Summary of the letter
Date: 8 July 2019
To: Rt Hon Karen Bradley MP, Secretary of State for Northern Ireland
Address: 1 Horse Guards Road, London, SW1A 2HQ
From: Anna Carragher, Electoral Commissioner Northern Ireland
Format: Sent by email
Dear Secretary of State
Northern Ireland local government elections – May 2019
As you will be aware the Electoral Commission has a statutory duty to report on the administration of certain elections in the UK including those to the UK Parliament and the
Northern Ireland Assembly. Although this provision does not extend to local government elections in Northern Ireland, and as we have done previously, we nevertheless wanted to share our assessment and conclusions with you on the May 2019 local elections in Northern Ireland and to highlight a number of areas where legislative action is required by the Government, or in some instances administrative action by the Chief Electoral Officer for Northern Ireland. Further background and information on actions that should be taken are attached to this letter.
Our overall assessment is that the local government elections were well run with few problems. Three quarters of those surveyed in our research (75%) told us that they were
confident that the elections were well run, with 71% saying that they were satisfied with the process of voting on 2 May. Feedback from Commission representatives and
accredited electoral observers was also largely positive with only a small number of localised issues identified, which we have highlighted to the Chief Electoral Officer.
The Chief Electoral Officer has continued to build on the improvements made at previous elections and this contributed to the successful delivery of these elections. This was
particularly challenging given ongoing structural changes to the Electoral Office for Northern Ireland and the fact that many local council Chief Executives were acting as
Deputy Returning Officers for the first time. As such, credit is due to the Chief Electoral Officer, the staff of the Electoral Office and the Deputy Returning Officers of each of the councils for the delivery of well-run elections.
The local council elections were the first to take place since the introduction of online electoral registration in Northern Ireland last year. We ran a public awareness campaign to encourage the public to register online; during this campaign period almost 75,000 applications to register to vote were made, of which 90% were made online. In our postelection survey more than eight in ten electors (84%) told us that they were satisfied with the system of registering to vote. It is pleasing to see that the public are engaging with the democratic process and it is clear that the introduction of online electoral registration has contributed positively to this.
Nevertheless the processing of such a large number of applications, along with absent vote applications, placed a significant administrative burden on the Electoral Office with staff having to work late evenings and weekends to complete the necessary work. The Chief Electoral Officer and her staff did process all applications within the statutory timeframe but it is clear that this will continue to be a challenge, with associated risks, at future polls. We are aware that the Chief Electoral Officer is considering what more could be done to effectively manage this process in the lead up to an electoral event and we are happy to provide any advice and support to assist in this.
Although the overall administration of the election went well we did identify a number of issues which should be addressed before the next set of local elections in 2023. In some cases these will require legislative change by the UK Government. These are set out in more detail in the attached appendix but include:
- Amending the Electoral Law (Northern Ireland) Act 1962 to remove the requirement for candidates to have their home address published on the statement of persons nominated and on the ballot paper
- Addressing an anomaly in legislation which currently prevents the Commission from handling appeals of polling station reviews for local government elections in Northern Ireland
- Improving the efficiency and management of election counts at local government elections by updating legislation relating to the administration of the count
- Reviewing other aspects of the administration of the elections
In addition to the above it is clear that the uncertainty around, and then late announcement of, the European Parliamentary election also had a direct impact on the delivery of the local elections. The administrative challenges for the Chief Electoral Officer and her staff were significant, and the overlapping timetables also created confusion for the electorate. We will address these issues in our UK wide statutory report on the European Parliamentary election, which will be published in the autumn.
We look forward to working closely with your officials in the NIO, as well as with the Chief Electoral Officer, to address the issues that we have raised in this letter. If you would like to discuss any of these matters in more detail then we would be happy to meet. The Commission’s office in Belfast will be able to make the necessary arrangements alongside your officials. I have also provided a copy of this letter to the Chief Electoral Officer for Northern Ireland.
Appendix: Northern Ireland local government elections 2019
These were the first stand-alone local government elections in Northern Ireland since 1997 and also the first stand-alone elections to the 11 new councils established in 2014. The Electoral Commission’s role was to promote public awareness around the elections and to provide advice and guidance to candidates, agents, political parties and campaigners who participated in the election. We worked closely with the Chief Electoral Officer for Northern Ireland to monitor progress of the delivery of the election and to provide advice and guidance as required.
Through the Northern Ireland Assembly Political Parties Panel we continued to engage with the main political parties and sought their views on the administration of the election. Commission representatives observed proceedings at polling stations and count venues across Northern Ireland and we also heard the view of voters through our tracking and post-election research.
Based on all of this we have identified a number of issues that we believe should be addressed before the next scheduled local government elections in 2023. Some of these may require legislative changes by the UK Government.
Home addresses on ballot papers
As nominations for the local elections opened, a high profile councillor, who has a restraining order in place to protect her, announced that she would not be contesting the election because her home address would appear on the ballot paper. Under the Electoral Law (Northern Ireland) Act 1962 candidates at local government elections in Northern Ireland are required to provide a home address on their nomination forms which is then published on the statement of persons nominated and on the ballot paper.
However, candidates at Northern Ireland Assembly and UK Parliamentary elections can choose not to have their home address published if they so wish. This is also now the case at local elections elsewhere in the UK.
We note that on 10 April the Minister of State told the House of Commons that this would be addressed “so that the law is in line as soon as we can”. We welcome this commitment from the NIO and would urge the Government to make the necessary amendments to the 1962 Act as soon as possible and certainly well ahead of the next scheduled local elections in 2023.
