Fraud Act is an instrument to deny votes
Fraud Act is an instrument to deny votes

By Jim Gibney (for the Irish News)

As I write, a third of a million eligible voters might not appear on the draft electoral register due to be published on December 1.

This massive figure is made up of a quarter of a million people who were on the electoral register for last May’s election and have not returned their registration forms to the electoral office - the deadline is November 17.

It is also made up of potential voters in 90,000 households. They have not appeared on the register since the British government arbitrarily changed the registration scheme three years ago at the behest of the unionist parties and the SDLP.

An accurate figure for the number of people of voting age in each of these households is not available.

Whether December’s register will reflect any of these people depends on a number of unpredictable factors: the effectiveness of the registration operation of the Electoral Office, the ability of party activists to convince those they canvass to register, and the willingness of the electorate to fill out and return registration forms.

The Electoral Fraud Act of 2002 is the blunt instrument used by the British government to deny people their vote.

The legislation is appropriately named because it is a massive electoral fraud practised by the British government against the electorate in the north.

The Act is politically driven, is a direct response to the growing support for republicanism and is specifically designed to curb Sinn Féin’s electoral growth.

It effectively shreds the register annually. Tens of thousands of people are denied their right to vote.

The British government has created a mess of the registration process through its partisan political interference.

What makes matters worse is the SDLP was among those demanding changes to the system of registration.

They did so, supported by unionists falsely claiming widespread electoral fraud.

Their arguments were dressed up in democratic language. They claimed to be protecting the will of the people.

In reality the Fraud Act is little more than a crass attempt by the British government to shore up the SDLP in the face of the electoral challenge from Sinn Féin.

To this end it has failed.

The Act was music to the ears of unionist parties who were desperate for any measure which could halt Sinn Féin’s growth.

It mattered little to them that thousands of unionist voters were denied their right to vote when removed from the register.

It is not the first time the British government interfered with the electoral process when they did not like the election result.

They barred prisoners from standing in elections when Bobby Sands MP died on hunger strike following his spectacular win in Fermanagh/South Tyrone in 1981.

It introduced legislation preventing ex-political prisoners standing in elections unless they were out of prison five years.

The Fraud Act adversely affects the most vulnerable and marginalized sections of the electorate, nationalist and unionist: working-class people, first-time voters and the elderly.

The forms are complicated and must be filled in every year by the prospective voter.

Under the previous registration scheme, the head of the household filled in a single form for everyone of voting age in the house.

Once the form-filling obstacle is overcome the voter must produce a certain type of photographic identification at the polling station before they are allowed to vote.

The legislation is racist and discriminatory because it applies only in the north.

Sinn Féin has campaigned with others in civic society against the Fraud Act.

Incredible though it may seem, those most opposed to changing the Act are unionist parties and the SDLP.

However, Sinn Féin’s democratic message has finally got through to the British government.

It intends introducing new legislation in January next year to create a permanent register, thereby removing the requirement to register annually.

This change will make it easier for people to engage with the democratic process at the most pertinent point: registering and casting their vote.

Until then those who have not sent of their registration form should do so before the November 17 deadline.

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© 2005 Irish Republican News