Official Report (Hansard)

Session: 2011/2012

Date: 01 February 2012

Committee for the Office of the First Minister and the deputy First Minister

Northern Ireland Elections

The Deputy Chairperson:  Seamus Magee, head of the Electoral Commission's Northern Ireland office, and Anna Carragher, the Northern Ireland Electoral Commissioner, you are both very welcome.  It is great to have you here.  If you want to take a few minutes to brief the Committee, we will then take questions and answers. 

Ms Anna Carragher (The Electoral Commission):  Thank you very much for inviting us to give a briefing to the Committee.  I know we talked about coming here at the end of last year, but we are very grateful to be here today.  I am particularly grateful, as I have been in this post for just a month, and this is a great opportunity for me to meet you all so early in the post.  If you are happy, I will give you a brief overview, and then Seamus and I will be happy to take any questions.   

This is the third report into an election in Northern Ireland, but the circumstances were very different compared to those in 2003 and 2007.  This was the first time that voters in Northern Ireland were faced with three polls on the same day:  the Assembly election; local government elections; and the UK-wide referendum on the UK parliamentary voting system.  The election will be remembered, I suspect, for the difficulties and delays at the counts, which I will come to shortly. 

There is no doubt that administering and running combined elections and a referendum was a significant challenge for the Chief Electoral Officer and his staff.  It was also the first UK-wide referendum run by the commission under the Political Parties, Elections and Referendums Act 2000.  As such, the chair of the commission, Jenny Watson, took on the role of chief counting officer for the referendum, and the Chief Electoral Officer worked to her, under direction, as the counting officer for Northern Ireland.

One direction that proved very successful was that given to issue poll cards early.  Rather than being sent less than two weeks before polling day, poll cards were issued on 28 March, which gave voters more time to register for the first time or to amend details.  As a result of sending out the poll cards early, over 9,000 calls were made to the helpline in the first week after the cards were issued and about 28,000 during the whole campaign.  That led to about 11,500 new names being added to the electoral register and about 5,500 people being able to update their details.  In total, there were 1·2 million people on the electoral register, and that was an increase of 94,000 from 2007 and the largest number of people on the register since individual electoral registration was introduced in 2002. 

However, it is concerning that the election marked the continuing decline of turnout in Northern Ireland, with only 55% of electors taking their place.  That was down from 62·9% in 2007.  We carried out a lot of opinion surveys afterwards.  The common reasons given for non-voters not taking part related to such things as being too busy, with about 37% of non-voters saying that.  The second most common reason, given by 30% of respondents, was a lack of interest or not being bothered.  That figure is alarmingly high compared to other parts of the UK:  19% in England, 16% in Scotland and 20% in Wales. 

For those who did take part, the experience was largely positive, and about 80% of those surveyed expressed confidence in how the election was run.  In fact, we would all generally agree, and the report agrees, that polling day itself was a success.  There were concerns over security and the potential for queues to form because of the three polls taking place.  However, those concerns did not materialise.  That was due to good partnership between the area electoral officers and the PSNI and good planning. 

It was a successful polling day.  However, as I said earlier, the polls will be remembered for the time taken to complete the counts.  Our report, of which members have a summary, found that no single factor contributed to the difficulties that arose.  The Chief Electoral Officer made clear well in advance that the count would take two days.  In fact, the count did not take any longer than it did in either 2003 or 2007.  However, what was different was the time taken to complete the verification of ballot papers.  As a result, the delays in the election related to the announcement of turnout figures and total first preference votes.  The first result was not made until after 7.00 pm, 11 hours after the count had begun.  It is a particular matter of concern that the referendum vote for Northern Ireland was not declared until 2.00 am on the Saturday morning — to a rather deserted Kings Hall, I am afraid — four hours after the last announcement of the results elsewhere and in the absence of any media presence. 

Page 43 of the report has a summary of some of the issues.  I will not read them all out but, essentially, they include insufficient planning, paperwork being a bit late, staff not turning up for counts, and the poor quality and lack of experience of some of the staff.  There were also questions around the unsuitability of the count venues to handle the three counts and questions about the quality of the IT.  There were some very significant issues around that.

