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Session 2001- 02
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Electoral Fraud (Northern Ireland) Bill


 

These notes refer to the Electoral Fraud (Northern Ireland) Bill

as introduced in the House of Commons on 28th June 2001[Bill 6]

Electoral Fraud (Northern Ireland) Bill


EXPLANATORY NOTES

INTRODUCTION

1.     These explanatory notes relate to the Electoral Fraud (Northern Ireland) Bill as introduced in the House of Commons on 28 June 2001. They have been prepared by the Northern Ireland Office in order to assist the reader of the Bill and to help inform debate on it. They do not form part of the Bill and have not been endorsed by Parliament.

2.     The notes need to be read in conjunction with the Bill. They are not, and are not meant to be, a comprehensive description of the Bill. So where a clause or part of a clause does not seem to require any explanation or comment, none is given.

SUMMARY AND BACKGROUND

3.     The purpose of the Bill is to provide the Chief Electoral Officer for Northern Ireland with additional functions to address the problem of electoral fraud there. The Bill is intended to give effect to the proposals in the White Paper, Combating Electoral Fraud in Northern Ireland (Cm. 5080), which was published in March 2001. The Bill proposes changes to the law in Northern Ireland only.

4.     In particular the Bill requires a canvass form and an application for voter registration to be signed by, and to include the date of birth of, each of the persons to whom the form or application relates. It provides for an electoral identity card to be issued free of charge to those people entitled to vote but who might not otherwise have satisfactory proof of identity. It also gives the presiding officer at a polling station the power to ask the date of birth of an elector applying for a ballot paper.

5.     The identification of voters at the polling station in Northern Ireland is already more controlled than elsewhere in the UK. Every voter must present one of a number of specified identity documents at the polling station before he or she is given a ballot paper. This safeguard was introduced by the Elections (Northern Ireland) Act 1985 to

prevent personation. The White Paper (paragraph 38) reported concern at the ease with which identity documents could be falsified. Amongst the specified documents which may be presented, only the passport and the Northern Ireland driving licence contain any photographic identity of the holder. The remaining non-photographic identity documents are regarded as providing insufficient proof of identity.

6.     Once a voter has identified him-or herself, the presiding officer must issue a ballot paper. If a candidate, or his election or polling agent believes that the voter is not who he or she claims to be, he or she may require the presiding officer to ask the two statutory questions - "are you x?" and "have you already voted in this election (other than as a proxy)?" If the voter answers to the satisfaction of the presiding officer, the ballot paper must be presented unless the candidate or his election or polling agent accuses the voter of personation. At present there is no way of verifying the identity of the voter beyond doubt; the only options are to accept the veracity of the voter's documentation or accuse him or her of personation. This Bill enables the presiding officer to ask a voter (who is not a proxy) an additional question - "what is your date of birth?". He can then check the answer given against the date of birth on the specified document and the information provided by the elector at the time of registration. This will facilitate identification of the voter.

7.     The electoral-ID card proposed by this Bill will be added to the list of specified documents. In due course it is proposed to replace all the non-photographic ID on the list of specified documents (though the Bill makes no provision to this effect). Thereafter the electoral-ID card, the passport and the driving licence would be the only ID acceptable at the polling station. No one will be disenfranchised until they have had every reasonable opportunity to acquire photographic ID.

8.     Since the commencement of the Elections (Northern Ireland) Act 1985, and before the coming into force of the Representation of the People Act 2000 in February 2001, the law required that a presiding officer in Northern Ireland should not grant a blind voter's application to vote with the assistance of another person unless the voter had produced a specified document to identify himself. Amendments made by section 13 of the Representation of the People Act 2000 widened the scope of the law in question to cover other physical disability and an inability to read. These amendments came into force in Northern Ireland, but without the provision for specified documents. Clause 5 re-introduces that provision and restores the position in Northern Ireland to what it previously was.

