Sinn Féin - On Your Side

Full text of Sinn Féin's submission to the NI Affairs Select Committee

19 April, 2004


The Right to vote -- British government guilty of electoral fraud
211,000 people denied the right to vote

The democratic objective should be to facilitate the exercise of the right to vote, to enable the maximum number of people to vote and to remove deliberate and other impediments to the exercise of this fundamental right.

In May 2002 the British government, in a gross interference in the electoral process, introduced restrictive electoral legislation for the north of Ireland, which has resulted in the disenfranchisement of 211,000 voters (16.5% of the overall electorate).

This is not simply a failure of the system to register people to vote, this was designed to happen and legislated for in the 'Electoral Fraud (NI) Act 2002'.

The 2001 Census figures indicated that 1,280,480 people would be eligible to vote by 2004. Under the British government's 2002 electoral legislation, however, only 1,069,160 voters appear on the February 2004 register. This means that 211,000 people are being denied their vote.

If this political discrimination is allowed to continue the electoral register will continue to get smaller with every year that passes.

Political discrimination

This electoral legislation and the new practices, which it sets out are completely out of step with practices in the rest of Ireland and Britain. Among the discriminatory practices introduced in May 2002 were:

  • Individual registration of voters as opposed to household registration of voters, which is the case in the rest of Ireland and Britain.
  • A requirement on each individual to provide personal identifiers including date of birth and national insurance numbers when applying to go on the Register of Electors. Voters in the rest of Ireland and in Britain do not have to do this.
  • Annual Registration -- this form of rolling registration has caused huge confusion. Electors in the rest of Ireland and in Britain are not removed from the electoral register if they do not apply annually.
  • Statutory requirement on voters to produce personal photographic identification from a narrow band of photographic ID. This does not apply to voters in the rest of Ireland or to Britain.

This legislation was introduced on foot of false claims by Sinn Féin's political opponents that the party was involved in electoral fraud.

These allegations are not only untrue but hide the real reason behind the legislation which was to remove the number of actual or potential Sinn Féin voters on the Register of Electors and erect barriers to those who want to exercise their right to vote.

The Electoral Commission in its December 03 report commented thus on the question of electoral fraud: "Despite the fact that electoral fraud is perceived to be a major issue there are no statistics to support these widely held perceptions and there have been few if any successful prosecutions. Official reports published between 1997 and 2001 identified consistent themes in respect of electoral fraud in Northern Ireland. All confirmed that the extent of fraud was difficult to quantify and conclusive evidence was hard to obtain. Consequently the impact of the Act on actual levels of fraud cannot be gauged, as there is no readily available benchmark against which to measure."

This observation reflects the reality of the situation on the ground. The electoral process was turned on its head to facilitate those political parties making groundless allegations to explain away the decline in their support at the polls.

In addition to this there is evidence now emerging that the new regulations are adversely affecting people living in areas of high social and economic deprivation.

Research by the Electoral Commission has shown that the highest decline in electoral registration occurred in the top 20 most deprived wards of which 69% are catholic and 27% protestant.

This represents a serious adverse impact on the catholic/nationalist community in particular and exposes the highly political motivation behind the electoral legislation.

Those who supported this legislation must look to the effect it is having, not just in terms of denying large numbers of people their right to vote, but in the categories of people being affected: the poorest within the nationalist community and to a lesser degree the poorest within the protestant community.

It has affected the young, the old, those with disabilities and ethnic minorities.

The pattern emerging across the north is that this legislation is producing a two-tier system whereby affluent areas are returning high registration uptake and the poorest areas, mostly in deprived catholic and protestant wards are alarmingly low.

The social exclusion of large sections of the electorate breaches the existing anti-discrimination legislation. In terms of the catholic and nationalist people it does so on the grounds of religious belief and political opinion.

The right to vote is a basic democratic right. The denial of this right and the related issue of political discrimination cannot be allowed to continue.

Census Figures and Register of Electors
Eligible to Vote?

  • The following figures set out the facts -- those eligible to vote and those who are actually on the register and proves that the British government are guilty of electoral fraud. The information below includes:

- the number of people indicated as eligible to vote by the Census of 2001;

- the number of people on the Register of Electors published in November 2001 and compiled under the 'Representation of the People' Act,

- the number of people on the Register of Electors published in September 2003 and February 2004 and compiled under the new legislation the 'Electoral Fraud (NI) Act 2002'.

2001 Census: people entitled to vote:

  • The 2001 Census figure indicated that 1,233,753 people were entitled to vote at that time.

The Census figures also indicated that 104,727 young people would reach voting age between '01 and '04.

