Challenging "vote early and vote all day"

 

IN West Belfast it's a case of: "Vote early and vote all day." That's the joke. But almost nine months since it accused Sinn Fein of election fraud in the area, the SDLP says it has the evidence.

The party has challenged 204 entries on the latest draft electoral register. An electoral hearing upheld 101 of these objections. In 14 of these cases the registered voters were dead. The figures were the tip of an iceberg, the SDLP councillor, Mr Alex Attwood, said. He believed there was potential for 2,900 fraudulent votes in the constituency.

The worst cases included a one bedroom flat in Divis Tower with seven adults registered and a three bedroom house in Springfield where 13 adults were registered. The SDLP, with most to lose in West Belfast, blames Sinn Fein, the party with most to gain.

During the forum elections last May, Sinn Fein reversed the Westminster election result in West Belfast, taking four of the five seats. The party gained its fourth seat with a margin of 45 votes.

The Sinn Fein vote leapt from 16,826 in the 1992 election to 22,355. The SDLP MP, Dr Joe Hendron, accused Sinn Fein voters of large scale personation at polling stations.

With the massive swing to Sinn Fein in his constituency, Dr Hendron's seat is under threat from Mr Gerry Adams in this year's Westminster election. The constituency boundary has also been widened to include areas such as Poleglass, which are expected to bring a significant republican vote.

Mr Attwood says the census figures also highlight discrepancies in the draft register. He has personally challenged people in polling stations, but he believes that not everyone has the courage to question voters.

"On the day of the forum elections, we eventually tracked down one of the houses where forged medical cards were being handed out. I gave that information to someone in Sinn Fein and asked him to check it. He never came back to me."

However Sinn Fein and the chief electoral officer, Mr Pat Bradley, argue there is little evidence to support allegations of widespread and organised fraud.

"Around to per cent of people in some areas move between the time a draft register is produced and the next register," Mr Bradley says. "So even if the register is 100 per cent accurate it is still open to abuse." In 1996, the West Belfast electorate was 61,900.

Changing the identification system in polling stations would alleviate the problem, he believes. The medical card, carried by everyone, is more easily forged than most forms of ID.

The SDLP's objections to the West Belfast register are the first objections to the register since 1993. Traditionally a safe seat constituency, the most major challenge to the register was in 1980 when more than 1,000 objections were lodged.

A local Sinn Fein councillor, Mr Alex Maskey, dismisses allegations of a Sinn Fein organised personation campaign. If Sinn Fein or any party wanted to do that, "they'd do a better job than what's being pointed to", he says.

He says Sinn Fein agrees with Bradley's argument that West Belfast has one of the best electoral registers in the North and says the SDLP allegations are just pre election politics. "It's designed to galvanise SDLP voters."

He is hopeful that Gerry Adams will be elected. "We're working very hard to make sure that is the case, but it is by no means a foregone conclusion."

Personation during elections in West Belfast is now organised "like a military operation", Mr Attwood says. "I'm not demeaning their [Sinn Fein] very substantial hard core vote. That cannot be explained away."

However it can be difficult for the electoral officers who collect registration forms door to door to challenge householders, he says. Mr Bradley has received no reports of intimidation from his staff. Announcing the court's findings last week, the SDLP called for a review of the entire West Belfast register.

A delegation led by the deputy leader, Mr Seamus Mallon, met the Northern Secretary. Sir Patrick Mayhew, and Home Office representatives six weeks ago.

The final register will be published next Wednesday. There is no legislation to change the register at this stage. Mr Bradley believes the draft register has given parties the chance to weed out any problems.

SDLP party workers will mark their copies of the register to intercept fraudulent voters at the polling stations. "People think this is just pre election politics," Mr Atwood says. "Certainly there is an election coming up and we want a fair election. Therefore, yes, it is pre election politics, but it is something for all the candidates."