THE BILL

9.     The Bill has seven clauses.

COMMENTARY ON CLAUSES

Clause 1: Registration: provision of signature and date of birth

10.     This clause enables the Chief Electoral Officer for Northern Ireland to collect additional identifying information from registered voters. Electors and those applying for registration will be required to state their date of birth and sign the form for the annual canvass as well as stating their name and address. The signature and date of birth will not appear on the electoral register (apart from the date of birth of those who will become 18 in the coming year, as at present), but the information will be used in the electoral office and at polling stations for the purposes of making checks against the name of an elector when they apply for a postal vote or to vote by proxy, or attend at the polling station to obtain a ballot paper. The Chief Electoral Officer for Northern Ireland may dispense with the requirement for a voter to supply a signature in certain circumstances.

11.     Subsection (2) amends section 10 of the Representation of the People Act 1983. It inserts two new subsections, (4A) and (4B), into section 10 which deals with the annual canvass of electors. In the case of Northern Ireland parliamentary elections, subsection (4A) requires that electors provide their signature and date of birth. Section 10 (4B) permits the Chief Electoral Officer for Northern Ireland to dispense with the requirement of signing for persons who cannot produce a consistent and distinctive signature due to incapacity or illiteracy. The reference to producing a consistent and distinctive signature is such because the signature is being obtained not just to authenticate the elector's agreement to the inclusion of his details in the canvass form, but also as a unique identifying characteristic of himself.

12.     Subsection (3)(a) amends section 10A (1) of the Representation of the People Act 1983. Section 10A concerns registration officers' duties in registering electors. The subsections (1A) and (1B) to be inserted add to the requirements relating to the authentication of applications for registration and for the identification of electors for electoral purposes. As with the provisions for returning the annual canvass form, the first of the inserted subsections (section 10A(1A)) makes express the need for both a signature and date of birth. The second insertion (section 10A(1B)) permits the Chief Electoral Officer to dispense with the requirement for a signature in cases of incapacity or illiteracy. The power which registration officers already have in subsection (1) to prescribe requirements is extended to give effect to this additional requirement.

13.     Subsection (3)(b) inserts a new subsection (5A) into section 10A. It adds to the provisions contained in that section regarding the circumstances in which a person's entitlement to remain on the electoral register terminates, and in which the registration officer must or may remove names from the register. Section 10A(5A) provides that the entitlement of a person to remain on the electoral register terminates if their annual canvass form does not include both their date of birth and (unless the Chief Electoral Officer has decided it is not reasonably practicable for them to sign their name) their signature (so that failure to include either will result in termination of the entitlement).

14.     Subsection (4) amends section 13A(2) of the Representation of the People Act 1983. Section 13A deals with amendments of the electoral register when individuals apply in between canvasses (for example, when they move house to a new constituency). The newly inserted subsections (2A) and (2B) follow the pattern of the amendments inserted into sections 10 and 10A. Section 13A(2A) provides that an application for inclusion in the electoral register for Northern Ireland must include an elector's signature and date of birth, and section 13(2B) enables the Chief Electoral Officer to dispense with the requirement of a signature in cases of incapacity and illiteracy. The power which registration officers already have in subsection (1) to prescribe requirements is extended to give effect to this additional requirement.

Clause 2: Dates of birth and ballot papers

15.     This clause amends the parliamentary elections rules in Schedule 1 to the Representation of the People Act 1983. These rules apply (with amendments which extend only to Northern Ireland made by the Elections (Northern Ireland) Act 1985 to rules 37 and 40, in particular regarding the requirement that voters should produce specified documents) for the purposes of parliamentary elections in Northern Ireland. Rule 35 relates to the power to put questions to voters attending the polling station. Rule 37 states the circumstances in which a presiding officer or clerk is entitled to refuse to deliver a ballot paper to a voter. Rule 40 states the circumstances in which a voter can be refused a tendered ballot paper.

16.     The amendments made by the Bill empower a presiding officer or clerk at a polling station to ask a third statutory question as to a voter's date of birth. If the voter answers to the satisfaction of the presiding officer, the ballot paper must be presented unless a candidate or his election or polling agent accuses the voter of personation.

17.     Subsection (2) amends rule 35. The new rule 35(1A) enables a presiding officer to put the additional question "What is your date of birth?" to any person applying for a ballot paper at the time of their application. The amendment made by subsection (2)(b) makes clear that the third question applies only to electors, not to proxies.

