Time to bring Northern Irish Elections under international standards…

I was an observer in only one polling station last Thursday, but anecdotal evidence from candidates and activists at the Belfast count suggest that some of the abuses mentioned below were widespread.

Furthermore, election results confirm that which should be an antithesis of democracy: “vote management was good,” to quote the words of one teller.

May I therefore call, again, for all parties to come to a voluntary agreement on the conduct of elections, so that future contests do comply with international standards.

1 Outside the polling stations:

  • a) no campaigning from at least 24 hours before the start of voting;
  • b) all environs up to 50/100 metres to be totally neutral – no activists, no banners, no nothing – except for the use of unadorned vehicles and personnel ferrying old and/or infirm voters;

2) Inside the polling stations:

  • c) no collation of information by party agents as to who votes and who not; in a corner, incommunicado from both officials and voters, agents may observe the polling process in the round, but they should not be allowed access to information on the presence or otherwise of individual voters;
  • d) no assistance to these agents from polling station officials, stating (or sometimes shouting) the voters’ numbers from the electoral register and, in effect, assisting the party concerned in its campaign;
  • e) no transfers of this information by these agents to persons outside.

Of the above, all but the last are legal.  I saw two infringements and reported both, but no action was taken.  Furthermore, as noted above, such deeds may be widespread.

If, however, the above voluntary code were to be adopted, it would reduce the possibility of at least this form of cheating.

Peter Emerson was Election Observer for the Organisation of Security and Co-operation in Europe, OSCE, in over 20 elections in Central and Eastern Europe, 1996 – 2014.  Ambassadorial adviser to the OSCE in Bosnia, 1999.  International Trainer in Kosova, 2001.

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  • Brian Walker

    You’re stepping on our common culture and identity, my friend. Sacred.

  • NMS

    The changes have worked very well in Ireland. You no longer have to pass through a scrum of competing candidates’ supporters and you are no longer ankle deep in discarded last minute flyers. Indeed I think most parties welcome them.

    The 24 hours of peace before the vote is also a welcome break from the same stories and points being repeated ad nauseam.

  • SeaanUiNeill

    I’m reminded of those wonderful local Edwardian cartoons with the long buried dead complaining to Joe Devlin about having to vote regularly for the IPP.

  • Fear Éireannach

    The 24 hours thing would be especially welcome in NI where the same points have been made for 95 years.

  • Katyusha

    The 24 hours of peace before the vote is also a welcome break from the same stories and points being repeated ad nauseam.

    But it is very open to abuse, as a paper can break a scandalous story about a party or individuals associated with a party in the 24 hour window, leaving a day for the story to take hold, on the eve of an election, where the party cannot even defend itself against new accusations. Also, to read the Sindo, you would doubt there is any break from the same stories and points being repeated ad nauseum!

  • Kevin Breslin

    Ha ha, end the thread I think you’ve said it all!

  • mickfealty

    Stories that break that late generally have measurable effect Kate, unless it’s NI21 fall apart in public on the eve of poll.

  • Daithi Meade

    A few Small Repairs , Polling stations in Neutral area’s, no leafleting outside the polling stations, do away with proxy votes.

  • mjh

    It is one thing to ensure that no voter feels intimidated and that no impression is given that the voting process is not being manipulated to the advantage of a particular party. It is quite another to introduce unnecessary and draconian measures which will in practice do nothing other than supress voter turnout.

    Certainly ensure that the grounds of the polling station and the immediate approach are free of all banners, posters, leaflet distribution, gatherings of party supporters or other materials – except for the official polling station signs. Equally no electoral official should co-operate with any party or candidate. This should be the law and not subject to a voluntary agreement.

    However specific allowance should remain for each party or independent candidate to have one polling agent present at the entrance to the polling station for the collection of polling numbers from those willing to give them. Each agent should be identifiable by a small party rosette or badge and their conduct should be monitored by the polling officials to ensure that it does not go beyond a polite request for the voters number.

    Parties check this information against their canvass records of those people who have promised to vote for their candidate(s). As the day goes on they start to call on those who have not yet voted to encourage them to go to the polls. There is nothing undemocratic in this. The voter only gets contacted if they have indicated support to the party’s canvasser (otherwise the party would be helping its opponents). And they don’t get bothered if the party knows they have already voted.