There were particular concerns about the media handling, and the lack of an effective communications programme also caused problems.  From mid-afternoon, the broadcasters began their election coverage.  However, with very little news coming from the count, we felt that there was inadequate communication between officials and the broadcasters in particular.  It was also claimed that some media liaison officers went out of their way to avoid answering questions.  That all gave rise to a great deal of frustration on the day.

There are a couple of points worth making.  It is fair to say that there is a lack of understanding of the process used to count ballot papers in a single transferable vote (STV) election.  That extends across parties, candidates and the media.  Every part of the count is important, and much was done to maintain the integrity of the poll.  The emphasis on getting it right was correct, but you can be both right and more speedy than was the case on the day, and I think that most of us would agree.

The report is not about apportioning blame.  Rather, it is about looking at how things can be improved for future elections.  There are almost 30 recommendations to the UK Government and the Chief Electoral Officer.  I do not intend to go through all of them, but I want to draw your attention to one particular aspect of it.  The issue of performance is very important, and it is one of the key recommendations in our report.  The Chief Electoral Officer reports annually to the Secretary of State, and his report is laid before Parliament.  That is an accountability arrangement that the commission is very happy with.  However, he remains the only returning officer in the UK whose performance against the independent standards that are set by the commission is not reported to electors.  That performance standard has been operating in Great Britain since 2008, and it is there to ensure that voters get a consistently high quality of service.  The role of the commission is to monitor performance through the performance standards, to highlight where things are well run and to challenge registration officers and returning officers where the service received by voters is below standard. 

We recognise that the system of electoral registration in Northern Ireland is different to that elsewhere in the UK, although it will not be for much longer.  However, the commission feels that it is only right that voters in Northern Ireland get the same standard of electoral service as their counterparts elsewhere in the UK.  That is something that we have discussed with the Minister, and he is happy for us to work with the Chief Electoral Officer on performance standards.  The provision of meaningful data to assess the Chief Electoral Officer's performance against that of other returning officers could help to make future improvements to the delivery of elections in Northern Ireland.  As many of you know, the Chief Electoral Officer is conducting a review, and we are happy to contribute to that process. 

In conclusion, I want to stress that the voter is central to everything that we do, and everything that we do should be approached from the voters' perspective to ensure that they get the best possible service.  That is one of the reasons why we have asked the UK Government to look at what can be done to improve the performance of the electoral process in Northern Ireland.  Going ahead, the Assembly may want to look at the accountability for electoral arrangements in Northern Ireland.

That has been a rapid run-through.  Seamus and I are happy to take any questions that you may have.

The Deputy Chairperson:  Thank you very much, Anna.  As acknowledged at the start of the briefing, the elections are not strictly the remit of the Committee, but significant concerns were raised further to the elections.  Therefore, it is a useful opportunity to add transparency to the issues today.  Members will want to ask questions. 

Mr Molloy:  Thank you for the presentation.  It is important that you get the opportunity to report to some body and some Committee in the Assembly.  Should the whole electoral process not be run by the Assembly, rather than the directors of the NIO, so that the Assembly would be handling its own elections and setting its own criteria? 

I was interested in the poll cards, which were a big success.  People got their poll cards early, and those who did not realised that they were off the register.  Given that turnout was low anyway, it begs the question of what it would have been if the 11,500 extra people who registered late had not done so.  Obviously, those people were interested in voting, so that may have helped the situation. 

There was panic about queues due to concern around the number of elections and a referendum being held on the same day.  Perhaps those did not materialise because of the low turnout.  That raises other questions.  Would it be beneficial if, in the future, the Assembly were to be control of registration, ID and the various different things that would help?

Ms Carragher:  It is instructive to look at what happens in other places.  Seamus, please keep me right, because I am still allowed to plead being very new.  In Scotland and Wales, although UK parliamentary elections remain with the Scottish Office and the Welsh Office respectively, local government elections are run by the relevant Parliament and Assembly.  Do those bodies also run their own parliamentary elections, Seamus? 

