Ranking the Constituency Turnouts at Westminster Elections (2005-2017)

It is less than 48 hours from polling day for an election that has sparked unprecedented interest as measured by the number of people locally who have decided to ensure their name features on the electoral register to allow them the opportunity to cast their votes on Thursday.

Figures released from the Electoral Office at the end of November confirmed that 235,000 people had applied to register to vote since the start of 2019, with 72,500 of them applying since 7th November. The NI electorate for this election stands at 1,293,971, more than 50,000 up on the electorate from two years ago.

The surge in applications and subsequent growth of the electoral register suggests that the pattern of high turnouts established in recent elections is likely to continue.

That’s not to ignore the fact that one in every three adults faithfully decide not to vote on a consistent basis in electoral contests in the north of Ireland. In fact, that number is likely to be significantly higher as the percentage turnout figures for elections relates only to those who are on the electoral register. There are tens of thousands of people across the Northern Ireland who are not registered to vote at any one time.

The Good Friday Agreement referendum witnessed an 81.5% turnout, bringing some 953,583 voters out to register their views on the historic deal. That was a remarkable turnout which stands apart from all other electoral contests in Northern Ireland, before and since.

Since that referendum, the actual number of votes registered at the ballot box at election times has only exceeded 800,000 votes on four occasions.


NI Constituencies: % Turnout and Rank in each of the last 4 Westminster elections (2005-17)

  2017 Rank 2015 Rank 2010 Rank 2005 Rank
North Belfast 67.5% 6 59.6% 7 56.8% 10 58.6% 14
South Belfast 66.3% 8 60.3% 6 57.7% 9 61.7% 10
East Belfast 67.7% 5 63.1% 3 58.7% 6 58.6% 13
West Belfast 65.4% 10 56.8% 10 54.9% 15 65.2% 7
North Antrim 64.2% 11 55.5% 13 58.0% 7 62.5% 8
South Antrim 63.4% 13 54.5% 14 54.1% 16 57.3% 15
East Antrim 60.8% 17 53.6% 15 50.8% 18 55.1% 16
Lagan Valley 62.2% 14 56.1% 11 56.2% 11 61.0% 12
Upper Bann 64.1% 12 59.3% 8 55.7% 12 62.4% 9
Foyle 65.6% 9 53.5% 16 58.0% 7 67.0% 5
Newry/Armagh 68.8% 2 64.8% 2 60.9% 4 71.5% 4
South Down 67.4% 7 57.1% 9 60.5% 5 66.5% 6
West Tyrone 68.2% 4 61.1% 4 61.5% 3 73.5% 3
Mid Ulster 68.5% 3 60.9% 5 63.6% 2 73.9% 2
Ferm S Tyrone 76.0% 1 72.9% 1 69.3% 1 74.3% 1
Strangford 60.3% 18 53.0% 17 53.8% 17 54.2% 18
North Down 61.0% 16 56.1% 11 55.2% 14 54.6% 17
East Derry 61.5% 15 52.2% 18 55.5% 13 61.2% 11

The first two occasions were for the 1998 Assembly election (824,391 votes) that immediately followed the Good Friday Agreement referendum, and the 2001 Westminster election (817,412 votes).

These contests occurred during a period of high tension and historic changes, when political party competition within unionism and nationalism was at its height as the UUP and SDLP vainly attempted to fight off the challenges posed by the DUP and Sinn Fein.

The post-Stormont collapse elections of 2017 provided us with the other two occasions in which more than 800,000 voters would turn out, marking the end of a period of relative electoral apathy- 812,783 voters turned out for the 2017 Assembly election, with a few thousand more joining them for the 2017 Westminster election (815,260).

In the four major elections between 2010 and 2016, the percentage turnout remained below 60%, slumping to a meagre 54.9% for the 2016 Assembly election.

An examination of the percentage turnout figures for all 18 Northern Irish constituencies confirms and reveals some interesting patterns.

West Belfast has been the Belfast constituency with the poorest turnout in every election since 2010 at Westminster level. North Belfast has witnessed a relative improvement (in terms of ranking) regarding turnout in every election since 2005, and the fierce battle being contested between John Finucance and Nigel Dodds could ensure that pattern continues this week.

South Belfast and East Belfast are the only Belfast constituencies to consistently feature in the top half of our 18 constituencies in terms of turnout since 2005.

Fickle Foyle has witnessed the most significant increase and also decrease in terms of constituency turnout rankings at Westminster level. From 2010 to 2015, when turnout in the constituency dropped from 58% to 53.5%, Foyle fell from the 7th highest turnout to 16th. Yet at the 2017 election, the constituency turnout was 65.6%, enough to see it feature in the top half of constituencies, with the 9th highest turnout.

The tranquil waters of the lough giving the constituency its name might help explain the laidback voting attitude of many electors in Strangford. In every Westminster election since 2005, the constituency has featured as either 17th or 18th in turnout terms- ie last or second last. Similarly, the three Antrim constituencies (East, South and North) have all featured in the bottom half of constituencies in terms of turnout in both 2015 and 2017, with East Antrim a 14th place in turnout away from completing a basement flush, having ranked 15th-18th in each of the past four contests.

At the other end, the electors of Fermanagh South Tyrone remain peerless, having secured the highest percentage turnout in each of the Westminster elections from 2005, with Newry & Armagh, Mid-Ulster and West Tyrone consistently featuring in the top five since 2005.

We will find out soon if the recent trend of high turnouts is set to continue, and if the post-Good Friday Agreement high watermark for turnouts, achieved in the Assembly election contest immediately following the historic deal in 1998, is to be surpassed.

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