    Without this information the parties would be less effective at encouraging turnout, with the likely result of reduced voter participation. It is possible that this would be less of a problem for the very biggest parties with more resources. They might be able to “waste” their manpower on contacting their supporters who have already voted. Smaller parties or Independents could be disadvantaged.

    What would be the benefit of banning campaigning in the last 24 hours? I very much doubt that it is even feasible. You might make it illegal to knock on the voter’s door or to give them a telephone call (to what purpose?), but that wouldn’t stop the best resourced parties from finding other ways of promoting their message in that period.

  • Gary Thompson

    Why are there 2 people behind the desk checking the register & handing out the ballots? If there were only one, the problem of calling out numbers would disappear.

  • mjh

    Most people can’t sit behind a desk for 15 hours without a comfort break.

    But it’s probably also to minimise mistakes.

  • Jim M

    If I want to vote I’ll vote. I don’t need anyone checking on me or ‘encouraging’ me. If parties want to come round and canvass that’s fine, if they want to offer me a lift to the station that’s also fine. But they shouldn’t be able to find out if I voted or not. It shouldn’t be any of their business. And asking people at the door of the polling station isn’t much different; it’s still potentially intimidatory and people will feel under pressure not to refuse.

  • Dan

    In my local area, two primary schools were closed to facilitate the election. There are ample church halls which could have been used instead. Outrageous that children lose a day’s education every time, plus the distruption this causes to families

  • mjh

    This only allows parties to find out if you have voted if you volunteer your number. And unless you have already promised to vote for them they are not even interested in the information.

  • JOHN TURLEY

    The Sunday independent told us last week that the Shinners saw off the SDLPs sole MLA in West Belfast.
    and prevented the popular PBP candidate Gerry Carroll from bringing in his running mate.
    SDLP workers also accused S.F of blatant personation They also referred to an old peoples home where
    they all voted for Sinn Fein even those with dementia. Be interesting to see what action the P.S.N.I take.

  • NMS

    The ban has legislative power. I doubt if any broadcaster or publisher would risk it, even for a sudden ground-breaking story. On the issue of the Sunday Independent, one has a choice of buying or not, slightly different from the blanket coverage of an election.

    I gave up listening to RTÉ Radio One in the mornings during one election and haven’t really gone back, despite Cathal MacCoille.

  • doopa

    Being able to simply register online would be a tremendous move towards the national nevermind international standards!

  • John Ault

    Have you seen the results of the Democracy Volunteers observation to Northern Ireland last week? http://wp.me/p7wmjj-8B

  • Skibo

    The law I would prefer to bring in is compulsory voting for all. Australia has it

  • ted hagan

    I actually find RTE One news in the mornings much superior and with more gravitas than Radio Ulster, which has developed into a sort of ‘Two Ronnies’ banter fest, with each jocular presenter vying for laughs. Mind you, does anyone remember the late, great Jimmy Edwards of ‘Whacko’ fame?
    Conor Bradford does a superb impersonation.

  • johnny lately

    Would you seriously support a law making it compulsory for Irish citizens to vote in British elections Skibo, if so what kind of punishment should they get for not complying and if they continued to not comply would you consider a custodial sentence ?

  • SDLP supporter

    Honestly. Peter Emerson is a nice guy but he is trying to talk up problems that don’t really exist. Elections here, what with compulsory photo ID, are an awful lot cleaner than they were thirty years ago, What are these ‘international standards’ that he is talking about? Who exactly is setting them?

    I see nothing wrong with political parties being entitled to know who did or did not vote. It doesn’t impinge in any way on the secrecy of the ballot and it allows parties, which if they keep records, know who are habitual non-voters, to leave out those people on their canvass, and not to bother them.

    I am strongly opposed to parties such as Sinn Fein, DUP etc. but I recognise the commitment of all their activists to the political process in a very pressurised four or five week period, where they work literally night and day for literally no reward, in most cases.

    There are two improvements I would like to see in the electoral process:

    1. Like Skibo, I would support compulsory voting. Citizenship has obligations as well as rights and voting is one of the most basic civic duties. Voters should have the right to draw wee men on the ballot paper, or otherwise spoil it, or tick a box saying ‘none of the above’, and if that latter category reaches a certain threshold, the election is invalid, but people should be compelled on pain of a stiff fine or exclusion from the electoral roll for a period.