Mr Seamus Magee (The Electoral Commission):  No, it is only local elections that are run by the Scottish Parliament and the Welsh Assembly. 

Ms Carragher:  They have slightly different arrangements in that Northern Ireland is the only region of the UK to have a Chief Electoral Officer.  In Scotland, there is an electoral management board, and, in the English regions, there are electoral officers and a returning officer.  There are different patterns through the UK.  The other devolved nations have devolution of some electoral matters, and that has worked pretty well in those areas. 

On poll cards and queues, turnout is a complicated issue, as will be obvious from the report.  This autumn, a canvass will take place to look again at the electoral register, with a particular emphasis on looking at the voting population that we know is difficult to register.  That tends to comprise younger people and more transient people.  Northern Ireland has a more diverse population that we have had heretofore.  It includes people who have moved house recently.  The canvassers will concentrate their efforts on those people for registration.

Mr Molloy:  The Mid Ulster count, which I think was the last to declare, was one of two counts in the Ballymena centre.  The delay was not down to the counting of votes, which was carried out fairly quickly.  It was due to the working out of the percentages, and some were using antique equipment, never mind anything else.  People were using small calculators to work out percentages, and, at one stage, I think that some were even using graphs because it was so slow.  All through the day, false targets were given.  We kept being told that the result would be through in an hour, and that went on until 10.30 pm on the second night.  There are real concerns about that, so would those counts be better done at constituency level rather than having two or three counts in the one centre?  There is quite a bit of fatigue for the counters, and, in a lot of places, the turnout of counters on the second day was well reduced from the first day, so that raises a big question.   

If the referendum had not been on, the poll cards would have been issued the week before as normal, so there would not have been that early warning. That brings us back to the issue of registration.  How do we ensure that we have a proper full register and that people have the opportunity to have ongoing identification and registration reminders, and variations within that?

Mr Magee:  Significant problems were identified at the counts, and one of the recommendations that we have made is that there should be a total review of elections and counts in Northern Ireland.  The Chief Electoral Officer has started that process and hopes to report later this year.  One of the areas that he will address is that of coming up with a count model and, indeed, ensuring that there is greater transparency in how future counts are conducted.   

Last year was the first time that poll cards were issued earlier, and the benefits were there for all to see.  The Chief Electoral Officer has agreed that poll cards will be issued earlier in future elections.  The success of having that window was fairly evident, in that 11,500 more people were able to get onto the electoral register.  It is also important to point out that the current electoral register has 1·2 million people.  That is the highest number on an electoral register since the introduction of individual electoral registration in 2002.  We are working with the Electoral Office.  Our campaigns focus on those who are not registered, and we know which groups in society are less likely to be registered.  So our focus is on trying to have a full register, but we understand that, in some aspects, it is difficult to get everyone registered.  However, the target is to have full registration in Northern Ireland.

Ms Ruane:  There may be a high number registered, and I welcome the fact that it has increased, but I believe that it is more difficult to register here than in any other part of the world where I have worked.  We need to find ways of ensuring a greater drive for registration and consistent registration by getting information out.  There is a lot of frustration about that.  After the most recent and the previous elections, people told me that names seemed to have been arbitrarily removed from the register.  For example, if a father and son had the same name, there was a good possibility that one of them had been removed.  

I know of and appreciate some of the work that was done in relation to schools.  I was part of that work with the Electoral Office.  However, as a society, not being registered should be an exception, and not enough is being done in relation to that.

To follow on from Francie's question, we heard about the increases, but it would be useful for us to know the Electoral Office's plans for the next few months and years to get people registered and provided with photographic ID.  That was another thing that people gave out to me about — the difficulty in getting photographic ID.  That is made worse the further you are from the centres.  In my constituency, some people had to travel long distances.  They were given a specific time, without any consideration being given to their working day, whether they were working families or whatever.

