Select Committee on Northern Ireland Affairs Second Special Report


Government Response to the Northern Ireland Affairs Committee Conclusions and Recommendations on Electoral Malpractice

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 electoral register.

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Officer has no statutory power to strike names from the register even if he has proof that a particular entry is no longer valid.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 Northern Ireland.

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 (paragraph 24).

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 (paragraph 29).

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 remaining documents.

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 cases.

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 be brought.

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 (paragraph 41).

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 under review.

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 problem.

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 votes.

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 (paragraph 60).

There are already measures in place to ensure that canvassers deliver registration forms to every household in Northern Ireland.

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 consideration.

The present list of identification documents which entitle a voter to a ballot paper must be replaced (paragraph 63).

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 (paragraph 66).

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 (paragraph 68).

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

May 1999

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