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16 January 2003 Edition

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200,000 voters 'missing'

Adams challenges Electoral Office on flawed register



BY LAURA FRIEL


Immediate and decisive action by the Electoral Office and Commission is imperative to correct the seriously flawed new electoral register, says Sinn Féin President Gerry Adams.

"A seriously flawed process of registration has resulted in the mass disenfranchisement of almost 200,000 people across the north. In some areas, for example West Belfast, the number of people registered to vote has fallen by almost 20%. The failure in registration will affect areas across the board but particularly those who come from disadvantaged backgrounds."

According to the Electoral Office's own figures, over 130,000 voters eligible to vote last June have 'disappeared' from the register. But recently released official figures suggest an even greater number of voters have been disenfranchised.

The recently released 2001 census identifies 1,260,029 people as eligible to vote, compared to the 1,072,346 on the Electoral Office. In other words, within six months over 200,000 voters have 'disappeared'.

Census figures also identify a further 'missing' 50,000 first-time voters, bringing the total to a massive 250,000 people currently denied their vote. "Young people have been particularly failed by the Electoral Office," says Adams.

Under the former system, young people due to reach voting age in time for the next election were automatically added to the electoral register but under the new system, the onus is upon each individual young person to seek registration.

But the problem is not just one of non-registration. "In various constituencies citizens have complained that they completed registration forms, returned them to the various electoral offices but their names have still not appeared on the new register," said Adams.

During a recent meeting with Sinn Féin, the Electoral Office admitted that they had in their possession over 13,000 completed forms that were unprocessed when the register was published in December.

The West Belfast MP said the registration process set up a series of unnecessary hurdles that each citizen was obliged to clear in order to gain the right to vote. "The number of obstacles put in the way of people seeking to register to vote is unacceptable," said Adams.

Those wishing to ensure their right to vote were faced with a marathon of paper work that often required totally unnecessary duplication. For example, supplementary forms for photographic identification require detailed information identical to the information already supplied by the applicant in their registration form.

In other instances, the forms supplied by the Electoral Office were inadequate for the task. For example, a revised voter registration form issued in an attempt to correct the shortfall in registration omitted the section dealing with photographic identification.

Without specified photographic identification, a person might appear on the register but under the new regulations will be unable to exercise their right to vote.

Adams challenged the media spin that initially attempted to explain the 11% deficit in the new electoral register as part of the new legislation's crackdown on electoral fraud.

Despite the fact that the deficit within each area of Belfast was within a few per cent of all the others, the BBC deliberately focused in on West Belfast. The deficit, it was suggested, was a consequence of electoral fraud. In fact, the figures for South, North and East Belfast all fell within a few percent of those in the west of the city.

"This is not just a Sinn Féin issue," said Adams. "The failure of the Electoral Office will impact on all areas and all political parties."

Sinn Fein is calling on the Electoral Office to implement a series of measures immediately as a way of beginning to address the registration fiasco, which is not only threatening to leave many eligible people without a vote but also many more unsure if their entitlement vote is secure.

* The Electoral Office should inform all of those people who are registered to vote that their vote is secure.

* Canvass those who appeared on the June 2001 register but have subsequently 'disappeared'.

* Launch immediately an effective publicity campaign encouraging people to register.

* Establish help clinics in local areas to advise applicants how to fill in forms.

* Encourage young first time voters to register by issuing forms through schools and colleges.

"The onus is upon the Electoral Office and Commission to sort this mess out," said Adams. "That is their job and they are paid to do it. As taxpayers we should expect and demand a proper service from both these public bodies."
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