I have a second question, my last for the moment.  I know that you went to a significant number of schools to advise on registration.  Some schools did not let the Electoral Office in.  I know that you then wrote to individual MLAs, which was welcome.  I wrote to the schools in my constituency to ask why they were not allowing the Electoral Office in and saying that it was important to get young people registered.  Have all schools now co-operated with your office? Are some still refusing to take part?

Mr Magee:  It is important to clarify the difference between the Electoral Office and the Electoral Commission.  The Electoral Office is responsible for registering people in Northern Ireland.  Our remit is to comment independently on how registration is done and to report on how elections are conducted.  Later this year, we will be doing a large piece of work in Northern Ireland to look at the accuracy and comprehensiveness of the electoral register in Northern Ireland.  That work was last completed in 2008, at which time the register was more than 90% accurate but had around 82% or 83% of people registered.  We are repeating that exercise because, if you recall, there has been no electoral canvass of electors since 2006.  So we want to gauge the accuracy and comprehensiveness of the register clearly. 

You are right to say that the Electoral Office has done a lot of work with schools and with 16- and 17-year-olds.  Prior to that initiative, about 200 young people, known as attainers, were on the electoral register in Northern Ireland. Since then, the average is 17,000. A number of schools failed to co-operate, and Graham Shields followed up with those schools.  However, I think the number failing to participate is very small.

Mr Eastwood:  I am glad to hear that you are considering the abolition of polling agents.  At this stage, there is no point.  If no information is allowed out, there is no reason for those people to be there, and that would be a positive step. 

Have you considered putting pictures of the candidates on ballot papers, given that having potentially three or four elections on the one day, and we have that a lot here, people can get very confused about who they are looking to vote for?   Photographs might help.  I think they do that in the South.  If you could consider that, if would be useful.

Ms Carragher:  As far as I am aware, that is not being considered, but we will take that suggestion away. 

Mr Magee:  The issue of polling agents is a controversial one from time to time.  We got all the political parties together a few years ago and did not get any consensus on the issue of polling agents.  However, given the success of photographic ID in polling stations, there is a question as to whether polling agents are necessary.  That is an issue that some parties agree with and others are not in favour.  One of our recommendations to the Northern Ireland Office is that the future position of polling agents should be consulted on. 

Mr Spratt:  Thanks, Seamus and Anna, for the presentation.  There are 30-odd recommendations in the report.  You touched on the fact that there were three elections on the same day and there were major issues.  You were about at the King's Hall, Seamus.  There was frustration for those of us there.  There seemed to be staff sitting around doing nothing for hours in between the stages of the various counts, when papers had already been verified.  That was probably an issue of training, which I see you touched on in the report.    

How sensible is it for the Chief Electoral Officer or the Electoral Office to be carrying out the review into themselves?  Would it not be better to have somebody independent carry out that review and make sure, given that there is a good space between elections — the next is the European election — that proper training methods are put in place?

There needs to be an investigation into why people just did not bother turning up.  That was probably a first.  Was it an issue about what they were being paid, or what were the issues?  That is reasonably serious.  I can understand a few people not turning up, but you highlighted the issue, so, obviously, it was a problem across the board at the various counts across the Province.

You make a lot of good recommendations in the report.  How can we be sure that they will be put into action as opposed to sitting there on paper and not being taken on board?  You saw a lot of what happened at the coalface.  Particularly you, Seamus — you saw many of the problems as you moved around.  A lot of those recommendations need to be taken on board but how can we be assured that they will be implemented?

Ms Carragher:  The Chief Electoral Officer is conducting his own investigations.  Our report was an independent investigation, which, as you rightly say, identifies a lot of those issues. We will be working very closely with the Chief Electoral Officer in advance of the next elections to be absolutely sure that there is an auditable and verifiable training process and other processes in place to address those issues.  Performance standards will help to make that a reality. 

