Call for inquiry into surge in proxy voting

Sir Jeffrey Donaldson

Sir Jeffrey Donaldson

There should be an independent inquiry into the steep and sudden rise in proxy voting in the Province, according to a top DUP figure.

Sir Jeffrey Donaldson added his voice to the growing chorus of unease over electoral practices in Northern Ireland, after party leader Arlene Foster – plus senior SDLP politicians – expressed concerns about the proxy voting system.

This week it was revealed that proxy votes (where voters apply to let someone else attend a polling station in their absence) had leaped by 49% in less than a year

From the May 2016 Assembly election to the one in March 2017 the number of registered proxies jumped from 6,622 to 9,920 (the much-more popular method of postal voting also saw an increase, but by a much smaller degree).

The vast bulk of proxies are concentrated in seats which are dominated by nationalist or republican MLAs.

Erstwhile MP Sir Jeffrey Donaldson (whose majority-unionist Lagan Valley seat had the lowest number of proxy votes in the whole Province in 2017, at just 136) said there needs to be “someone independent to look at this”.

“We are very concerned about the substantial increase in proxy vote applications in predominantly republican areas,” he said.

“I think serious questions need to be asked about all of this and it would be good if someone independent could examine how the Electoral Office are processing these applications and are assessing them to ensure that there is no evidence of electoral fraud or people being coerced into handing over their votes.”

After news of the spike in proxies was reported earlier in the week, SDLP leader Colum Eastwood said that there was “a lot of concern about it, and that “the SDLP hasn’t been orchestrating it”.

SDLP Foyle MLA Mark H Durkan then told the News Letter he believes political canvassers (he did not say from which party) have engaged in underhand practices to inflate the numbers of proxy voters in his own area.

Whilst Arlene Foster had met with the Electoral Office (responsible for the day-to-day running of elections) earlier in the week, it emerged yesterday she had also met its watchdog (the Electoral Commission) on Thursday.

She voiced concerns about the proxy spike directly to its top staff – as well as misgivings about the behaviour of election polling agents (party political figures who oversee the voting process).

The head of the Electoral Office Virgina McVea has said her office “scrutinises applications in accordance with the law” when it comes to proxy votes, and “no systemic practices that are untoward or illegal” had been drawn to her attention.

The Electoral Commission meanwhile said it received no allegations of proxy vote fraud at the last Assembly election, and that it “will continue to monitor the absent vote process”.

POLICE CAUTIONS FOR ELECTORAL FRAUD:

The PSNI has revealed the bulk of postal or proxy voting fraud allegations which it has investigated in the past two years have been dealt with by way of cautions or similar light means.

The police told the News Letter it had dealt with eight cases of such alleged fraud, and that most (though it did not say exactly how many) were dealt with by “a caution or community resolution/discretionary disposal”.

It said none of the people involved were party members, and that the cases “were in any way connected or organised”.