    2. There should not only be on-line registration (coming) but I think that the requirement for postal/proxy voting may be more stringent in NI than in GB. In NI the postal/proxy deadline is 20 days before polling day, in GB (I think) you can do it up to a week beforehand.

  • hugh mccloy

    Be interesting to see what independent person signs off post or proxy, would there be familiar names or one person signing off more than one. As the old saying goes, everyone in the graveyard votes the same

  • Jim M

    Much as I wish more people would vote, there should be a right not to do so. It’s my free choice to vote, it’s not something I do out of fear of punishment.

  • Jim M

    Re parties knowing who did or didn’t vote: remember last year, when an SF councillor was saying on Facebook that people who voted for other parties shouldn’t come to him for help? I don’t think people with that attitude should be able to look at a list and say ‘nah, hasn’t voted in a while, not a priority’. Likewise, I’m sure some people, when quizzed on the door re voting intentions, lie and say they’re not voting, just to avoid hassle. If parties can check who voted, they can draw their own conclusions: ‘well I bet they didn’t vote for US’. Same potential issue applies. Parties should not be allowed to see who did and didn’t vote, end of story.

  • Jim M

    John, I’m no fan of SF, but those personation allegations are a matter for the police. The fact that SF saw off the SDLP and PBP in West Belfast is not evidence of wrongdoing, it’s evidence of effective campaigning.

  • Jim M

    Interesting, especially re ‘family voting’…

  • Ron

    Dear Mr Emerson,
    I was working in the poll centre that you so graciously deemed worth attending and I’m happy to give an alternative view of what we both witnessed.

    2) Inside the polling stations:

    “d) no assistance to these agents from polling station officials, stating (or sometimes shouting) the voters’ numbers from the electoral register and, in effect, assisting the party concerned in its campaign;”

    As we both know polling was very busy at peak times, voters sometimes queued to the back of the room unfortunately blocking easy access to the polling booths. To maintain order and a fast efficient experience Poll Clerks have to make their announcements clearly. To your ears, and you were sitting VERY close to the desk, this may seem like shouting but to the rest of the people there it was perfectly reasonable. Your closeness to the desk was cited by staff saying it made them feel uncomfortable. For you to criticise the good people who give up there regular job for a day to work 16+hrs in what can be a hectic environment is outrageous. Your behaviour made their day worse.

    “e) no transfers of this information by these agents to persons outside.
    Of the above, all but the last are legal. I saw two infringements and reported both, but no action was taken. Furthermore, as noted above, such deeds may be widespread.”

    You say you saw 2 infringements and reported them and nothing was done. You suspect this is may be more widespread! What infringements? Name them. What may be more widespread? Completely daft speculation maybe.

    Next time Peter don’t get in the way of Poll Staff and make spurious allegations against them.

  • Skibo

    It would be compulsory to use your vote. How you used it would be entirely your own personal preference. If you wanted to write No British Rule Here.
    I believe we will not get the full recognition of the full extent of the vote for reunification till those Republicans who do not want British rule here do not make their thoughts known at the ballot box.
    I know it is a difficult thing to do but will be worth while in the end.

  • Skibo

    Actually Jim that could actually work the other way. Parties can see people or families who do not vote and could use that information to work harder for them to attract their vote. That is how you increase your mandate, not by refusing to work for someone.

  • Barneyt

    There are many arguments for compulsory voting, particularly in areas and cultures where women and politically neutered populations fought hard for the vote. I support compulsory voting with a small one off tax deducted at source if you don’t. Again a small penalty should be applied to any benefit received. It should be enough to irritate folks into participation. If a vote is not to be used then it has to be spoiled by post or on the day. I would not want to give the people a long term option to opt out completely as you can’t opt out entirely from society and your duties as a citizen … or in our case… subjects it seems

  • Barneyt

    You have a point. Not enough civic and social amenity provision perhaps? What about a weekend vote? I suspect there is some psychological rationale behind the Thursday vote and the use of schools 🙂

  • Barneyt

    I think there are some aspects of this I would adopt particularly the direct canvassing outside the polling station. So I like the idea of wrapping up all campaigning 24 hours in advance. In the more mixed or contentious communities the presence and activity on polling day can be offputting or intimidating. Also information on who did or did not vote should be controlled on the day of the election and particularly at the stations. However as I support compulsory voting, this information has to be held somewhere and it would no doubt become marketable data….but that’s addressable I’m sure

  • DOUG

    Alternatively a small reward FOR voting. Essentially the same thing I suppose.
    Maybe some sort of aggregate system -the more often you vote, Council, Assemnbly, Westminster etc – the more you receive.
    That way people who freely exercise their right to vote benefit – those who decide not to aren’t penalised as such – they simply aren’t rewarded.