18.     Subsection (3) amends rule 37. This rule currently requires a presiding officer or clerk to hand over a ballot paper to a voter who produces a specified document unless the document raises reasonable doubt as to his identity. The amendment to rule 37(1B) adds to the circumstances in which a reasonable doubt may arise. The doubt may be prompted, under the provisions of rule 37(1B), by the information contained in the specified document itself or the apparent age of the voter compared with the date of birth supplied to the Chief Electoral Officer.

19.     Subsection (3)(b) amends paragraph (1C) of rule 37 so that the power to refuse to deliver a ballot paper where a reasonable doubt arises by virtue of rule 37(1B), will rest with the presiding officer.

20.     Subsection (3)(c) amends rule 37(1D). Where it is a clerk who decides that the specified document or the apparent age of the voter compared with his date of birth supplied to the Chief Electoral Officer or his answer to the third question raises a reasonable doubt as to whether the voter is the elector or proxy that he represents himself to be, the clerk has to refer the matter to the presiding officer. The presiding officer must then proceed to decide the matter himself, just as if it had been to him that the voter had presented himself and produced the document in the first place.

21.     Subsection (4) amends rule 40, which relates to the circumstances in which a person is entitled to mark a tendered ballot paper. A person may be allowed to mark a tendered ballot paper in certain circumstances, such as where he discovers, on applying for his ballot paper, that someone else has already voted in his stead. The amendments to rule 40(1B) add to the circumstances in which a presiding officer can refuse to deliver a tendered ballot paper. It allows a presiding officer to refuse to deliver a tendered ballot paper if he is not satisfied by the elector's answer to the question as to his date of birth.

Clause 3: Absent votes and declarations of identity

22.     This clause amends provisions of the Representation of the People Act 1985 which have effect only in Northern Ireland and which relate to voting by post or by proxy (called "absent voting") at parliamentary elections there. The amendments have the effect that applications to vote by post or proxy must be signed and that the signature on the application must correspond with the signature provided to the Chief Electoral Officer on registration. The Chief Electoral Officer may refuse to grant an absent vote application if he is not satisfied that the signature on the application corresponds with the signature held on his records.

23.     Subsection (2) amends section 6(1) of the Representation of the People Act 1985 which specifies requirements where an elector applies for an absent vote at elections for an indefinite period. An application can only be granted if the Chief Electoral Officer is satisfied, amongst other matters, that the signature on the application corresponds with the signature supplied by the elector with his registration application.

24.     Subsection (3) makes a similar amendment to section 7(1) of the Representation of the People Act 1985. The new section 7(1)(ba) has the effect that an application for an absent vote at a particular parliamentary election can only be granted if, amongst other matters, it is signed by the elector and the signature on it corresponds to the signature he provided at the time of registration. Subsection (3) gives the Chief Electoral Officer the right to refuse an absent vote application in the same way as in subsection (2).

25.     Subsection (4) amends rule 45 of the parliamentary elections rules in Schedule 1 to the Representation of the People Act 1983. The new rule 45(2A) has the effect that a postal ballot paper shall not be deemed to be duly returned unless the accompanying declaration of identity has been signed and the signature corresponds with the one supplied on electoral registration (unless the exceptional circumstances which justify the registration officer in dispensing with the requirement of signature apply).

Clause 4: Electoral identity card

26.     This clause inserts a new section 13C in the Representation of the People Act 1983. It enables a person to apply to be issued with an electoral identity card (in accordance with any requirements prescribed by regulations). The Chief Electoral Officer has the function under section 13C(3) of determining such an application (in accordance with any regulations) and, if he is satisfied that the information given by an applicant is correct, he is required to issue an electoral identity card free of charge. There is a regulation-making power under section 13C(2) to provide for the types of person who may apply and for the application form.

27.     Section 13C(4) states that the electoral identity card must show the following information: the elector's full name and date of birth, his photograph, the card's expiry date; and it may include such other information and be in such form as the Chief Electoral Officer shall determine (in accordance with any regulations).

28.     Section 13C(5) provides that an electoral identity card becomes current on the date of its issue and ceases to be so 10 years later.

