NI Assembly election: To vote or not to vote?


To vote or not to vote?

image source, PA

It's over to the people to decide what the future holds for Northern Ireland and its politics.

But with voters being asked to go to the polls for a second assembly election in just 10 months, and with this campaign having been a divisive one, how will people react on Thursday?

Voter turnout in assembly elections has slid steadily since 1998, when about 70% of the eligible electorate went to the ballot box.

At last year's assembly election, turnout was down more than 15% on the figure from 18 years earlier.

So, has setback and scandal at Stormont put people off politics, or has it spurred them on to have their say?

BBC News NI spoke to two people with strongly differing views on voting.

The case for voting

image source, Press Eye
image captionFelicity McKee says every vote will matter in Thursday's election

The right to vote has been hard won for many people, Feliticy McKee says, and she believes every single ballot paper will have a significance when counting begins on Friday.

"Our very peace process was established through democracy and the Good Friday Agreement - I vote simply because of that," she explains.

"The main success that we have from our democracy is the peace process - it may not be perfect, but these things take time.

"And also, within Northern Ireland there have been people who have fought for my very right to vote."

Even for those turned off by the main parties, the variety of candidates should serve up something to support for most people, including those desperate for an alternative.

But she adds that many non-voters are not engaged in the political process in any way, and more must be done encourage them to at least become "involved in protests or other forms of resistance".

Voter apathy "does tend to appear in more peaceful places", Felicity says, but recent results have shown that change is possible.

"If you look at Brexit and Trump, there can be changes within democracy and within the system that some non-voters are so upset about.

"This election could change things, considering how everyone's reacted to the RHI scandal - there's a huge feeling in the air of wanting to change.

"Democracy can quite literally come down to a handful of votes in some constituencies, so every vote matters."

The case against voting

image source, Stephen Elliott
image captionNon-voter Stephen Elliott has warned candidates and canvassers not to waste their time trying to talk him into voting

Stephen Elliott describes himself as a "member of a positive non-voters' fraternity", and has adopted a firm stance against making a ballot paper.

That is because he sees Northern Ireland's political system as a "failure", and points to the falling turnout in each of the past five elections as evidence that others feel the same way.

"There isn't an individual candidate or a party that has demonstrated they can govern Northern Ireland, and that is the reason that people, like myself, turn away from this," he says.

"I'm not going to endorse anyone by voting for them because they're not worthy of my vote.

"I agree that the right to vote is a very important privilege and it has been long and hard-fought for.

"But that does not mean that there should be a demand or an entitlement on the part of the political class for us to go out and support them.

"There is an arrogance in the political class that we own them a duty to employ them - we're better off without them at the moment."

Describing non-voters as pessimistic, Stephen says, will not encourage them to participate in the democratic process.

"It sounds to me as if it's a desperate act to frighten or intimidate people into going to vote.

"That will not work - positive non-voting is the answer."

What are the odds?

image source, Pacemaker
image captionPeter Weir's bid for a seat in Strangford could be hampered if Jonathan Bell polls well, bookies believe

A battle between the DUP's Peter Weir and his suspended party colleague Jonathan Bell will be the key one to watch in the election, according to a bookmaker.

Mr Bell is standing as an independent in Strangford after he made extraordinary allegations against DUP advisers and his party leader Arlene Foster over their role in the RHI scandal in a BBC interview in December.

He is pitted against three DUP ministers, including Mr Weir, who is standing in Strangford after switching to the constituency from neighbouring North Down.

And Christopher Bickerstaff, a trader at A McLean Bookmakers, said there is potential for a shock.

Another intriguing contest will be between Sinn Féin and the SDLP for the fifth seat in North Belfast, Mr Bickerstaff said.

"It looks a straight fight between Nichola Mallon of the SDLP and Sinn Féin's Carál Ní Chuilín.

"The business we're seeing suggests Nichola Mallon will take the seat, although we have her priced as the outsider.

"Carál Ní Chuilín has a decent lead in first preference vote from the last election, so Nichola Mallon has a fair bit of ground to make up."

While political pollsters have been stung by some spectacular electoral upsets over the past few years, Mr Bickerstaff said bookies face added pressure to get it right.

"We have to be a bit more scientific with the way we look at it - we can lose money, whereas pollsters just come down to opinion," he explained.

"We have to take time and care before we produce our odds, and I reckon we've got a good handle on it this time.

"But it has been a very difficult election to price up with the drop from six to five seats in each constituency."

On the register

A total of 1,254,709 will be eligible to vote in Thursday's Northern Ireland Assembly election.

That figure represents a 2.14% drop on the number of people who were on the electoral register for the last year's poll.

Of the 1,281,595 people who could have gone to the ballot box last time, 54.9% decided to cast a vote.

The Electoral Office for Northern Ireland said that 33,700 people were added to the register between 11 January and the end of the registration period in the run-up to this week's polling day.

A full constituency breakdown of the eligible electorate is available on the Electoral Office for Northern Ireland website.

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