Dr John Ault, Director of the election observer group, Democracy Volunteers, has today urged the Electoral Office for Northern Ireland to update polling station training ahead of voting on 23rd May European Elections, following observing significant levels of ‘family voting’ across Northern Ireland in Thursday’s local elections.

Democracy Volunteers, deployed 24 observers across Northern Ireland on Thursday to observe proceedings at polling stations across all 11 councils. The team was made up of UK-based and international observers who were all trained on specific aspects of voting in Northern Ireland. The team of 24 was comprised of observers from the UK (17), Republic of Ireland (2), Austria (1), Italy (2), Russia (1) and the United States of America (1). The teams spent between 30 minutes and 45 minutes in polling stations.

The team observed 320 ballot boxes of the 1463 across Northern Ireland, constituting approximately 22% of all those being used This broke down as:

Antrim and Newtonabbey 33, Armagh, Banbridge and Craigavon 24, Belfast 56, Causeway Coast and The Glens 17, Derry and Strabane 27, Fermanagh and Omagh 5, Lisburn and Castlereagh 27, Mid and East Antrim 41, Mid Ulster 27, Newry, Mourne and Down 25 and North Down and Ards 37

The observer team identified so-called ‘family voting’ in 44% of polling stations. This constituted about 10% of all those voting during the observations. Democracy Volunteers consider this to be at sufficiently high levels to encourage the EONI to take demonstrable and effective steps ahead of the European Elections on 23rd May to improve training for polling station staff as well as the possibility of placing notices in polling booths to discourage the practice.

Commenting John Ault said;

‘Family voting is something that we see wherever we go. It ranges from clear breaches of the secret ballot where families are directed how to vote by an individual, to family members overseeing how their spouse or other family member votes. In a democratic society, where every voter should have the right to cast their ballot in private, we are concerned that voters in Northern Ireland do not always have the chance to cast their vote in private.’

‘This in itself is concerning enough, but polling staff rarely intervened to tell voters that they should not be doing and, indeed, when we observed them seeing family voting, they did not seem to understand that it, in reality, a serious matter that they should interrupt.’
‘This is what we could encourage the Electoral Office for Northern Ireland to look at ahead of the May 23rd European Elections as we feel that voters should have the right to vote in private. Staff should be reminded, during polling training, that if they see ‘family voting’ where voters enter a booth together or one oversees the voting of another, that they should intervene to prevent the activity.’

Dr Ault will be writing to the Chief Executive of the EONI this coming week with this initial finding to encourage this training modification and Democracy Volunteers will be issuing their final results from the election observation in the near future.

[1] Family Voting – this constitutes one of three activities 1. Two voters entering the same polling booth to vote together. 2. A voter actively observing how another voter is voting by looking over their shoulder 3. Voters discussing in the polling booth which candidates they are voting for in a way which breaks the secret ballot. Family voting is an ‘unacceptable practice’ according to the OSCE/ODIHR and breaches the secret ballot.

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