Figures published by the Electoral Office for Northern Ireland, as a result of a freedom of information request, show that the number of people who voted in the 2019 local government election by postal votes, proxy postal or proxy (herein referred to as absent voting), varied significantly across the north.
If you are unable to vote in person on polling day, arrangements can be made for someone else to vote on your behalf (a proxy vote – either in person or via a postal vote) or to post in your ballot before polling day (a postal vote). If you cannot reasonably be expected to vote in person at your polling station for an indefinite period of time, due to either disability, education or employment, you can secure an indefinite postal or proxy vote, but if you can usually vote in your polling station but cannot on a one off basis you can apply for a temporary postal or proxy vote.
In 2019 the total number of absent votes issued was 23,911, which accounted for 3.5% of all votes cast in the election. Interestingly the number of postal votes issued in the 2019 council elections, when compared to 2014, fell by 2,917 from 18,382 to 15,465. In 2019 postal votes made up 1.6% of all votes cast, which fell from 2.9% in 2014. It is worth noting that these statistics are only for postal votes as the EONI do not hold the number of proxy votes that were cast in 2014.
At the council level we can see the disparities which exist in terms of issuing absent ballot papers. The first thing to note is that postal votes account for 64.6% of the total number of absent votes issued, proxy votes account for 35.2% and proxy postal votes only account for 0.3%. It is worth nothing that 70.2% of the postal votes are permanent and only 29.8% are temporary, whilst only 26.4% of proxy votes are permanent with 73.6% being temporary. We can also see that there is considerable variation in the proportion of absent votes issued across the different councils with Fermanagh and Omagh leading the way at 17.2% (despite only having 6.5% of the total electorate), followed by Mid Ulster at 15.6% (despite having only 7.7% of the electorate) and Belfast at 13.6% (which is slightly lower than the 17.2% of the electorate it accounts for). On the opposite side we see that Antrim and Newtownabbey accounts of only 3.5% of the total (despite it being 7.6% of the electorate), followed by Lisburn and Castlereagh, also on 3.5% (despite it being 7.8% of the total electorate) and Mid and East Antrim on 3.8% (despite it being 7.5% of the electorate).
When we drill down deeper into the 2019 absent votes, to DEA level, we can see the real differences which exist in absent votes being issued. The DEA with the most absent votes issued was Erne East in Fermanagh and Omagh council, which issued 868 absent votes – twelve times the number issued in Knockagh in Mid and East Antrim council, the DEA with the lowest number accounting for only 68. In fact Fermanagh and Omagh council had four DEAs in the top ten whilst Mid and East Antrim council had three DEAs in the bottom ten.
When we look closer at the postal votes which were issued, it is noticeable that across the North only 76% of postal votes issued were actually counted. Of the 15,465 postal ballot papers issued, 2,837 were not returned, 715 were rejected and 120 were returned late, meaning that 11,681 were actually included in the count. There were some differences across the eleven councils with 78% of postal votes issued being counted in Lisburn and Castlereagh and only 72% in Causeway Coast and Glens. When we compare this to the 2014 local government election there were 18,382 postal votes issued and 13,992 returned, meaning the acceptance rate was 76%, the same as 2019.
The figures for the European election have not been fully released yet but the Electoral Office have indicated that the number of applications for absent votes received was approximately 14,400, almost half the number issued for the council election. There was an issue with people receiving polling cards after the proxy and postal voting application deadline has passed, meaning that they were too late to submit an application for a temporary absent vote. Speaking to the BBC, the Chief Electoral Officer Virginia McVea said this was due to an ‘unprecedented situation’:
“She added that it was not possible to engage the printers at an earlier stage to produce European election polling cards, as they had been very busy either with the local government polling cards or other material related to the council election.
“We can meet all of our deadlines within the electoral office,” she said, “but the 1.3 million people in the electorate have to get poll cards and ballot papers.
“The print house we work with was working right up until the 24 April – it couldn’t stop doing the locals.”
She added that, with extra hours being worked, polling cards were produced at the earliest possible date.
They (printers) shaved all the time off it that they could but, proofing from the 24 April, this was the fastest it could be done.
“I raised the concerns with the Electoral Commission and provided them with a schedule of the breakdown of printing that showed it wasn’t humanly possible in Northern Ireland to have it done any faster.
“They couldn’t provide me with any other solution as to how it would be done and we knew we would end up in this situation.”
There have also been controversies in the past with some parties alleging that the absent votes system had been abused, most notably back in Foyle in the 2017 Westminster election. It was alleged that the number of proxy votes had increased by 800% since 2010 and SDLP MLA Mark H. Durkan outlined his concerns about how the system was being abused. In this election the Foyle constituency had the third highest number of absent votes issued with 2,674, behind Fermanagh and South Tyrone (4,707) and Mid Ulster (3,226).
Around the world more and more jurisdictions are embracing early voting and the discussion about absent voting should feed into this as steps should be taken to make it easier for people to engage in the democratic process. With any such advances though, steps must also be taken to ensure that the system is not abused. When we look around the world we can see examples of schemes to make it easier for people to vote, with Australia allowing people to vote early in person, by post, by mobile voting teams and even by telephone. In an era of increased levels of voter disenchantment and falling voter turnouts, more needs to be done to make it easier for people to vote, albeit with protections to ensure that it can’t be abused.
Niall Kelly is a former Belfast City Councillor who has worked on various political campaigns during the past 15 years. He has an interest in politics and data, and how they interact with each other. Follow at @nkbelfast