A move by the Electoral Office to align Northern Ireland with the rest of Britain and facilitate online voter registration has been met with some opposition over concerns for jobs and potential fraud.
The recent EU referendum shone a light on the issue of online voting registration. In an evolving digital era, the fact that Northern Ireland lags behind their counterparts in England, Scotland and Wales was met largely with confusion for many potential voters.
The confusion stemmed from a lack of clarity for those in Northern Ireland. The Government’s ‘register-to-vote’ portal actually included a section for Northern Ireland but at the last stage informed users, “to register to vote, update your address or name – print off the form below, complete and sign it, then return it to your area office. Please read the guidance notes before completing the form”.
The argument to bring Northern Ireland in line became all the more compelling when it was realised that Westminster was forced to grant a two-day extension for online voter registration after a swell in demand caused technical errors. It’s been reported that an extra 430,000 people registered to vote online within the extension time frame alone.
Online registration was introduced for the rest of the UK in 2014 as part of a move to Individual Electoral Registration (IER), a move away from the outdated household registration system. However, Northern Ireland has operated the IER system, minus online registration, since 2002. Attempts to combat long-standing electoral fraud in Northern Ireland were raised following the 1997 general election, recommendations for change were made by the Northern Ireland Affairs Select Committee and the Northern Ireland review: Administering Elections in Northern Ireland.
Steps towards online registration for Northern Ireland voters have already been taken. Earlier this year, the launch of a consultation to close all six of the Electoral Office’s regional offices, with services being centralised in Belfast, were met with considerable resistance, including strike action organised by public sector workers’ union Nipsa.
In July, Ulster Unionist MP Tom Elliott questioned the Parliamentary Under Secretary at the Northern Ireland Office, Kris Hopkins MP, in the House of Commons about plans for the future of electoral offices in Northern Ireland. Hopkins said: “The Government want to make sure that Northern Ireland voters can benefit from the introduction of digital registration. This new technology also provides an opportunity for the chief electoral officer to examine how electoral services can be delivered more effectively.”
Writing on his website, Elliott was one of many voices who have opposed the move for Northern Ireland, saying that there is “great anxiety” around the proposed closures of regional offices in Ballymena, Banbridge, Derry, Newtownabbey, Newtownards and Omagh. “While I support the principle of online registration, I do have some concerns with how it might work in practice in Northern Ireland,” he said. “I believe there is a very real possibility that the proposed digital registration in Northern Ireland could be subject to fraud and manipulation by criminal and terrorist elements. On many occasions in our local history those involved in terrorism have attempted to subvert the democratic process.
“I therefore caution the Electoral Office and the Northern Ireland Office to think very carefully about the particular circumstances in Northern Ireland which do not exist in other parts of the United Kingdom, and which may require additional precautions to be put in place prior to its introduction. The Home Office will be acutely aware of the active terrorist and criminal groups within our society. We must ensure that any future changes to electoral registration do not provide an open goal for terrorism to subvert our electoral system.”