  • SarahF82

    As someone who grew up voting in the Republic of Ireland, I entirely agree with point 1 b) – I find it really unnerving to have to run the gauntlet of party activists in order to cast my vote, but I always assumed that was because I was so used to not having supporters or posters or anything anywhere near the polling station at home.

  • SDLP supporter

    There is a limit to the number of postal/proxy vote applications you can attest to.

  • Old Mortality

    I have a few reservations about postal or proxy votes. Does the electoral office keep records that would indicate repeat request for postal votes on behalf of people who claim to be away on polling day when they have actually been living in Australia for ten years?
    In theory at least, it appears that a person can vote by proxy for an almost unlimited period even if he or she has effectively emigrated.

  • SDLP supporter

    Yeah, ‘neutral areas’ in the Falls or Shankill or North Belfast. Good luck with that. There is nothing wrong with proxy or postal voting-people do get sick, go on holiday, study or work away from home etc,

  • Old Mortality

    Your choice of constituencies was hardly representative. Why not West Belfast or West Tyrone?

  • Old Mortality

    I absolutely agree. Do these schools have to make up for the lost day?

  • John Ault

    There are many reasons that we chose these three areas. We are small domestic observer group with very limited finances so we have deploy ourselves strategically to get the biggest possible footprint that we can – we visited over 70 polling stations with a group of 5.

    If we had more money we would have deployed to a larger area. However, the nature of observation is also supposed to be random so we also wouldn’t choose areas in the way that you suggest.

  • johnny lately

    Skibo that’s not an answer to the questions I asked you, I do accept your rational for voting but you need to accept that Irish citizens have a right not to engage in British politics.

  • johnny lately

    Resort to blackmail – Wouldn’t that be illegal.

  • DOUG

    It wouldn’t be blackmail – because you’re not causing a loss to anyone. You’re rewarding a specific act as opposed to taking from someone who doesn’t participate.

  • Steven Denny

    Mick, this was done for maximum impact and effect, and damaged a lot people who were genuinely committed to trying to do something a bit different – myself included.

    Naive… but hey-ho…

  • paul mcmenemy

    I’m not sure if giving up a day’s work to be better paid in another job can be seen as a noble gesture #justsayin

  • SDLP supporter

    The law says you can register as an overseas voter for up to 15 years after leaving the UK, as long as:
    -you’re a British citizen
    -you were registered to vote in the UK within the previous 15 years (or, in some cases, if you were too young to have registered when you left the UK).

  • johnny lately

    The point being we in this part of the world do not live in a normal democracy, almost half the population and the majority of people on the island of Ireland believe Britain has no right to be in Ireland and have been saying so for almost a thousand years.

  • DOUG

    Which has absolutely no bearing on the validity of the word blackmail

  • johnny lately

    Paying Irish citizens to vote in British elections would be blackmail just like they paid their agents in Ireland to accept the Act of Union.

  • johnny lately

    If you dont vote you dont get rewarded, sounds like blackmail to me.

  • Ron

    A lot of people who work those jobs lose a days pay or use annual leave to attend. Who said anything about better paid? Noble gestures? You should give it a try before starting a comment with “I’m not sure” #justsayin

  • DOUG

    You keep using that word.
    That’s not what blackmail means.

  • Ciaran O’Neill

    Sinn Fein managed to impersonate an entire old people’s home? In a polling station?

  • Ciaran O’Neill

    I thought that also but then someone told me that schools are usually insured the right way and have adequate fire exits, facilities etc to cover large numbers of people voting in the one place over the course of a day. I don’t know if this is true mind, just what I heard

  • JOHN TURLEY

    The report tells us that they all postal voted for Sinn Fein even the bed ridden ones with dementia.

  • Skibo

    JL of course I recognise the rights of Irish citizens not to vote for a continuation of British rule on the island of Ireland.
    Unfortunately such a policy has more chance of extending the continuation of British rule rather than terminating it.

  • Dan

    Doesn’t appear so