Ex-minister unveils details of alleged proxy vote irregularities

A former Executive minister has called for tighter checks on people applying for proxy votes, alleging that he is aware of two different types of underhand practice in his own constituency.

Mark H Durkan during the Assembly election count in May 2016
Mark H Durkan during the Assembly election count in May 2016

Mark H Durkan, SDLP MLA for Foyle, suggested that scrutiny of application forms must be stepped up in order to weed out bogus bids for proxy votes.

He was speaking after DUP leader Arlene Foster and SDLP leader Colum Eastwood both expressed concern over a colossal spike in the use of proxy voting across Northern Ireland – with the numbers of such voters having jumped by 49% between the 2016 Assembly election to the 2017 one.

Proxy votes are overwhelmingly concentrated in six seats, all dominated by nationalist/republican MLAs (namely Foyle, Fermanagh & South Tyrone, Newry & Armagh, West Belfast, West Tyrone and Mid Ulster)

Mr Durkan – a former environment minister – had stated on Twitter on Tuesday that the system “has certainly been abused in Foyle recently.”

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He has now set out some of the details of this alleged dishonesty, and called for a tougher stance to be taken to help prevent it.

He said if the matter was properly probed, “I think you’d find an awful lot of people not knowing an awful lot about the forms that they’ve signed”.

Mr Durkan did not point the finger of responsibility at any particular party.

The head of the Electoral Office meanwhile said it “scrutinises applications in accordance with the law”, and that it is not up to it to alter that law.

Mr Durkan stressed that proxy votes are “a very viable tool” for helping to enfranchise people who genuinely cannot get to polling stations themselves, and that his party encourages their legitimate use.

However, said believes political canvassers have pursued bogus bids for proxy votes in two distinct ways.

The first way is for a canvasser to ask a householder to fill out a form with a view to obtaining a postal vote if they are too ill to vote in person, or if they will be away at the time of the ballot.

The householder would fill in their details; their national insurance number, date of birth, and their signature.

Once the householder has handed the form back with these details complete, Mr Durkan said the canvasser “can tick a box to say they want to vote by proxy” – instead of by postal vote.

A postal vote would mean the householder would still fill in their ballot paper themselves. However, a proxy vote would mean someone else would be entrusted to vote on their behalf at the polling station.

“It’s so open to abuse,” he said.

“It’s a case of just filling out an extra box to say you want a proxy. That has been done and I know people that has happened to...

“And that’s only one way, one manner in which this can be abused.”

A second way is for canvassers to target householders who have “absolutely no medical or logistical reason for not being able to make it to that polling station other than [they couldn’t be bothered]”.

Such householders will be presented with a proxy vote application form by a canvasser, and they will then “come up with some cockamamie excuse on the application form” as to why they supposedly cannot attend a polling station.

Chosen excuses could include a bogus claim that they will be working or studying away at the time for example, said Mr Durkan.

By doing this, the householder – who otherwise would not have bothered voting at all – essentially gifts their vote to the canvasser.

Under the rules, whilst someone applying for a proxy vote for medical reasons must have some kind of supporting documentation, if someone applies for one on the basis they are away at the time of the poll, they do not need to supply any such documentation.

Mr Durkan said if needs be, the rules should be changed.

Mr Durkan said: “I just think there needs to be a higher evidence test, and that the Electoral Office need to have more powers of investigation...

“I think you’d find an awful lot of people not knowing an awful lot about the forms that they’ve signed, or people not knowing who they’ve nominated to be proxies for them.”

He added: “What I want is for the electoral office to be more thorough. And if this public interest, or media interest, in this issue helps that happen, then that’s a good thing, and the winner will be democracy.”

When it comes to reporting such matters, Mr Durkan said: “I have had, in the past, direct engagement with staff in my local electoral office.”

He added that his party has raised concerns centrally with the Electoral Office.

Chief electoral officer Virgina McVea said: “I have not been contacted by Mr Durkan and have advised his office today that should he or any other party member have concerns they should bring them to me.

“The SDLP contacted me in February 2017 but were unable, as their offices told me again today, to give me any specifics. Changes in rules are a matter for the legislature.

“The law does not currently state that proof of travel is required [to obtain a proxy vote] and there has not been any such legislation in recent times.

“The Electoral office for Northern Ireland scrutinises applications in accordance with the law and may not alter the requirements for proxy voting.”

The PSNI have said it had received no reports this year about the abuses described by Mr Durkan, and had no outstanding cases regarding it.