Mr Magee:  We will be publishing, in October, an update report on progress in dealing with the recommendations in this report.  We are also involved in the quality assurance role with the Chief Electoral Officer in ensuring that his review of elections and the counts includes all the issues that are addressed in this report.  There are other internal issues that he wishes to address.  We are committed to publishing a further progress report this year, and we want to ensure that all of those recommendations are included in the review and that there will be significant changes in the next elections in 2014. 

Mr Spratt:  I am still a bit concerned about the Chief Electoral Officer or his office carrying out the review into some of the problems that existed.  Do you think that that is sensible, given the issues that existed?  Perhaps it is not for you to comment on that. 

Ms Carragher:  One would not want to prejudge it.  He is working on the report.  As Seamus said, that report is being quality assured by the Electoral Commission and the NIO. 

Mr Spratt:  Let me put it another way.  Would it not be better if an independent person did it, so that all of that work could be carried out?  Everyone knows that if an organisation is looking into itself, it will be looking for excuses.  We cannot afford another faux pas like the last one regarding the length of time it took and what seemed to be the staff's ineffectiveness through being unable to get on with their jobs.  The people who were counting were frustrated about the amount of time that they had to sit and wait, and they were getting it in the neck from people around the place.  If we want to get to a new place the next time round, there needs to be a lot of quick action.  There seems to be a lot of responsibility around training, for instance.  The training the last time round seems to have been totally inadequate.  Would it not be better if an independent person looked at it and said what needs to be done?  We need to do that with other things in government, so why not do it in this case?  We do not want to have Northern Ireland be the one region that appears to be a disaster.  It was on the news, for instance. 

Ms Carragher:  We certainly do not want that to happen again.  We have to wait to see the Chief Electoral Officer's report before we make a judgement on it. 

The Deputy Chairperson:  Is the Chief Electoral Officer required or minded to respond to your detailed report? 

Mr Magee:  The response will come from the Chief Electoral Officer and the Northern Ireland Office, which sponsors the office of the Chief Electoral Officer in Northern Ireland.  We understand from the Minister that we will receive a response to this report within the next four weeks.  The Chief Electoral Officer has included a large number of these recommendations to take forward in his review. 

Mr Spratt:  Will the response be made available? 

Mr Magee:  Yes. 

Mr Nesbitt:  I want to ask one question about the recommendations, which spread over two and a half pages.  There are 29:  three on legislation; six on policy; and 20 on strategy, action plans and the Chief Electoral Officer.  Am I right in thinking that you are, as subtly and politely as possible, directing us to where the issues lie, by the fact that two thirds of the recommendations rest with the Chief Electoral Officer rather than with policy and legislation? 

Ms Carragher:  The report makes it fairly clear that we recognise that to deliver three elections on the same day presented a very significant challenge to the Chief Electoral Officer.  We must acknowledge that on polling day and on the run-up to polling day, the arrangements moved slowly.  There were very significant operational problems in the count.  That is what the recommendations are designed to look at. 

Mr Magee:  The Chief Electoral Officer announced a review prior to the report being published.  He has recognised the shortcomings and issues on polling day and at the counts. 

Mr G Robinson:  I thank Anna and Seamus for their presentation.  As far as I am concerned, in our area, the day of the poll and the count were a complete disaster.  That was the case from morning to night on both days, and that is the feedback that I have had from candidates and the voters.  The sooner we realise that we cannot cope with three elections on one day, without major changes being made, the better.  It was too confusing for people.  I know that the referendum was a straightforward case of yes or no, but it added to the confusion, particularly for elderly people.  We did an awful lot of canvassing around the doors to try to encourage people to come out and to let them know exactly what they had to do.  I am convinced that the confusion and uncertainty, particularly among some of our elderly people, contributed to the low poll numbers in some areas.  I know that people could have applied for postal votes and so forth.  However, those forms can also be confusing, and people like us had to guide voters on how to fill in those forms when they came to our constituency offices.  Some people found the whole thing very confusing. 

