Northern Ireland

Electoral Commission concerned at accuracy of register

An independent watchdog body has expressed concern about the accuracy and completeness of the register used for elections in Northern Ireland.

After carrying out a random check of 1,500 addresses, the Electoral Commission said as many as one in five entries are inaccurate.

It also said up to 400,000 people are not registered at the correct address.

The elections watchdog body is recommending urgent action is taken.

In order for members of the public to cast their vote, they first have to get their name on the electoral register. The register is meant to be continuously updated.

'Worrying decline'

The commission is worried about serious inaccuracies.

Electoral Commissioner for Northern Ireland, Anna Carragher, said: "The findings show a quite significant and worrying decline in both the completeness and the accuracy of the electoral register in Northern Ireland.

She explained that completeness meant asking if all the people who should be on the register were listed, while accuracy meant asking if all the correct details were recorded.

"For example, somebody might be on the register but at the wrong address, or somebody might not be on the register at all.

"This really is worrying, it has got significant implications for our democracy."

The elections watchdog wants letters sent to every household early next year to verify and update the current register.

The commission said it is essential work gets under way well ahead of the European Parliamentary election and possible local government elections, both due in 2014.

'Surprising'

Reacting to the report's findings, the man in charge of electoral registration in Northern Ireland - chief electoral officer, Graham Shields - said he was "disappointed".

"They're not as good as what we might have hoped or anticipated and I will certainly carefully consider the recommendations that are included in the report," he said.

Mr Shields told BBC Radio Ulster he found the level of failures in registration "surprising" and added that prior to the report, there had been no anecdotal evidence to suggest that there was "a problem of any substantial size",

He pointed to the assembly and council elections in May 2011, when about 668,000 people turned out to vote in Northern Ireland.

"We only had 691 voters - or people who turned up to try and vote - who were unable to do so.

"Similarly, of the 1.2m poll cards that were issued in connection with last year's elections, we only had 3,500 returns because the addresses weren't recognised."

The chief electoral officer said so far this year, his office had posted about 190,000 letters to the public, including reminder letters asking for information to update the register.

"We're getting a response rate of somewhere in the region of 30%. Now, clearly there's an onus on members of the public, as much as there is on my staff, to ensure that we try to keep the register up to date," Mr Shields added.

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