CONCERNS over a supposed ‘explosion’ in proxy voters in nationalist constituencies during the last Assembly election appear to have little foundation.
The recent Assembly election saw a surge in the nationalist vote, with Sinn Féin and the SDLP taking 11 of the 15 seats in West Tyrone, Mid Ulster and Fermanagh and South Tyrone. Across the North, it left Sinn Féin just 1,168 votes behind the DUP.
But both the DUP and SDLP this week appeared to question an apparent ‘spike’ in the number of proxy votes cast in mostly nationalist constituencies on March 2 compared with the 2016 Assembly election.
The DUP claimed there was “little rational explanation” for the rise in the practice of a third party casting a vote on behalf of another person.
The facility is often used where voters are physically unable to access the polling station or where a voter is working in another constituency on polling day.
SDLP leader Colum Eastwood also appeared to express concern over what he called “a huge rise” in postal and proxy voting in nationalist areas, taking to Twitter to state, “The SDLP hasn’t been orchestrating it.”
But while there was an increase in both proxy and postal voting on March 2 this year, it represented just a fraction of the overall surge in voter turnout in West Tyrone, Mid Ulster and Fermanagh and South Tyrone.
There were 5,582 more votes polled in West Tyrone for the 2017 Assembly election compared with 2016, but only 528 of the extra votes were cast via proxies or postal votes, equal to just 9.4 per-cent.
Mid Ulster did see an explosion in voter turnout on March 2 this year. But 92.1 per-cent of the increase came from people personally attending polling stations. Just 7.8 per-cent, or 695 of the 8,847 extra votes cast from the previous year, were postal or proxy votes.
In Fermanagh and South Tyrone, there were 5,582 more votes cast in 2017 than in 2016, but just 317 came via postal or proxy voting (6.16 per-cent). A whopping 93.84 per-cent can be attributed to voters turning up themselves at polling stations.
The DUP told The Newsletter that it had “concerns” over the figures and would be seeking “further clarification” from the Electoral Office.
SDLP MLA Mark H Durkan appeared to pour further fuel on the fire claiming, “The system is open to abuse and has certainly been abused in Foyle recently.”
But Chief Electoral Officer Virginia McVea told The Newsletter that “no systemic practices that are untoward or illegal” had been drawn to her attention.
In the wake of the 2017 Assembly result, Sinn Féin openly stated that the party targeted lapsed voters for the March 2 poll.
West Tyrone MLA Declan McAleer spoke of thousands of doors being knocked and “a sense of energy and anger that we haven’t seen in at least 15 years.”
“Nationalists have made a massive statement in this election,” he said.
The deadline to register to vote in the June 8 Westminster election is Monday, May 22.