This makes a sub-total of 1,338,480 who are entitled to vote. This, however, is affected by the number of deaths -- 58,000 since the census was taken.

This reduction leaves a total of 1,280,480 approximately who are entitled to vote and who should be on the register of electors. Factors such as emigration would have an insignificant effect on this figure.

2001: Register of Electors Compiled under 'Representation of the People Act':

  • The Register of Electors published on 30 November 2001 contained 1,198,504 voters.

2003 and 2004 Register of Electors Compiled under 'Electoral Fraud (NI) Act 2002':

  • The Register of Electors on which the 2nd Assembly Elections were fought in November 2003 contained 1,097,551.
  • The Register of Electors published in February 2004 contained 1,069,160.

Discrepancy between electoral register and those entitled to vote

The most recent Register of Electors, as set out above, published in February 2004 shows a shortfall of:

- 28,391 on the September '03 Register of Electors

- 129,344 on the November '01 Register of Electors

- 211,000 on the Census figures of 2001, which indicated the number of people entitled to vote at that time and the number of young people who would reach voting age by 2004. (This figure has been adjusted to take into account the number of deaths since 2001.)

A pattern of annual reductions has been set in place by the new legislation.

In addition to the above 30,000 people were denied the right to vote last November because of the new photographic ID requirements: "There are approximately 30,000 people who, if they turn out to vote, would not have the applicable ID." Seamus Magee, Head of the Electoral Commission, 25/11/03.

The process is so complicated for voters that the Electoral Office, which is responsible for compiling the Register of Electors, lists 50 frequently asked questions about the registration process on its website.

Righting an undemocratic wrong -- summary of proposals

1. Household Registration should replace the new individual Registration scheme. This will require amending legislation.

2. Voter registration should take place every year and voters should stay on the register for five years.

3. Photographic and non-photographic forms of personal identification should be acceptable. These should include:

Irish, British and European passports

Irish, British and European driving licences including provisional driving licences

Government agency issued benefit books

Translink Senior Travel passes

Student and Trades Union membership cards

Marriage licence if married within the previous two years

Official electoral photographic identification

The Electoral Office should continue to provide mobile photographic booths across the north of Ireland to provide official electoral photographic identification.

4. Registration forms should be made widely available to the general public. They should be made available at Post Offices, Council Offices, libraries, advice centres, schools, colleges, universities and through political parties.

5. Electoral Courts should be abolished. The personal identifier requirements supplied on the registration form should be sufficient proof of identification and validation of an application.

6. Registration should be allowed up to 7 days before polling day.

Summary of Statistics

Census Figures 2001 and the Register of Electors

Shredding the Vote

16.5% of Electorate not registered to vote

Eligible to Vote 2004 1,280,480

Registered to vote 2004 1,069,160

Shortfall 2004 211,320

Shortfall as a percentage of the eligible vote 16.5%

The Census '01 and the Register of Electors

  • Census 2001 figures indicated the following:

- Eligible to vote at that time 1,233,753

- The number of young people to reach voting age

Between '01-'04 104,727

- The sub-total of the above is 1,338,480

- Approximately 58,000 names have been removed

from the register due to deaths between '01 and '04 58,000

- New sub-total eligible to vote '04 1,280,480

- Registered to vote '04 1,069,160

- Shortfall as between those eligible to vote and those

registered to vote 211,320

Register of Electors '01-'04

  • November 2001 1,198,504
  • September 2003 1,097,551
  • February 2004 1,069,160

Shredding the Vote

  • The February '04 Register of Electors shows a reduction of:

- 28,391 on the September '03 Register

- 129,344 on the November '01 Register

- 211,000 on the adjusted Census figures of '01.

A pattern of annual reductions has been set in place by the new legislation.

Photographic Identification

- Photographic ID: In addition to the above 30,000 people were denied the right to vote in the 2nd Assembly Elections because of the photographic ID requirements.

- "There are approximately 30,000 people who, if they turn out to vote, would not have the applicable ID."

Séamus Magee, Head of the Electoral Commission 25/11/03

Righting An Undemocratic Wrong -- background information

The democratic objective is to enable the maximum number of people to vote and to remove deliberate and other impediments to the exercise of the fundamental democratic right to vote. Towards this end Sinn Féin is proposing the following:

1. Voter Registration should take place every 5 years instead of the new arrangement, which requires voters to register every year or lose their right to vote.

In Britain a voter will stay on the Register of Electors for at least two years while in the rest of Ireland it is quite common for a voter to register only once in a lifetime. In both Britain and the rest of Ireland effective measures and processes are implemented annually to weed from the register names of people who, for instance, have died or left the jurisdiction, validate names currently on the register and to update the register with first time voters and others new to the register without resort to an annual register which removes voters who have not made application.