I pay respect to the electoral staff in East Londonderry.  There were no problems that were too big for them, and they tried to help us as much as they could.  However, election day and the days of the count were absolutely disastrous.  Candidates had to wait a long time for the results and people outside were ringing us on our mobiles to ask what was happening.  There was very poor communication.  I feel that, the sooner it is made compulsory to vote, the better.  Thank you.

The Deputy Chairperson:  Seamus or Anna, do you want to respond to any of those comments? 

Mr Magee:  I want to briefly address the issue of having three polls on the same day.  As Anna pointed out, polling day was very successful, and the Electoral Office showed that it could administer three polls.  It employed an additional polling clerk at each polling station to assist voters, and the planning and delivery of polling day was a success.  However, you are right that difficulties arose with the counts, primarily with the amount of time that it took to verify the ballot papers and for the counts to start.  The criticism then came as a result of the long time that it took to indicate the first-preference totals and turnout figures for each constituency to the media and others.  In the report, we identified the issues that affected the counts and why they did not work as well as they should have. 

Hopefully, there will be significant changes in the future.  One of those will be the development of a new count model to set out patterns.  The Electoral Office is working on that.  You referred to count staff sitting around doing nothing, but the nature of an STV count is that there will always be gaps and delays.  We want a count model to be developed that will utilise staff more effectively and ensure that the job is done much quicker but as accurately.

Ms Carragher:  Looking ahead, the Electoral Office is considering the possible use of e-counting.  The Committee has been invited to Scotland, where they will use e-counting in the local elections in May.  I have been to Scotland recently to talk to them about that, and I am hoping to look at e-counting.  Obviously, one approaches these things with — 

Mr Eastwood:  It is being run by a Derry company. 

Ms Carragher:  Yes.  One approaches these things with considerable caution, but it has the potential to speed up the count. 

The Deputy Chairperson:  What exactly will e-counting involve, Anna, practically speaking? 

Ms Carragher:  I wish that you had not asked me that.  The machine can verify and scan the papers more quickly.   It is all capable of being verified again if there are any questions about it.  It has been used in other places.  It was used in the Greater London Authority (GLA) elections, and, as we all know, it was used not very successfully in the 2007 elections in Scotland.  They hope that they have ironed out a lot of those problems, and, for us in Northern Ireland, the experience in Scotland this spring will be instructive. 

Mr Eastwood:  That particular company might be able to set up some sort of a demonstration for us.  I know that it has done demonstrations before, because the Scottish people were over in Derry to see it.  That might be useful because, if it works well, it would be a lot quicker, and it would also be good to give a local company some business. 

Ms Carragher:  I think that the electoral officer is hoping to help to arrange that. 

The Deputy Chairperson:  We will return to that.  Thanks, Colum. 

Mr Humphrey:  I am sorry that I missed your presentation.  I was in another place and could not be here.  Although Trevor and I represent different constituencies, we were in attendance at the count at the Valley leisure centre for North Belfast, East Antrim and South Antrim.  In 20 years of being involved in politics, I have never seen anything like it.  In all three constituencies, it was a nightmare.  It is particularly difficult if you are a candidate because the count is squeaky-bum time.  The contrast between the Friday and Saturday there and the Monday and Tuesday in Belfast City Hall for the council count was day and night.  In my council count, the result was known half an hour into the count.  I was doing civic duties at the time and was told to go back to the City Hall because the declaration was about to be made.  It was completed in 45 minutes.  I know that the numbers are not the same, but, with the staff, there seemed to be a lack of co-ordination and, to be honest, there seemed to be a lack of training and preparedness.    

That was an issue, and, as someone else said, it was not good for Northern Ireland to be seen across the UK and further as a place where the results were coming in at a snail-like pace compared with, for example, the Republic, where they were able to get the results more quickly with a PR system that might even be deemed more complicated.  There are issues about training and communication, and it goes back to the old adage:  fail to prepare, prepare to fail.  At times, across the three counts, that looked to be the case.

Another issue that needs to be looked at is the use of mock ballots, which are indecipherable from the ballot paper itself.  Particularly for older people, it is hugely confusing when there are three ballots in a day.  It is confusing for anyone, and for older people in particular.  We received a number of complaints about that.

