needs to
perform his duties. This will be taken forward as the various
anti-abuse measures are introduced.
We recommend that the option of setting up a rolling
Register in Northern Ireland be considered (paragraph 62).
This is an issue which is under consideration by
George Howarth's Working Party on electoral procedures. The implications
for a rolling register in Northern Ireland will be given further
The present list of identification documents which
entitle a voter to a ballot paper must be replaced (paragraph
The Government acknowledges some of the shortcomings
of the existing identification documents, and is of the view that
our proposed measures, moving towards signature verification and
an electoral card, offer a solution to the problems of electoral
malpractice in Northern Ireland.
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 (paragraph 64).
Government supports steps to introduce an electoral
card in Northern Ireland.
It follows that possession without lawful excuse
of more than one such card should be an offence (paragraph 65).
The Government will consider this recommendation
if a card is introduced in Northern Ireland.
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
Government is concerned about electoral malpractice
of all kinds and the measures it intends to introduce are designed
to combat this. As we have already indicated obtaining sufficient
hard evidence to mount prosecutions has proved extremely difficult.
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 (paragraph 67).
Government agrees that the RUC should not take on
an increased role in challenging suspect voters in polling stations.
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
While we understand the pressures which party agents
may feel, the question of liability of party agents making a false
challenge of suspected irregularity is a matter for the courts.
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 (paragraph 71).
The Government are wholeheartedly committed to ensuring
that the people of Northern Ireland are able to exercise their
vote freely, and fairly, as they are entitled to do. As we have
noted above the Government introduced two important changes in
electoral procedure in November 1998 which will be in place for
the European Elections on 10 June. Following the completion of
consultation on the recommendations in the Review report we are
now beginning work on a plan to implement a series of changes,
many in line with the Select Committee's recommendations, designed
to provide further protection against electoral abuse in Northern
Ireland, and to ensure that the people can continue, to echo the
Select Committee's words, to have the confident assurance that
their elections are fair.
Northern Ireland Office