Northern Ireland Assembly Parties’ Panel: 13 June 2023

Meeting overview

Date: 13 June 2023

Time: 09:30 am

Date of next scheduled meeting: Tuesday 03 October 2023

Who was at the meeting

Electoral Commission;

  • Dr Katy Radford, Electoral Commissioner for Northern Ireland (KR)
  • Cahir Hughes, Head of Electoral Commission, Northern Ireland (CH)
  • Jonathan Mitchell, Manager, Northern Ireland Office (JM)
  • Roisin McDaid, Senior Officer (Political Parties Liaison) (RM)
  • James Ringland, Support and Information Advisor (JR)

Electoral Office for Northern Ireland;

  • Sarah Ling, Interim Chief Electoral Officer (SL)

Political Parties;

  • Democratic Unionist Party, D.U.P. – George Dorrian (GD)
  • Social Democratic & Labour Party, SDLP – Catherine Matthews (CM)
  • Ulster Unionist Party – Tim Lemon (TM), Ralph Ashenhurst (RA)

Disability Action NI

  • Nuala Toman (NT)

Royal Mail

  • Rachel Winham (RW)



1. Welcome, apologies and introductions

1.1 KR welcomed attendees and noted attendance.

2. Minutes from NIAPP meeting Tuesday 28 March and any matters arising.

2.1. Minutes were agreed.

3. Issues raised by political parties in advance of the meeting

3.1. No issues raised.

4. Post-election review – 18 May Northern Ireland Local Council Elections.

4.1. Post-election review 


a. Registration

CH informed the panel that registration was at its highest level to date with over 1.3m electors registered to vote in Northern Ireland.
CM praised the registration process and its speed in adding attainers to the register.

NT attending from Disability Action , explained that more communication around elections particularly with the deaf community in BSL and ISL is required. A process of education and engagement is needed and Disability Action welcome any steps to engage with difficult to reach voters.

SL stated that EONI has continued to work on accessibility. Once again, a telephone service in partnership with RNIB was provided with increased use this year. In polling stations, there was additional accessibility equipment including magnifying glasses, pencil grips and hearing loops upon request. Hearing loops were not regularly requested. EONI are happy to engage with all stakeholders to find out what they can do to improve accessibility.


b. Nominations

CM highlighted that the nomination forms were repetitive, asking the same questions multiple times. Condensing the process down might make for a smoother process.

SL stated that council feedback that the process went smoothly with most nominations received early.


c. Absent voting

SL stated that from EONI’s perspective it is resource intensive and the biggest single complaint for EONI to deal with. EONI are keen to make improvements, but they are restrained by the law. EONI will write to parties to gather further feedback. 

JM highlighted that following learning from the Digital registration number  (DRN) campaign in 2022 the Commission expanded its public awareness campaign, targeting particular demographics, including older adults via press and digital channels.

GD raised his concerns regarding the difficulties voters faced with the absent vote (AV) process. Many voters filled in the AV form and were then later told it had been rejected due to missing DRN. It affected mostly older voters. GD believes there needs to be some way to amend the process, so that there is a follow up. He also suggested the forms are reviewed.

SL understands the frustration the panel have with the DRN, but EONI is restricted by the law on what they can do regards to both AV deadlines and DRN.
The sheer volume of applications EONI had to process in the days before the deadline make it difficult to inform voters that their DRN is missing from an AV application form in time. Over 50% of applications are made within last day or two.
GD highlighted that the rejection letter informs someone that the issue is the DRN, but does not provide information on how to rectify this. SL stated that this is area they are keen to look at.

NT stated that the AV application process is complicated, especially for disabled voters as the language is confusing which can create a barrier for some.

NT informed the panel that many disabled people are still isolating due to Covid. Voting in person can make some voters anxious.

RA informed the panel that his party had received feedback which indicated that some people are feeling disenfranchised by the process but appreciates that EONI is bound by legislation, and they are listening to concerns.
SL confirmed that just under 70% of rejected AV applications were DRN related.

KR queried if a breakdown of age groups could be determined. SL was unsure but would look into this.

JM reminded parties of the candidate survey deadline of the,16 Friday and agreed it would be  recirculated to panel members..  

CH emphasised that the Commission was very aware of the challenges created by the DRN and reassured panel members that this will be addressed in the Commissions statutory report on the election.
due to published in the autumn.


d. Campaigning

CM highlighted that candidate spending limits were an issue. Prices have risen but limits haven’t and this needs to be looked at.

TL expressed concern that there has been a 20-40% increase in costs and whilst the budget was previously always tight he now finds it impossible. He added that candidates who had use of old materials from previous elections were at a clear advantage to those that were new candidates.

KR highlighted that the candidates using reused election posters may have had issues with the imprint if details had changed.

RW agreed that  Royal mail will examine uptake of freepost entitlement and compare against previous years to better understand the impact of spending limits.

