Northern Ireland Assembly Parties’ Panel: 7 June 2022

Meeting overview

Date: 7 June 2022

Time: 10:00am

Date of next scheduled meeting: Tuesday 25 October

Who was at the meeting

The Electoral Commission:

  • Dr Katy Radford, Electoral Commissioner for Northern Ireland (KR)
  • Cahir Hughes Head of Electoral Commission, Northern Ireland (CH)
  • Jonathan Mitchell, Manager of Electoral Commission, Northern Ireland (JM) 
  • Roisin McDaid, Senior Office (Political Parties Liaison) (RM)
  • Hannah Greenfield, Digital Comms Officer

Electoral Office for Northern Ireland:

  • Virginia McVea, Chief Electoral Officer (VM)

Political Parties:

  • Alliance Party - Peter McCully (PM)
  • DUP - George Dorrian (GD) and Ashleigh Perry
  • SDLP (Social Democratic & Labour Party)  – Catherine Matthews (CM)
  • Sinn Féin - Gary Fleming (GF)
  • Ulster Unionist Party – Stephen Nichol (SN)


  • Alliance Party of Northern Ireland – Sharon Lowry

May 2022 post-election review – 5 May Northern Ireland Assembly Election

KR invited feedback from the Panel. CH advised that feedback would inform the statutory Electoral Commission (EC) report on the election.

Absent voting

CM raised that electors didn’t know they needed to keep their digital registration number (DRN) to obtain an absent vote.
CH noted that it was difficult to reach electors that needed to be aware of the number. The EC ran a highly targeted digital advertising campaign aimed at groups likely to apply for an absent vote, however JM raised that more digital and particularly partnership work was required to reach the target audience. 

VM raised concerns that it was difficult for people to obtain an absent vote and that the Secretary of State wouldn’t allow her to move the absent vote deadline. The difficulty for EONI was the short time period between electors realising they needed their DRN and the deadline for sending in their absent vote applications. EONI attempted to get press coverage on the issue but this had low take-up due to the complicated nature of the issue.

GF thanked EONI, EC, and the Royal Mail for their working relationships throughout the election period. GF reiterated the DRN was a major problem for the reasons outlined by VM, adding that the public aren’t focused on the election until they receive their poll cards, which left a very tight window for receiving their DRN. CM restated that whilst party reps and candidates try to encourage engagement, it doesn’t happen early enough. PM asked VM what the response time was for EONI sending out DRN notifications. VM stated there was no backlog on this during the election so letters were sent the same day (unless there was no post that day). VM advised that as there are no plans to amend legislation, more work will be required in future.


GD raised a problem with a nomination paper that passed a pre-check but a subscriber moved house (before the papers were formally submitted) causing an issue in the final nomination process. VM advised that without advance notice from candidates it is not possible for EONI to foresee this type of issue. 

VM outlined the work EONI did to improve the nominations process such as using an online booking system and setting up pop-ups in council offices.


CH highlighted the unsavoury nature of some campaigning at the election and requested views. GD raised that there had been damage to election posters and that some election posters had been stolen. This was more common in rural areas.

CM stated that campaigning had been particularly difficult during this election with posters stolen and burnt and candidate subject to online abuse. CH stated that it is important that people do not feel intimidated when running as a candidate. VM advised she received complaints about the behaviour of some candidates on and around polling day. GD reiterated that there was more online abuse for both men and women. PM stated that for the Alliance Party there was more intimidation when entering certain communities, particularly towards younger candidates. KR highlighted that we would engage with campaigners to tackle this cross-cutting issue and highlighted the Assembly Women's Caucus as a potential group to work with on this issue.

Candidate mailing (Royal Mail)

CC stated there had been no major issues for the Royal Mail. CM thanked CC for the service provided however, in some areas, electors stated they hadn’t received the addressed mail and others hadn’t received the unaddressed mail. There were also three different postings to be sent at different times but some households received all three together. CM also questioned why all mail had to go to Mallusk. CC advised that for the Assembly Election the mailing is handled centrally, however she would raise this internally.

SN also thanked CC for their help during the election. They commented that a small number of unaddressed mail had bleed-over from one constituency to another. They also raised an issue with artwork checking as some candidate mailings included information on joining a party which was not approved by Royal Mail.

Public awareness

JM outlined the Electoral Commission’s six-week voter registration campaign in the run up to the election and the targeted DRN campaign. CH updated the panel on the learning resources created by the Commission to support young people’s political literacy which will be built on at future elections.

Polling stations

CM raised concerns about the behaviour of some campaigners and polling agents at some polling places and that she thought that some polling staff were not confident challenging it.  VM stated parties needed to ensure campaigners behaved within the rules and within the voluntary code of conduct and asked that parties let her know of issues on polling day so she could send out polling station inspectors. VM thanked parties for complying with Covid-19 guidelines but acknowledged the circulation of polling agents could have been an issue.

GD advised they had noticed more campaign literature left in polling booths. He mentioned a particular polling place where restrictions on vehicle access close to the entrance had caused accessibility issues. VM advised she would look into this.
GF stated they didn’t have many issues, however early on polling day, some polling agents weren’t allowed access to the polling station. VM advised this had been an administrative error and apologised.

CH invited VM to raise any issues she had found. VM outlined difficulties with staffing as many had dropped out last minute citing Covid-19 as a reason. Another issue was that some schools did not want their grounds used as a polling place.

The count

CH invited feedback on the count. Participants acknowledged that the count took a long time. GD raised some issues with facilities given the length of the count. GF acknowledged the improvements to the Meadowbank count centre, however noted that a queue outside prevented access to the start of the count. He stated there were also issues with counts moving at different speeds. He suggested the use of a digital calculator to improve this. VM advised the slower pace was also due to the voting patterns of electors, but she would work with statisticians to examine were efficiencies in the count can be found.

VM apologised about the issues with amenities and suggested that in future EONI may subsidise caterers. It was also raised that the layout of the Jordanstown count centre had impeded a disabled attendee. CM reiterated the problem with the queue at Meadowbank, and also suggested count centres have a facility, such as a screen for privacy in case of medical issues. CM also highlighted that she had requested more chairs as people were on their feet for a long time at the count. VM advised EONI would review the efficiency of the count and look at what improvements can be made.

Spending and reporting

RM reminded the parties that returns were due in August. The guidance had been significantly updated this year and there were two briefings before the election for the candidates, and one for the parties. RM requested feedback on this.

CM advised that candidates found the forms complicated and that the virtual seminars were appropriate but that they were not as helpful as in-person meetings. RM acknowledged that candidates had difficulties completing forms, but as they were prescribed in law she said the EC could look at how to make the explanatory notes link better to various parts of the form.

GD stated there was a new generation of people taking on agent roles and acknowledged the party’s role developing the knowledge of agents, but that any additional guidance would be welcomed. CH acknowledged that more guidance would be useful. RM asked the parties if earlier seminars would be useful. CM advised that the issue is more with ensuring the right people are taking on agent