Northern Ireland Affairs Committee

Session 2004-2005

15 December 2004




COMMITTEE POINTS TO WORRYING TRENDS IN NEW ARRANGEMENTS FOR VOTER REGISTRATION

Chairman' comments on publication of the Report

The Northern Ireland Affairs Committee today published a report on Electoral Registration in Northern Ireland.

While the Committee considered that the elections to the Northern Ireland Assembly in 2003 and the European Parliament in 2004 had shown that the Electoral Fraud (Northern Ireland) Act 2002 had [probably]succeeded in reducing fraud and establishing a more transparent electoral system, a number of serious concerns about the arrangements had been revealed.

The Rt Hon Michael Mates MP, Chairman of the Committee, said:

"The names of just over 84% of those eligible to vote in elections in Northern Ireland were included in the electoral register in May.  While the level of voter registration of over 95% prior to the Electoral Fraud (Northern Ireland) Act 2002 was considered to be inflated, we are nevertheless deeply concerned at this stark decline.  There is evidence that the register is shrinking by about 1.5% per annum.  This situation is unacceptable and the Electoral Commission and the Election Office of Northern Ireland need to devise measures to halt the spiral of decline if the integrity of the electoral system is not to be damaged.

Mr Mates highlighted a number of the Committee's other main concerns:

" The Committee was concerned at the small number of young people whose names appear on the register.  Fewer than 25% of 17 and 18 year olds are registered to vote. 33% of 18 to 24 year olds are not registered.  These figures are unacceptably low. Bold and imaginative steps by the Electoral Commission are required to engage the interest of young people in the electoral process as a part of achieving 'normality'  in Northern Ireland.  The government has a part to play and should consider if curriculum changes could be made to ensure that 16 and 17 year olds are fully aware of the importance of voting.

" Fewer of the new photographic Electronic Identity Cards were issued than expected.  While there is a wide range of acceptable photographic identity documents which people are able to present before voting,  people in recent elections could not vote because their ID was considered unacceptable.  The new Identity Card is a useful initiative and efforts should be redoubled to ensure that those who would benefit from having a card are able to receive it.

" We consider the rule that voters' names are no longer automatically placed on the register irrespective of whether they have registered is a safeguard against fraud.  However, the election authorities need to be more pro-active in identifying those who have failed to re-register in order that they may be given a further opportunity to do so.  We think that this would assist in arresting the decline in the number of names on the register.

"We were most concerned to learn that the arrangements for registering people with disabilities and learning difficulties were less than ideal.  In particular,  the forms provided for them to register may be overly complex and off putting.  The Electoral Office needs to review these registration arrangements to ensure that, while the integrity of the registration process is preserved, the particular requirements of this group are addressed.

Mr Mates concluded:

"Proper institutional arrangements and full co-operation between the bodies responsible for elections must exist for efforts to improve the system of voting in Northern Ireland to succeed.  We heard from the Electoral Office of Northern Ireland that its funding arrangements are unsatisfactory.  We are recommending that the government reviews the arrangements to ensure that there is no administrative impediments to progress. We were also disappointed to hear of instances where co-operation between the Electoral Commission and the Electoral Office of Northern Ireland could have been improved. These bodies must lead the work to create an electoral system of excellence in Northern Ireland.  They need to ensure that in future their working relationship is an example to all stakeholders in this vital area of public life."