13 May 2004 Edition

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North's Electoral Office under pressure

The North's Chief Electoral officer Denis Stanley has been criticised by Sinn Féin's Paul Butler after a report by the Electoral Commission found that loyalists had gained access to last year's election count at Dromore County Down to confront Butler.

Stanley, in a written reply to a letter of complaint from Butler, had denied that loyalists had entered the count hall in Dromore on 27 November 2003 and had interfered with the count.

But an Electoral Commission report states that "a group of loyalists confronted a Sinn Féin candidate. A commission observer saw a number of young men dressed in football shirts, identified with one section of the community, enter the count centre. None appeared to have been given permission to enter and nobody challenged their presence.

"The observer had noted that there was no security on the door of the count from around 8pm onwards."

Butler, who is renewing his call for the count centre at Dromore to be closed, says "the Electoral Commission report vindicates what Sinn Féin said at the time, that this count centre is not safe. It also supports my complaint that these loyalists did enter the count centre and threaten me and Denis Stanley must answer as to why he got it wrong."

The following day, 28 November, a group of Sinn Féin activists were stopped and held by the PSNI for over 20 minutes. Butler also complained to the Electoral Office about this incident. The PSNI later apologised for the incident.

Meanwhile, it has emerged that the system of voting used in the North's elections may not, after all, be secret. The current system uses ballots with a printed serial number, which is repeated on the counterfoil.

At election time, when a person votes their electoral number is written onto the counterfoil. As the serial number is also on the actual ballot paper, this means the vote can be traced back to the individual who cast it.

Concerns about the system have now been raised by the Electoral Commission and the Office for Democratic Institutions and Human Rights (ODIHR), an international election watchdog. ODIHR raised concerns about the system saying that it may breach human rights which guarantee a person's right to a secret ballot.

"While in practice the ballots virtually always remain secret, the procedures do mean that the secrecy of each ballot is not absolutely guaranteed," it found.

Confirming that a review of the North's election procedures is now to take place, a spokesperson said "it was put to us that there is a potential for scanning equipment to be used to match up the ballot and the counterfoil".

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