New rules block thousands from Belfast Assembly poll

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The Independent Online

As many as one third of young people in Northern Ireland may not be able to vote in the Assembly elections on 26 November because of changes in the electoral rules.

Voting arrangements were completely revised before the elections were called, with radical new rules for compiling the electoral register. Up to 50,000 voters under 25 will not appear on the register and therefore cannot vote in what is being billed as a particularly important election.

The new rules were brought in as a response to allegations that the traditional Northern Ireland practice of personation, or vote-stealing, was still alive. A rigorous new form of registration last year removed 11 per cent of the entire electoral register, which could have a marked effect in a number of the 18 constituencies.

Opinions differ on how much of the reduction was accounted for by the tackling of fraudulent voting and how much was due to a clean-up of an untidy and out-of-date register.

The most striking change was in West Belfast, which is dominated by Sinn Fein, with almost one in five of its electorate gone from the new register. Since the changes, political parties have for months been scrambling to make sure their potential supporters have been added to the register.

Sinn Fein in particular has been making strenuous efforts to do this, with hundreds of activists urging those excluded to get on the register.

A senior Sinn Fein source said yesterday: "Every party is going to be affected by this, because for some people getting on the register is too much hassle for them.

"We've done a lot, and I think we may have made it up. We've been back, we've been back, we've been back time and again to urge people to get their forms in." In a separate development, the Electoral Commission has warned that more than 35,000 people who are on the register may not have an acceptable form of identification and will not be able to vote.

The rules for identification were tightened because of suspicions of voting fraud. Voters are now required by law to produce photographic ID in the form of a special Electoral Identity Card or documents such as a passport.

Electoral experts say that many young people will be disfranchised because of sweeping rule changes in recent years. In a system that has been introduced only in Northern Ireland, potential voters were obliged to fill in individual forms rather than be registered by the heads of households.

In addition they were required to provide their national insurance number, date of birth and signature.

Many young people have apparently not taken the trouble to register. One observer said: "Under the new system young people can no longer rely on their parents. They have to make the effort to register themselves, and many have not bothered.

"This could potentially have an impact on overall voter turnout - getting young people to turn out is already difficult and this is likely to make the problem worse than ever."

The register to be used in the coming election closed at the beginning of September. This means that thousands of teenagers who have turned 18 since the introduction of the new system will be unable to vote despite now being of voting age.

Experts say other groups of people who are likely to be under-represented include those with disabilities, people who are caring for other people, people from lower socio- economic groups and those with literacy difficulties.