Update from Northern Ireland – looking ahead to the local council elections

Voters in Northern Ireland go the polls on 2 May for the local council elections. Everyone involved in elections wants to ensure that voters are able to have their say with confidence.

We are urging people to make sure they are registered to vote before the deadline for applications on Friday 12 April. Our ‘Got 5?’ campaign is promoting the new online registration system on TV, radio and billboards. We are pleased that around 85% of applications to register are now being made online rather than using the old paper forms. The online registration system is working well and is certainly quicker and easier for electors.

What the public are telling us

At the same time, our most recent survey of the public – which we will be publishing in full in the coming weeks – showed some concerning results for Northern Ireland. Across the UK, satisfaction with registering to vote and voting is high. However, respondents from Northern Ireland are generally less confident and satisfied with how elections and the electoral registration process are managed.

While across the UK seven in ten electors are confident that elections are well run, less than half of people in Northern Ireland (49%) share this view. In addition, 56% of respondents from Northern Ireland are satisfied with the voting process compared to 77% from England, 72% in Scotland and 74% in Wales.

When it comes to registering to vote, 73% of respondents from Northern Ireland are confident with the registration process compared with 90% in England, 93% in Scotland and 85% in Wales.

These figures also show a significant drop when compared to previous electoral events in Northern Ireland. At the last Assembly election in March 2017 nearly nine in ten people (86%) told us they were satisfied that the election was well-run and eight in ten (82%) said they were very or fairly satisfied with the process if registering to vote. At the UK general election which followed a few months later 78% expressed confidence in both how the election was run and the registration process.

So what has happened?

This research doesn’t ask people why they feel they way they do or seek reasons as to why they feel less confident. We don’t have any evidence that directly explains the change in attitudes in relation to the actual administration of recent elections or the registration process. However, we do know from other research that when asked why they are not confident or satisfied, respondents often give reasons related to mistrust or dislike of politicians/political parties and a lack of information.

Political uncertainty, both in Northern Ireland and across the UK, is likely to be a factor. The Northern Ireland Assembly hasn’t been in place for more than two years, and the MLAs elected in March 2017 have not been able to form an Executive. As such one can ask if the absence of devolved government has had an inevitable negative impact on voter confidence.

Three weeks ago the Secretary of State for Northern Ireland laid legislation to postpone the requirement to call an election to the Northern Ireland Assembly until the end of August this year. As the independent body which oversees elections we are naturally concerned about the postponement of an election that is due. We have expressed these concerns to the Government.

Although we recognise the specific circumstances and difficulties at this time in Northern Ireland, we have noted the Secretary of State’s confirmation that if an Executive is not formed by the end of August, then she will fall under the duty to propose a date for an Assembly election. We will continue to closely monitor developments in Northern Ireland to ensure that the needs of voters are put first.

Political campaigning

Our survey did reveal some concerning findings when it comes to political campaigning and transparency across the UK. Negative perceptions of the transparency of the system in Northern Ireland reflect findings elsewhere in the UK. For example only 41% of respondents in Northern Ireland agreed that authorities, such as us, would take appropriate action if someone was caught breaking the rules around political finance. Almost half of those surveyed in Northern Ireland disagreed that it was easy to find information on how parties, campaigners and candidates are funded.

Our survey also found that a majority of the public in Northern Ireland (58%) agree with us that information on donations and loans received by political parties over the last five years here should be made available to the public. Only 15% of people thought this information should be kept confidential. We are continuing to call on the UK Government to change the law to allow us to publish this information.

Looking ahead

In uncertain times, all of us in the electoral and wider political community have a responsibility to ensure that the concerns of the public are addressed to maintain integrity and confidence in our democratic processes. We will be continuing to support and monitor political campaigning and elections to ensure that voters are put first, and that integrity and confidence in our democratic processes are maintained.

Ann Watt, Head of the Northern Ireland Electoral Commission

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