Letter: Northern Ireland local government elections – May 2019

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

Full letter

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

Last updated: 16 July 2019
Next review: 7 July 2020