Ms Carragher:  There is something in the training issue.  A review of training and how it is managed is one of the recommendations of the Electoral Commission report, and we fully expect it to feature prominently in the Chief Electoral Officer's report.  I hope that, before the next election, that will have been addressed.  I am not sure about the issue of mock ballot papers, but I will take it away, unless you have anything to add, Seamus. 

Mr Magee:  It has been raised in the past as an issue, but not so much at the most recent election.  In previous elections, mock ballot papers were identified as a concern, but, at the May 2011 polls, that was not such an issue. 

Ms Carragher:  On the issue that you and George raised of older voters, there may be a lesson in public awareness to take away for the next election.  Perhaps we should look at campaigns focusing on older people.  We will certainly seek your advice on that. 

Mr Molloy:  Seamus, you were, I suppose, right to say that it was successful on the day.  However, the colour of the ballot papers was not a success.  Many of the spoiled votes were attributed to people going from one ballot paper to another.  There was not enough of a difference to identify the Assembly and the council ballot papers by colour.  It seemed that, under artificial light, the ballot papers looked the same colour to some people, which was a sort of grey.  It was nothing to do with any party or council area, but people transferred from one ballot paper to the next one without separating the two.  

There is also the issue of the high number of rejected postal and proxy votes.  It is confusing that we talk about postal and proxy votes, but electoral staff call them absent votes.  So an ordinary person, who is not dealing with elections every day, does not necessarily consider a proxy or absent vote to be the same as a postal vote, which  may cause confusion and lead to a large number of rejected ballot papers.

Another point concerns the opportunity to refresh a signature.  Over the years, a person's signature changes and they sign their name in different ways.  There needs to be an opportunity for people to refresh their signature to ensure that it matches.

I meant to raise the issue of council elections, because we largely bypassed that subject.  In my area, and particularly around independent candidates, there did not seem to be the same issue in regard to election expenses as there was with parties.  A party machine may deal with such matters.  However, I know that election expenses, posters and the paraphernalia for independents in my area was not limited in the same way as a party candidate.  Has the commission any power to follow that up and ensure that accurate receipts are received from candidates to all elections, but particularly from those running for councils, where the permissible expenditure is lower than for Assembly elections?

Mr Magee:  On your first point, we identified in the report that the big issue was the fact that ballot papers for local government and for the Assembly did not have the name of the election on the top.  The two ballot papers were very confusing in colour.  That is acknowledged, and one of our recommendations is that, in future, those colours are tested with people and the name of the election is included on ballot papers.  Hopefully, that will resolve that issue. 

We have published a report on party expenditure and candidate expenditure in the Assembly elections.  The local government returns have been made to the Chief Electoral Officer, who is responsible for those returns.

Mr G Robinson:  Francie touched on the colour of the papers and so forth, but having only one election — or even two — instead of three, would cut down a lot of the problems that we had.  I think that three elections on one day is far too much, particularly for the elderly.  We found that to be the case throughout our constituency.  It was far too confusing.  Have one, possibly two elections on the one day, but not three.  You can talk about every colour of paper in the world, but that is where the problem lay, as far as I am concerned. 

Ms Carragher:  We will note that. 

Ms Ruane:  I agree with George that it is difficult.  However, if you have two elections in which you mark an X in one and 1, 2, 3 in the other, that is confusing for people, too. 

Ms Carragher:  That was certainly the experience in Scotland in 2007. 

Ms Ruane:  Yes, and people get in a tizzy about it.  They do not know whether to put an X or 1, 2, 3. 

The Deputy Chairperson:  Anna and Seamus, thank you very much indeed for your presentation.  It is clear that this is an issue of public interest, and it has been useful to add openness and transparency to the reviews and reports.  It might be an idea for the Committee to invite you back when you make your progress report in October this year.  The Committee should maybe consider inviting the Chief Electoral Officer to present to us as well.  We will look into that. 

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