Northern Ireland news

Voter confidence undermined by cuts says Empey

UUP peer Lord Empey

Flagging public confidence in the electoral system could be further undermined by budget cuts at the office that oversees the north's elections, a former Ulster Unionist leader has warned.

Lord Empey claims the regional Electoral Office is facing "major cuts" that will lead to the closure of branches and staff reductions.

The Electoral Office faced criticism over its performance during the 2011 assembly election count and over the delay in announcing the result of 2013's European poll.

Figures obtained by the Ulster Unionist peer show the office's overall budget has declined by nearly 10 per cent over the past three years.

He forecast further spending cutbacks and warned that the reductions posed a "great risk" to the public's confidence in the polling system and could lead to increased electoral fraud.

"Over the years, the Electoral Office has established a widespread reputation for professionalism and impartiality - anything that would put this at risk is to be avoided at all costs," he said.

"This incoming year will usher in a period of uncertainty for staff at all levels in the organisation, and I understand the trade unions have already been consulted."

The former UUP leader said his party was concerned that councils would be asked to conduct the counts of key elections.

"Given that the law governing Westminster, Assembly and local elections is different, and that different forms of voting are involved, a huge burden would be placed on local government officials – this is taking a great risk with public confidence in our electoral system," he said.

"The closure of local electoral offices would have a negative effect on public access to electoral identity cards, postal and proxy votes and work against attempts to increase the number of voters on the register."

The north's chief electoral officer Graham Shields said work on restructuring the office was at an early stage and that any significant changes would be subject to public consultation.

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