Polling station reviews for local government elections
As the law currently stands, certain individuals or groups can appeal (on certain grounds) a decision made by the Chief Electoral Officer as part of their polling station review for UK Parliamentary elections. This provides an appeal mechanism relating to polling stations used at UK Parliamentary and Northern Ireland Assembly elections.
However there is an anomaly in legislation which means that such an appeal mechanism does not apply to polling station reviews for local elections in Northern Ireland, and we have raised this previously with officials in the NIO. While we received a small number of complaints regarding the location of some polling stations at the local elections, there was no request made for an appeal, which we would not have been able to consider formally within the current law in any case. Nevertheless we are keen to see that this matter is finally resolved by the Government by making the necessary legislative amendments as soon as possible.
Requirement for capital letters to be used on ballot papers
Under the Local Elections (Forms) Order 2015 the surname of each candidate must be printed on the ballot paper fully in capital letters. However, this has an impact on some candidates who have surnames spelt in the Irish language, in that the use of capitals changes the spelling of their surname.
We understand that the Irish language is a key part of ongoing negotiations between the political parties and that this may be an issue that will be addressed as part of that. However the Government may wish to seek further views on this matter from political parties and candidates to ensure that the information provided to voters on their ballot papers reflects that which they would expect to see.
Timing of secondary legislation
The Local Elections (Northern Ireland) (Election Expenses) Order 2019 made changes to how candidates recorded personal expenses in their spending returns and made costs reasonably attributable to a candidate’s disability exempt from the spending rules. While we welcome these changes we were disappointed that they only came into force on 14 March, which was less than a fortnight before the publication of notice of election for the local elections.
It is important that candidates, their agents and political parties have all the information they need to participate in an election. Having such information well in advance of the election ensures that they are aware of the rules and are more likely to comply with the requirements placed on them under the law.
While we appreciate the challenges the NIO had in introducing this legislation, we would remind you of the Electoral Commission’s long standing recommendation that legislation relating to elections should be in place a minimum of six months before an electoral event.
Access to the electoral register for independent candidates
Once the notice of election has been published and a person has become an official candidate they are entitled to a free copy of the electoral register and the list of people voting by post or proxy. However outside of an election period registered political parties and elected representatives are entitled to a copy of the full electoral register at any time.
Independent candidates across all elections often perceive they are disadvantaged when it comes to accessing the electoral register. For example access to the register helps candidates with their campaigning strategies by identifying supporters who may not be registered. In other elections it can help independent candidates in ensuring that their subscribers to their nomination are registered.
Both the Commission and the Chief Electoral Officer did get feedback from a small number of independent candidates that party candidates had an advantage over them in having earlier access to the register.
Over the last number of years the Commission has worked closely with the Chief Electoral Officer to review the set-up and management of counts at elections using the single transferable vote. These changes have brought about significant improvements to the delivery of counts and have been welcomed by candidates, agents, media and election staff.
One of the key changes introduced at the Northern Ireland Assembly election count in 2016 was that the mixing and sorting of ballot papers was run alongside the ongoing verification of ballot papers. Prior to this ballot papers were not mixed or sorted until the verification of all ballot boxes was completed. In some cases this meant the progress of the count as a whole was significantly delayed by trying to resolve discretions identified in only one or two ballot boxes. Under the new system the rest of the count could proceed while these issues were resolved.
However, the Electoral Law (Northern Ireland) Act 1962 explicitly makes clear that the mixing of ballot papers cannot commence until each ballot paper account has been verified.
It was noted by Commission representatives at many of the count venues that this did slow down the progress of the count in some District Electoral Areas and didn’t allow the new approach used for other elections in Northern Ireland. We can see no reason to maintain this requirement for the verification of all ballot paper accounts to be completed before the mixing of ballot papers can commence. As such we would recommend that the Government amends this legislation to bring the counts at local
elections into line with other elections that use the single transferable vote in Northern Ireland.
Unlike the rest of the UK, polling agents are prominent and visible in many polling stations across Northern Ireland. Polling agents are legally entitled to be present in the polling station to aid in the detection of personation and can mark off their own copy of the electoral register to assist with this. However any such copies of the register must not be removed from the polling station until the close of poll so as to ensure that the secrecy of the ballot is not breached. In addition it is an offence for any person present in the polling station to communicate information on the names of any elector or proxy who has or has not applied for a ballot paper before the close of poll.
In the past we have highlighted the behaviour of some polling agents at elections in Northern Ireland as being an impediment to the smooth running of the polls. It has also been alleged that some polling agents, on occasions, have transmitted information outside the polling place on who has voted. This information may then be used by party workers at a local level to encourage potential supporters to turn up and vote.
We have also made clear in the past that the requirement for photographic ID in Northern Ireland has largely made the role of polling agents redundant. However we understand that some political parties feel strongly that polling agents should be present in the polling station in order to maintain confidence and integrity in the poll. While we did not receive any complaints from the public about the behaviour of polling agents on this occasion, there is anecdotal evidence that many voters perceive their presence as unhelpful and unnecessary.
Any changes to the purpose or role of a polling agent would require legislative change. In the absence of any such change we would recommend that the Chief Electoral Officer reviews the guidance provided to candidates and polling agents to make the role of a polling agent more explicit. This could take the form of something similar to the Code already in place in relation to canvassing in the vicinity of polling stations. All of the main political parties in Northern Ireland have agreed to adhere to this Code, and there would be merit in seeking their support in the same way in relation to the acceptable conduct and behaviour of polling agents.