29.     Subsection (3) of clause 4 amends rule 37(1E) of the parliamentary elections rules in Schedule 1 to the Representation of the People Act 1983. It adds the electoral identity card to the list of specified documents which voters may use for the purposes of identification at polling stations in Northern Ireland.

Clause 5: Disabled voters

30.     This clause modifies, in relation to voters with disabilities, certain rules about voting procedure in Northern Ireland. It amends rule 39 of the parliamentary elections rules in Schedule 1 to the Representation of the People Act 1983, which was amended by the Elections (Northern Ireland) Act 1985 and later substituted by section 13(3) of the Representation of the People Act 2000.

31.     Subsection (3) inserts rule 39(2A). A voter with disabilities who attends at a polling station with a companion to assist him, may satisfy the requirements regarding production of a specified document by producing any of the specified documents referred to in rule 37(1A) to (1G), albeit that the documents may be produced by, and the ballot paper may be delivered to, the hand of the companion rather than the voter himself. The modification made is to treat references in rule 37(1A) to (1G) to "delivering a ballot paper" as if they were references to "granting a voter's application". The phrase "delivering a ballot paper" may not be entirely apt when a person attends to vote with the assistance of a companion. For voters being physically assisted, the modification (in rule 39(2A)) makes plain that the presiding officer or clerk's task is to allow their application for a ballot paper if the provisions of rule 37(1A) to (1G) have been satisfied, namely a specified document has been produced and any questions have been satisfactorily answered albeit with the assistance of the companion.

Clause 6: Offences

32.     This clause inserts section 13D in the Representation of the People Act 1983. Section 13D(1) makes it an offence for a person to sign either a canvass form or an application for registration if the person signing is not the person to whom the form or application relates.

33.     Section 13D(2) makes it an offence to give the wrong date of birth on behalf of some other person on a canvass form or an application for registration.

34.     Section 13D(3) provides that a person found guilty either of the above offences is liable on summary conviction to imprisonment for a term not exceeding six months; or a fine not exceeding level 5 on the standard scale; or both.

35.     Subsection (2) of clause 6 amends Part I of Schedule 1 to the Elected Authorities (Northern Ireland) Act 1989 to ensure that the provisions about offences in new section 13D apply also to the registration of local electors in Northern Ireland. (The changes made to the Representation of the People Act 1983 by clause 1 will automatically apply to local elections there on the basis of amendments made to the Elected Authorities (Northern Ireland) Act 1989 by Schedule 3 to the Representation of the People Act 2000.)

FINANCIAL EFFECTS OF THE BILL AND EFFECTS OF THE BILL ON PUBLIC SERVICE MANPOWER

36.     The electoral identity card, referred to in clause 4 of the Bill, will incur costs. It is estimated that around 400,000 to 600,000 people will require such a card. To allow for everyone who needs a card to request and receive one, an issuing period of up to 18 months would be required. This would be accompanied by a publicity campaign, with notices circulated during the annual canvass. The total cost is estimated at £750,000 over two years.

37.     The other provisions in the Bill and the issuing of replacement cards will be managed through the existing structures and budget of the Electoral Office in Northern Ireland.

REGULATORY APPRAISAL

38.     The Bill will have negligible effects on business, and accordingly no regulatory impact assessment has been produced. The Regulatory Impact Unit in the Cabinet Office is content that no Regulatory Impact Assessment is required.

EUROPEAN CONVENTION ON HUMAN RIGHTS

39.     Section 19 of the Human Rights Act 1998 requires the Minister in charge of a Bill in either House of Parliament to make a statement, before second reading, about the compatibility of the provisions of the Bill with the Convention rights (as defined by section 1 of that Act). The statement has to be made before second reading. The Secretary of State for Northern Ireland has made the following statement:

    "In my view the provisions of the Electoral Fraud (Northern Ireland) Bill are compatible with the Convention rights."

COMMENCEMENT DATE

40.     Clause 7 provides that clauses 1 to 4 and 6 come into force on days to be specified by the Secretary of State (who may specify different commencement dates for different provisions). Clauses 5 and 7 will come into force on Royal Assent.

 
 
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Prepared: 28 June 2001