Northern Ireland’s chief electoral officer estimated that perhaps half of all postal votes cast in the 1992 General Election were fraudulent – and most of that was not by Sinn Féin, declassified files reveal.
In comments which have potential implications for the validity of elections today, senior NIO official David Hill suggested that such high levels of fraud were inevitable with postal voting because Electoral Office staff found it “impossible” to carry out anything but “cursory” checks on applications for postal votes.
At that point, the NIO said that Sinn Féin was adept at stealing votes by personation, but was not organised to secure many fraudulent postal votes.
However, in recent years there have been a series of allegations from rival parties that Sinn Féin has benefited from fraudulent postal votes, with a large increase in the number of postal and proxy votes in Westminster constituencies which elected a Sinn Fein MP in 2017.
In a confidential July 22, 1992 memo which has been declassified at the Public Record Office in Belfast Mr Hill said that the chief electoral office estimated that “perhaps 50% of the 27,085 postal votes cast at the 1992 general election were fraudulent, although in many instances this may only be to the extent of a person signing an application on behalf of a relative who is temporarily absent in Great Britain.
“The chief electoral officer has expressed the view that fraudulent absent voting is a much more significant problem than personation and that the absent voting provisions are ‘wider open to abuse’.
“The chief electoral officer also believes, incidentally, that the main culprits are parties other than Sinn Féin (West Belfast, for example, has one of the lowest levels of postal voting).”
Mr Hill, who was head of the NIO’s constitutional and political division, said that it was “impossible for the chief electoral officer to make other than cursory checks on the large number of ‘one-off’ applications in the short and busy period leading up to an election” but there was “little scope for further tightening up the attestation requirements, which are already stricter than in Great Britain”.
Mr Hill said that various forms of electoral abuse, particularly personation, where an individual steals votes by visiting multiple polling stations to vote, “have a long history in Northern Ireland. Such malpractice has always been more common than in the rest of the United Kingdom.
“In the past, it has generally been accepted that electoral abuse was not confined to one side or the other and that both sides benefitted, or suffered, more or less equally.
“However, the decision by Sinn Féin in 1981 to abandon ‘abstentionism’ and take part in elections seems to have been followed in some areas by systemic personation on an unprecedented scale.”
The requirement to produce specified documents when voting was introduced in 1985 in an attempt to make vote fraud more difficult.
However, the memo said that “the weak link in the specified documents system is the medical card, which is susceptible to forgery” but that “any form of identity card to replace all of the other forms of specified document...is either impracticable or would represent a disproportionate response to the current problem”.
The civil servant said that although the specified documents system had “reduced significantly” the personation problem, “it is likely that abuse of the absent voting system leads to a much greater number of fraudulent votes, particularly through fraudulent applications for a postal vote” and that there was a higher level of postal voting in Northern Ireland than in GB.
He said that “there is only limited scope for preventing fraudulent applications without restricting voting rights” but that ministers “may” feel that “the apparent level of abuse of the absent voting provisions cannot be ignored” and suggested an internal review of the situation.
He said that there was also a problem with allegations of voters being intimidated in polling stations. “This is particularly prevalent in West Belfast, where it seems to be organised by Sinn Féin. Most obvious are the gangs who congregate outside polling stations or in narrow streets leading to polling stations.
“This should not necessarily intimidate voters but it is made more insidious by Sinn Féin’s claim that by checking the voter’s electoral number as written on the ballot paper counterfoil it is possible to discover how someone has voted.
“This is, in theory, true but in practice the ballot paper counterfoils are sealed up after the poll and are not open to inspection. A counterfoil can only be reunited with a ballot paper on the order of the House of Commons or a court in a case in which a vote is invalid because of personation or for some other reason.”
He said that in the 1987 general election the chief electoral officer believed that in West Belfast there were around 5-600 votes stolen by personation using forged medical cards and he believed that “the level of personation in 1992 was around the same, and that Sinn Féin were careful to steal votes that would not be claimed”.
Referring to the two most recent general elections, he said that “Sinn Féin appear to be the main if not the only culprits”.