A team of 26 observers registered with, and accredited by, the UK’s Electoral Commission made 320 separate observations across the 1,463 different polling stations (ballot boxes) in Northern Ireland. This constituted approximately 22% percent of all of the polling stations in Northern Ireland. The observer team of 26 was made up of observers from the United Kingdom (17), Republic of Ireland (2), Russia (2), Italy (1), Austria (1), Germany (1), Canada (1) and USA (1).
Each observation was conducted in pairs to allow for objective observation, following which the two observers agreed their opinions of the electoral process before submitting data to the central team. The survey was conducted online so data was collected, and could be checked, live.
The observations generally took between thirty and forty-five minutes per polling station as the observers were asked to ensure that they attempted to see the entire process, which included staff greeting electors on arrival at the polling station. The numbers of polling stations observed were:
- Antrim and Newtonabbey 33
- Armagh, Banbridge and Craigavon 24
- Belfast 56
- Causeway Coast and Glens 17
- Derry and Strabane 28
- Fermanagh and Omagh 5
- Lisburn and Castlereagh 27
- Mid and East Antrim 41
- Mid Ulster 27
- Newry, Mourne and Down 25
- North Down and Ards 37
Each team of observers was contacted throughout the day by the central team to ensure that observations were as uniform as possible. The organisation of polling stations was generally very well run across each council area, voters could see how to access voting and staff were trained to manage the process. In Northern Ireland there is an agreed code of conduct between parties. Our data gathering and subsequent recommendations also reflected on this agreed Code of Conduct – Canvassing in the Vicinity of Polling Places – which states:
- Canvassers shall be polite and courteous at all times when speaking to members of the public. They should be careful to avoid any behaviour which may leave them open to complaints of harassment or intimidation.
- Canvassers will not engage in canvassing activities inside the grounds of a polling place.
- Canvassers should not stop, or in any way impede, the free flow of vehicular traffic entering or leaving the grounds of a polling place.
- Canvassers should not restrict or in any way impede pedestrian access to any entrance of a polling place.
- Canvassers shall not attach flags, emblems, banners, posters or any other item used in connection with canvassing to a polling place or to any part of its perimeter wall or fence.
This was generally a very well-run election. Presiding officers and poll clerks were invariably very welcoming and friendly to the observer groups and we would like to thank all those that helped in our work. There were some concerns raised by polling staff in some areas about unannounced observers arriving but, unlike our normal practice, we had informed the Electoral Office for Northern Ireland in advance about our intended deployment.
We believe that ‘family voting’ is the single biggest challenge to the credibility of voting in polling stations in Northern Ireland. It is a practice that means many women, elderly and young voters do not have access to a secret ballot – which is their right. As with several recent elections that Democracy Volunteers have observed, we continue to be concerned about the significant levels of ‘family voting’ at polling stations. The 9% of voters affected by family voting persists apparently due to the lack of awareness amongst the public and staff alike. Family voting should be prevented and when seen it should be interrupted. On several occasions we even observed staff who observed the practice but, despite this, did not interrupt.
Our observer team saw ‘family voting’ in 44% of the polling stations attended which, bearing in mind the team records all the voters who attend polling stations, means that 9% of all the voters who were observed attending polling stations were involved in this practice. We saw 218 cases of family voting across Northern Ireland on polling day across 139 separate polling stations.
We would recommend that officers, and the presiding officers, take time to be aware of this and intercede when they see it. Evidence, as provided by the OSCE/ODIHR, suggests that this practice most affects women voters as the secrecy of their ballot is restricted.
Party campaigning outside polling stations and political literature
Polling stations in Northern Ireland regularly have party campaigners outside them. Of the 320 polling stations the observer teams visited only 22% had no political activity outside them. They were invariably easily identifiable as they generally wore party colours. However, as is the norm in Northern Ireland, party political literature is often given out to the public to assist the voter with party information such as where on the ballot paper their candidates can be found. As such, a great deal of this literature can be found abandoned around polling stations, whether in bins or tables, but also, more concerningly in polling booths. On some occasions our observer teams did suggest that these teams of campaigners were over-persistent with some voters.
The observer teams identified political literature in 19% of polling stations – regularly in polling booths themselves – which had not been removed by staff.
Our teams also felt that some polling stations were not entirely suitable as some less direct identity-based paraphernalia was also in evidence. Whilst we feel some of these are minor infractions, we do believe that polling stations should be politically sterile within their precincts.
Our observer teams also saw a considerable number of polling stations where party political paraphernalia and/or flags and banners were attached or within the curtilage of the polling station. This would seem to be in contravention of the agreed Code of Conduct concerning Canvassing in the Vicinity of Polling Places.
Our observer teams were also asked to record if polling agents were present in polling stations which is a right for all parties. These were present in 19% of the polling stations visited. On a few occasions polling agents received either messages or calls on their mobile phones and, whilst no evidence was collected that this was inappropriate, this could have potentially led to a breach of the Requirement to Secrecy to which they are signatories.
R1. Family Voting: We recommend that the Electoral Office for Northern Ireland implement strategies to discourage ‘family voting’ in polling stations. This could be done by two methods. Polling staff should receive, as part of their training, advice on how to deal with spotting and discouraging the practice. This should also be seen as a national problem which needs attention by the production of polling station signage that would help to influence those who are unaware it is unacceptable.
R2: Family Voting: We also believe that posters designed specifically to discourage family voting should be displayed in all polling stations as a minimum requirement and in polling booths where possible.
R3. Party Literature: We would encourage the Electoral Office for Northern Ireland to augment training for polling staff to ensure that they regularly check polling booths to remove extraneous political material.
R4. Party Code of Conduct: We would encourage the Electoral Office for Northern Ireland to remind political parties of the voluntary Code of Practice to which they are signatories.
R5. Party Code of Conduct: We would recommend that the party Code of Conduct should be updated to include the role of polling agents, loud speaker cars and the length of time candidates and/or their agents can spend in polling stations without due cause for their attendance with party emblems.
R6: Polling Agents: We would recommend that polling agents have their mobile phones taken from them whilst conducting their duties in the polling stations.