As many as 400,000 people are not listed at their correct address in Northern Ireland’s electoral register, it was revealed on Monday.
An estimated one in five of the entries are inaccurate, according to a report by the Electoral Commission.
It disclosed that the register was 71 per cent complete and 78 per cent accurate, compared to an assessment in 2008 when it was estimated to be 83 per cent complete and 94 per cent accurate.
The poll by an independent market research agency, which canvassed 1,500 addresses, suggested the processes currently employed by chief electoral officer Graham Shields to manage the register under continuous registration had not kept pace with either people moving home or people becoming newly eligible to join.
As a result there has been a significant decline in the quality of the register.
Anna Carragher, electoral commissioner for Northern Ireland, said she was now calling on the chief electoral officer, with Government support, to put in place an immediate action plan to address the findings.
The commission is an independent regulatory body set up by the Government. The survey was carried out between March and July this year.
She said: “The findings of our research are a matter of serious concern. They could have far-reaching consequences for both participation and public confidence in elections.
“We have important elections coming up over the next four years which will depend on complete and accurate electoral registers. Continuing with the status quo for managing the register is simply not an option.”
A number of recommendations included:
l a comprehensive action plan to begin early next year by the chief electoral officer to make contact with every household in Northern Ireland, to verify and update entries on the register and to identify new registrants
l a change in law to allow for a more flexible form of annual canvass whereby households as well as individuals can be asked to update their registration details
l a review of the current arrangements in place for data matching and consideration of other data sources to enhance the accuracy and completeness of the electoral register
l a statutory performance standards framework in place for the chief electoral officer to measure his performance against independently set standards and so that his management of the electoral register can be benchmarked against electoral registration officers in Britain.
Ms Carragher said it was essential the programme of work got under way well ahead of the European Parliamentary election and possible local government elections in 2014 when another study into levels of accuracy would take place.
She said: “The commission is ready to provide support and advice to the chief electoral officer to tackle the problems identified in our report.”
Mr Shields said the first data-matching processes involving the supply of personal data from official sources to the electoral office were put in place in 2008.
It was still a comparatively new process which had continued to evolve as additional data sources were added, he said. The report provided the first real opportunity to assess how well that process was working.
It was disappointing that the register was not as accurate as they had anticipated, he said, and he would look at what more could be done to improve accuracy and completeness in advance of the elections in 2014, including consideration as to whether or not a canvass should take place next year.