We have a voter registration problem in Northern Ireland but it seems very few are aware of it.
The system changed two decades ago after years of complaints – not least from the SDLP – that fraudulent voting was rampant and heavily affecting election results.
In fact, in 1997, the SDLP’s Alex Attwood used his speech at the convention to publicly call for the resignation of election commissioner Pat Bradley. This was a time when the SDLP felt the heat of a post-armistice Sinn Fein gaining traction and votes among the broader nationalist constituency.
Rather than look inward at what was wrong with the SDLP message, it was easier to argue that other mitigating factors meant votes were stripped from a party that had been the pre-eminent voice of Northern nationalism for a generation.
The new approach, instituted after the Voter Fraud Act (2002), tightened registration procedures by introducing a system of individual registration requiring dates of birth, social security number, photo ID and signatures when registering to vote.
Unfortunately, the new voter registration process had no impact on voting behavior in either of Northern Ireland’s main communities, with both Sinn Féin and the DUP cementing their status as the largest parties in the election series under the new processes.
What has changed, however, is the number of real people who actually went through the more complicated process of securing their right to vote.
The first electoral register after the introduction of the new procedure was published in December 2002. The difference between it and the previous year’s register was striking: 125,000 voters had disappeared, equivalent to over 10 percent of the electorate.
A report by the Northern Ireland Select Committee in Westminster in December 2004 concluded that registrations were falling “at an alarming rate” and were “less than 84 per cent of those eligible”.
Importantly, the report also recognized that both young people and “socially and economically depressed groups” were underrepresented in the register.
A good two decades later, the effects of the changed voter registration process are still being felt.
In the 2001 Westminster election, the last major campaign just before the changes, 817,412 people cast their ballots for candidates in Northern Ireland constituencies.
Despite the significant population growth of over 200,000 people in recent years, this number has not yet been exceeded in any election campaign.
The most enduring legacy of the changes was not reducing the potential for voter fraud, but creating an underclass of disenfranchised adults who failed to clear even the first hurdle of participation in the democratic process.
When the December 2021 register was released after the last survey, an analysis of registration rates for the just over 580 counties found that 99 counties showed less than 85 percent of those registered just five months earlier had bothered to register to register again.
In more than 20 counties, more than one in five adults was unregistered.
It should come as no surprise that these wards were predominantly in working-class communities. Of the 18 parliamentary constituencies, Foyle, West Belfast and North Belfast are the three registering the highest percentage of wards with less than 85 per cent of registered voters – the three constituencies consistently confirmed as the most socio-economically disadvantaged in the state.
A cursory glance at the Northern Ireland Statistics and Research Agency (NISRA) list of the 100 most disadvantaged local communities shows significant overlap with areas with the poorest voter registrations – with 29 of the 30 most disadvantaged communities in the counties list being fewer than 85 percent of the people have registered to vote.
In contrast, South Antrim, Lagan Valley, Strangford and East Antrim are the constituencies with the lowest number of wards with voter registration of concern.
There is another facet to this discussion, an electoral elephant in the Northern Irish political space.
The two groups of greatest concern about voter registration are the youth (aged 17 to 20) and the poorest — both populations that are disproportionately nationalist and Republican.
This will have crossed the mind of Sinn Féin leaders when the party released a social media video last year, heavily criticized by trade unionists, which claimed the UK government was planning a ‘mass purge’ of voters and was trying to ‘ to suppress the voice of the citizens”. by moving forward with the planned promotion.
The plateau in nationalist vote numbers over the past two decades is a consequence of a number of factors, a relative disadvantage of which in terms of voter registration is clearly one.
In a bid to soften the blow of the electoral process, those who were on the electoral roll last July and did not complete the re-registration process before December 2021 will remain on the roll for two years before being removed if they don’t have completed the registration process.
In view of demographic and political changes, a border survey is unavoidablevoter registration is destined to become a hot topic.
https://www.independent.ie/opinion/comment/nationalists-bear-brunt-of-voter-registration-change-at-ballot-box-41491059.html Nationalists are bearing the brunt of changing voter registration at the ballot box