Bill provisions aim to end electoral fraud in North
Photographic electoral identity cards and computer technology are among the methods being proposed by the British government to eradicate electoral fraud in Northern Ireland.
Under the provisions of the Electoral Fraud (Northern Ireland) Bill, which is going through its final stages in parliament, ministers are hoping to improve public confidence in a system that has seen high levels of abuse over many years.
The Bill, introduced last June, proposes that every person seeking registration as an elector in Northern Ireland should declare their date of birth and provide a specimen signature each year when registration forms are completed. The forms will then be scanned into a computer system and if an application for absent or proxy vote is submitted, a visual verification of the elector's signature can be made.
There is also provision in the Bill to provide free, photographic electoral identity cards to people who may not have satisfactory forms of identity, such as a passport or driving licence. The identity card will be valid for 10 years and it should replace all non-photographic forms of identity - such as medical cards - on the list of specified documents, although no provision is made for this in the Bill.
Officials have stressed no one will be disenfranchised until they have had every opportunity to acquire photographic identity.
Eventually the government hopes to introduce a "smart card" for each elector. However, the technology has not been developed for the scheme and there are no pilot schemes in place to test the format.
The main parties in Northern Ireland, and the Conservatives and Liberal Democrats in Britain, however, have expressed concern that the legislation does not go far enough.
Even at this late stage the Ulster Unionists hope that ministers will listen to its suggestion that the Bill should extend the 21-day period for reporting alleged election irregularities, possibly for up to six weeks. This was in light of the failure to overturn the Fermanagh-South Tyrone general election result last year, which saw Sinn Féin's Ms Michelle Gildernew elected as MP amid allegations of irregularities.
An Ulster Unionist MP, Lady Sylvia Hermon, said yesterday that while she welcomed many provisions in the Bill, she was concerned it would not address postal fraud and ministers should consider including national insurance numbers as a means of identity.