NT raised that there is a funding package in England and Wales to encourage disabled persons to run in Elections however that is not available in Northern Ireland.
She also informed the panel a lot of campaigning material doesn’t meet the accessibility needs of some disabled voters and that electronic material and more easy read material would be welcomed. 

JM Explained that the Commission has done work in this area and agrees more needed to be done to  provide campaigning material in more accessible formats. 

NT has had individuals raise concerns about election material that appears handwritten, as it tiggers concerns over personal safety. 


e.  Polling stations

SL stated that polling day largely went well, despite some staffing issues, particularly dropouts up to and including polling day itself.
EONI received complaints about flags/emblems from different sides of the community on polling day andSL was aware of an issue regarding one elector being turned away despite having approved ID.
CM highlighted issues at her polling station with sample ballot papers, with poll staff unclear of the process for removing these from the polling booths
CM also highlighted issues with a family member being told they were not on the register when they attended their polling station, they had to return a second time before the poll clerk realised their error.
CM also highlighted issues with large groups of people outside polling stations and suggested the law is looked at in this area. KR thanks CM for sharing her personal experiences. 

NT stated that there were very few issues regarding accessible buildings, however Braille overlay is still an issue. Also communication inside a polling station should be considered as it can be a confusing or difficult place to navigate.

Mock ballot papers can be confusing for some and more communication on how to mark the ballot paper is needed.

NT agreed with CM that gatherings outside polling stations could be seen as intimidatory and that guidance should be issued on candidate/voter’s cars parked at polling stations as this can make it difficult for disabled users. However she also highlighted that many voters like to see candidates at their polling station as it provides an opportunity to see and engage with them. 

CM stated that some voters were asked name and addresses outside polling stations which is not appropriate. People should be entitled to not vote and not have people call at their house.

CH reminded the panel that EONI have a code of conduct for candidates and the Commission will be looking to review this with the new Chief Electoral Officer.

GD stated there is inconsistency with where you can/can’t stand outside a polling station and suggests that this should be clarified in the code of conduct.

RA stated that legislation is needed, as a voluntary code of conduct is not strong enough.

KR encouraged all candidates to complete the candidates survey to inform the Commission’s post-election report. 

SL acknowledged the concerns but highlighted that the law is silent on campaigning   outside of polling stations.

On the points raised by CM, SL commented that staff training can be a tricky issue especially with a large turnover, however EONI will be looking at creative ways to deliver training going forward.


f. Count

SL stated that EONI ran a central hub that had access to council spreadsheets Three councils finished on the Friday, but more work is needed to bring consistency on how counts are conducted. EONI will examine ways to drive the efficiency of the process.


g.  Candidate mailing (Royal Mail)

RW stated that the drop off, monitoring and distribution of election material went smoothly from Royal Mail’s perspective.

The measuring system in place shows that Royal Mail delivered 100% on time. 

CM thanked Claire Connolly from Royal Mail.

However wanted to raise issues with delays in artwork approval. 

RW Confirmed that the service level agreement is 48 hours for artwork clearance.

CM highlighted potential issues with postal workers delaying delivery.  RW stated they can look into this as this should not be happening. 

RA was very happy with Royal Mail this election, especially the support provided from Claire Connolly. GD agreed.


i. Spending and reporting.

Deadline for candidate returns 23/26 June depending on when the result for the relevant district electoral area was declared.

5. Update on Chief Electoral Officer.

5.1. CH Thanked SL for their time spent as interim Chief Electoral Officer.

5.2 CH informed the panel of the appointment of Dr David Marshall as the new Chief Electoral Officer for Northern Ireland. Dr Marshall is currently the Director of Census and Population Statistics at the Northern Ireland Statistics and Research Agency. He will take up the post on 7 August. 

6. Financial reporting dates for political parties.

6.1. 7 July is the deadline for audited statement of accounts (for parties with income or expenditure over £250k) for year end 31 December 2022.
30 July is the deadline for submitting Quarter 2 (1 April 2023–30 June 2023) donations and loans reports.

Parties were invited to renew their party registration when delivering their statement of accounts.

7. Promoting Equality, Diversity and Inclusion

7.1. KR thanked NT for attending and stated it was great to see some of the positive changes being made regarding the accessibility of polling stations and highlighted the positive experience of two transgender individuals who successful cast their vote on polling day without issue. 

NT thanked the panel for inviting Disability Action.  NT acknowledged that many of the points regarding accessibility had been raised earlier in the meeting. 

Accessibility changes within polling stations have been well received but the biggest barriers are now outside the polling stations. A process of education and engagement is needed. 

A move to digital voting would be welcomed from many in the disabled community as it would remove many of the barriers that exist in the process. 

NT stated that Disability Action is always happy to work with political parties to improve access for disabled voters.

8. Upcoming Meeting dates for 2023.

8.1. 03 October was proposed.

9. AOB.

9.1. RM clarified candidate return deadlines for local council elections.