Move to allay local Electoral Office closure fears

The woman in charge elections in the Province has moved to calm concerns around what the possible loss of Northern Ireland's regional electoral offices may mean.

Tuesday, 11th September 2018, 7:14 pm
Updated Tuesday, 11th September 2018, 7:18 pm
The Electoral Offices logo, emblazoned on the side of a ballot box

Chief electoral officer Virginia McVea was commenting after a string of objections were raised to the idea of office closures by both politicians and trade unionists.

This week, trade union NIPSA condemned the notion, which was raised when it met with Ms McVea on Friday, calling it “serious and detrimental”.

Though no firm decision has yet been taken on their future, Sinn Fein decried the news as an “attack on democracy”, whilst the UUP said it could “affect public confidence in the electoral system”, reducing access to electoral IDs and paper forms and casting of postal and proxy votes.

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There are regional offices in Banbridge, Londonderry, Newtownabbey and Omagh.

There are generally about three people in each. with perhaps 15 full-time jobs over all.

Asked what the offices do, she said: “The public can go in and leave paper applications to go on the register, or they can have general queries about being on the register. During election periods they can go in with queries or leave postal votes in, things like that.”

The review of the service dates back to 2016, when a consultation ran about possibly closing the offices and centralising work in its Belfast HQ. An alternative proposal was to keep three regional offices, but have them based inside council buildings.

Ms McVea acknowledged the Electoral Office budget has declined by roughly a quarter since 2010, but said the main thing driving the rethink was the fact people are joining the electoral register over the internet, not via paper registration forms.

As if, hypothetically, the closure of local offices will harm people’s ability to register, or to cast votes, she said: “No – not in the least.”

She noted there is a proposal for people to still able to drop these into council offices instead. She added: “But all experience in relation to the digital service, the numbers accessing that are only going to go up.”

It is thought NIPSA will meet with members later this week, and that it could be another several weeks before a firm plan is arrived at by the Electoral Office.