The DUP has voiced concerns about an explosion in the use of proxy voting in Northern Ireland.
The party said it sees “little rational explanation” for a very sharp leap in the numbers of proxy voters, with proxy voter numbers having increased by roughly half from the time of the 2016 Assembly election to the 2017 one – from 6,644, up to 9,920.
In addition, some areas of the country have a level of proxy voting vastly greater than other places.
The 2017 figures show such voters were concentrated overwhelmingly in six constituencies – Fermanagh and South Tyrone, Mid Ulster, Newry & Armagh, West Belfast, West Tyrone and Foyle. All are predominantly nationalist/republican Assembly seats.
Across these six seats, proxy numbers ranged from 982 such voters in West Tyrone to a peak of 1,557 in Fermanagh and South Tyrone.
By contrast, the seat with the lowest number of proxy voters was unionist-dominated Lagan Valley, where just 136 were registered – a number roughly 11.5 times smaller than the figure in Fermanagh & South Tyrone.
The DUP said it had “concerns” and will seek “further clarification” from the Electoral Office over the figures.
But Chief Electoral Officer Virginia McVea told the News Letter she “couldn’t say that there is a concern, because it’s entirely lawful”.
She added “no systemic practices that are untoward or illegal” had been drawn to her attention.
Proxy voting essentially entails a person – Voter X – allowing another person to vote on their behalf.
In law, proxy voting is allowed if Voter X “cannot reasonably be expected to vote in person at the polling station” – not just because it would be inconvenient to go.
The main reasons for this are because of illness, or because they are travelling.
If a proxy vote is due to illness, then a medical professional must verify this.
However, no checks are done if someone simply says they are travelling.
If a proxy vote is granted, then a Voter X’s polling card will be posted out ahead of polling day, they will instruct their proxy how to vote on their behalf, and that proxy will then go along to the polling station on the day in their place.
The DUP pointed out that in Wales – with a population of about 3.1 million people – there were just over 3,000 proxy voters in its 2016 Assembly election, compared with 9,920 in Northern Ireland, with a population of just over 1.8 million people.
It said leader Arlene Foster met representatives from the Electoral Office (which manages elections) to discuss how it is dealing with proxy applications, and the checks it has in place to prevent electoral fraud.
It said in a statement afterwards: “With individual voter registration and the requirement to use photographic identification Northern Ireland has strong measures in place to tackle potential electoral fraud.
“There are concerns however around postal and proxy votes.”
When it comes to the recent growth in proxies, and why Northern Ireland seems to have so many compared to Wales, she said “there appears to be little rational explanation”.
She added: “Similarly there appears to be no reason why the number of proxy and postal votes cast are particularly geographically concentrated within certain areas...
“All applications for postal and proxy votes must be assessed by the Electoral Office and as such, the high number of applications obviously puts a pressure on staffing resources to ensure that all checks are properly carried out before postal or proxy votes are issued.”
She concluded: “It is vital the Electoral Office can assure the public that proper checks are in place to not only ensure that valid applications are processed on time but that any fraudulent applications are identified and refused.
“I will be seeking further clarification from the Electoral Office on this issue as well as holding discussions with the Electoral Commission who produce a report on each election, including on electoral integrity.”
An analysis of the March Assembly election, carried out by the Electoral Commission (which monitors the work of the Electoral Office) found that the surge in “absent votes” (both proxy and postal ones) had placed “significant pressure” on the Electoral Office – although “the overall process ran well”.
As to the reasons why proxy votes have increased, Ms McVea said: “Because it’s entirely lawful and has no threshold, it wouldn’t necessarily be appropriate for me to be looking for reasons... It is entirely open to people, wherever they are, to make these applications within the law.”