2. Household Registration should replace the new Individual Registration scheme. This would require amending legislation.

Household registration is the proven effective norm in England while in the rest of Ireland a process of continuous registration is the norm. The single application form used in both jurisdictions for all voters in a household also provides an effective trawl for first time voters and others who are proven to be particularly disadvantaged by the new scheme. This requires young people who have reached voting age to personally take the initiative to be included on the Register of Electors. The household register helps ensure that first time voters, the elderly, disabled or those with a learning disability do not fall through the net.

3. Photographic and non-photographic forms of personal identification should be acceptable. These should include:

- Irish, British and European passports,

- Irish, British and European driving licences including provisional driving licences,

- The range of government agency issued benefit books,

- Translink Senior Travelpasses,

- Student and Trades Union membership cards,

- Marriage license if married within the previous 2 years,

- Electoral ID Cards.

The Electoral Office should continue to provide mobile photographic booths across the north of Ireland to facilitate the provision official Electoral Identity cards.

In the rest of Ireland and Britain there is no statutory, universal requirement on voters to produce identification of any sort at polling stations on election day. An unquantifiable but significant number of voters in the north of Ireland were refused their right to vote at the last election because they could not comply with this regulation. This requirement discriminates again against a wide spectrum of the electorate including the young and the elderly, people with learning disabilities and people from areas of social deprivation. In the days preceding the November 2003 elections to the Assembly in the north of Ireland Séamus Magee, head of the Electoral Commission publicly stated that up to 30,000 would be denied their right to vote because of photographic ID requirements if they turned up at election stations.

4. Registration forms should be made widely available to the general public. They should be made available on-line and at Post Offices, Council offices, libraries, advice centres, schools, colleges, universities and through political parties.

The 2001 Census figures indicate that 1,280,480 people would be eligible to vote by 2004. The Electoral Office canvassed only 1,204,548 people in compiling the 2002 register under the new regulations. This further reduced to 1,098,301 individuals canvassed for the February '04 register. That is roughly the equivalent of the number of people on the September '03 register. This approach strongly suggests that we will see an annual reduction in the number of people registered to vote.

That is 182,189 individuals indicated as eligible to vote by the 2001 Census were not canvassed for the register of February '04 and did not receive an application form to register to vote.

5. Electoral courts should be abolished. The personal identifier requirements supplied in the registration form should be sufficient proof of identification and validation of an application.

Electoral courts exist in the rest of Ireland and in Britain but are rarely used. Indeed their used should be either random or where clear cause for challenge is present. However, their use in the north of Ireland, in relative terms, is extensive.* see below

The two-way function is for electors to challenge the absence of their name from the register and for the Electoral Office to challenge an application. The reality, in practice, is that electors who challenge the Electoral Office are more likely to turn up at an Electoral Court than electors whose application has been challenged by the Electoral Office. The latter simply do not want the inconvenience. This is a matter of individual commitment.

Moreover, the requirement that electors applying to get enrolled on the register furnish personal identifiers such as date of birth and national insurance number on their application form should be sufficient proof of identification and validation of an application. Instead of facilitating enrolment on the register the use of Electoral Courts and Personal Identification is being used as a 'belt and braces' approach to keeping electors off the register.

* On 14th February 2003 Sinn Féin local government Councillor Elena Martin forwarded by recorded delivery, 32 late applications to be enrolled on the Register of Electors to the Electoral Office in Banbridge, County Down. She attached a cover letter in her capacity as a publicly elected Sinn Féin representative. 28 of the 32 applicants were called before an Electoral Court. Later that month, Councillor Martin forwarded, in the same manner, an additional 18 applications. 10 of those 18 applicants were called before an Election Court.

6. Registration should be allowed up to 7 days before polling day.

Current practice could mean that an application to get on the Register of Electors would have to be submitted as long as 10 weeks in advance of an election and no shorter than 6 weeks in advance of an election.

For instance, the 26 November '03 Assembly elections in the north of Ireland were contested on the register published in September '03. The 16 June '04 European elections will be fought on the register published in early May. There is no good practical reason for not issuing a supplementary register later than these publication dates to accord voters their democratic right.

  • 211, 000 voters are not on the Register of Electors.
  • This represents 16.5% of the overall electorate.
  • An additional 30,000 voters could not vote at the last election because they did not have prescribed photographic identification.
  • The law and practices which give rise to this denial of a fundamental democratic right are applied exclusively to the north of Ireland.
  • Practices in the rest of Ireland and Britain seek to facilitate the electorate and not to erect barriers to the exercise of a democratic right.

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