First published: 12 September 2019Last updated: 25 September 2019
We have run research into the Northern Ireland registers in December 2007, April 2012 and December 2015.
The 2007 study estimated the register to be 83% complete and 94% accurate. However, while the methodology employed to calculate these estimates was similar to that used for this and the 2012 study, the definitions of accuracy and completeness used in the 2007 study were different.
Therefore the estimates for the April 2012 and December 2015 registers will be used as the main points of comparison with the findings for December 2018 throughout this study.
Accuracy and Completeness in Northern Ireland, 2012,2015 and 2018
In December 2018, there were 1,248,420 entries on the parliamentary register and 1,281,576 entries on the local government register.
The size of the December 2018 register represented an increase in the number of registered entries from December 2015 of 0.4% for the parliamentary register and 0.9% for the local government register.
However, it is important to note that while the register may contain more entries than our last assessment in December 2015, as this study suggests, that does not necessarily lead to them being more complete. It is also important to see the findings from this study as a snapshot at a point in time. The accuracy and completeness of the register will change as a result of ongoing registration activity. For example, in the lead up to the May 2019 local government elections around 36,000 electors were added to the registers between December and the May 2019 elections according to data provided by EONI.
The electoral register is a record of the names and addresses of people eligible to vote in elections and referendums. The register is the foundation of the voting process: it provides the list of those who are eligible to vote, and those not included on the register cannot take part in elections and referendums.
The register is also used for other public purposes such as conducting boundary reviews, selecting people to undertake jury service, assisting law enforcement, and also for credit ratings and marketing.
Not every resident in Northern Ireland can register to vote and eligibility to register is directly related to the eligibility to vote which differs depending on the type of election. This means that the Chief Electoral Officer is required to keep:
Parliamentary register: this is the list of electors used for UK Parliamentary elections
Local government register: used for Northern Ireland Assembly and local government elections
EU citizens have been eligible to vote in local, devolved and European Parliamentary elections since 1999. Therefore, EU citizens are entitled to be on the local government register. In order to vote in European Parliamentary elections in the UK, EU citizens must also complete an extra registration form (commonly referred to as a ‘UC1’) to declare that they intend to vote in the UK rather than in their country of origin.
The table below sets out entitlement to vote by citizenship. Those not listed on this table are not eligible to be on either of the two registers. There are some specific exceptions to these rules. For example, convicted prisoners lose their right to vote while they are imprisoned regardless of citizenship.
Franchise for citizenship and elections
Local Government register
Notes: Commonwealth citizens resident in the UK who either have leave to remain or do not require such leave
British citizens or eligible Irish citizens living abroad who have appeared on a UK electoral register in the last 15 years (or were resident in the UK and too young to be registered at the time of residence) are also entitled to be on the electoral register as an overseas elector and can vote at European Parliamentary and UK Parliamentary elections. They are registered in the same parliamentary constituency as before they went abroad or, if they were too young to register, in the constituency where their parent or guardian was registered.
In Northern Ireland the age at which citizens become entitled to vote is 18, but the electoral registers also include records of ‘attainers’ - 16 and 17 year olds who will turn 18 within the twelve month period starting on the 1 December after they make their application.
The Chief Electoral Officer is responsible for maintaining the electoral register in Northern Ireland. The system of individual electoral registration is well established having been introduced in the autumn of 2002 as part of the Electoral Fraud (Northern Ireland) Act 2002.
In 2006, the annual canvass was abolished and replaced with a process of continuous registration. Under this system, once an eligible elector has registered, they do not have to re-register unless their details have changed (for example, if they have changed their name and/or address.
However, under the provisions of the Northern Ireland (Miscellaneous Provisions) Act 2006, the Chief Electoral Officer can recommend to the Secretary of State for Northern Ireland that a canvass take place in any given year if they believe it is needed. The Act also made provision for a canvass in 2010 and every tenth year after 2010, unless the Secretary of State ordered otherwise.
The system is therefore different to that in operation in Great Britain. While individual registration is now in operation across the UK, Great Britain retains an annual canvass of households as a significant element in the process of maintaining the registers.
To assist the Chief Electoral Officer in managing the continuous registration process they have access to specified data sources to assist them in maintaining the register. These data sources include the Business Services Organisation (who provide data from General Practitioner lists and other medical services in Northern Ireland), the Department for Work and Pensions, schools and the Registrar General.
A major recent change to the system of electoral registration in Northern Ireland has been the introduction of online registration in June 2018.
The local government elections of May 2019 was the first electoral event in which this system was in operation. We know that from July 2018 to July 2019 61,000 electors have been added to the register since the introduction of online registration.
The electoral register is a property based database and register entries are linked to a property. This means that the accuracy of its information is undermined by ongoing population mobility and the Chief Electoral Officer has to keep it up to date by adding and deleting records for home-movers as well as removing entries for those who have died and adding entries for newly eligible electors.
Since 2004, we have been the principal body in the UK undertaking research into the electoral registers with the long-term aim to:
Provide an overview of the accuracy and completeness of the registers in Great Britain and Northern Ireland
Provide up-to-date information on those groups which are more likely to be under-registered and thereby inform our approach to public awareness activity around elections and voter registration
Provide ongoing tracking of how electoral registers change in response to legislative developments and administrative or population changes and use this tracking to inform our role in scrutinising proposals and policies to revise the registration system