Voting in the Assembly elections was described as “busy” on Thursday, in a poll that could lead to a seismic shift in how the North is governed.
The Electoral Office of Northern Ireland confirmed that by 9pm, turnout was sitting at an indicative 54 per cent based on returns from 96 per cent of polling stations. Counting of votes was to begin at 8am.
Successive opinion polls have put Sinn Féin on course to become the largest party and secure the position of Stormont’s First Minister.
It will be the first time in the 101 years since partition that a nationalist party will take the top job.
DUP leader Jeffrey Donaldson has said he believes his party – the dominant unionist party for almost two decades – can win but refuses to commit as to whether it will serve as deputy first minister to Sinn Féin.
Uncertainty remains as to what form the new Assembly will take following the collapse of the Stormont executive in February when DUP first minister Paul Given resigned in protest over the Northern Ireland Protocol.
The executive cannot function without a first and deputy minister being in place as they are joint offices.
Before the polls closed at 10pm, a pilot digital programme on voter turnout by the electoral office showed that by 9pm, the west Belfast constituency had the highest indicative turnout at 60.74 per cent, while south Antrim had the lowest indicative turnout at 47.15 per cent.
Chief electoral officer Virginia McVea told The Irish Times: "You should know what is happening across polling stations in this digital age and now we do with this new system.
“I haven’t had any feedback where anyone is saying it’s quiet or still slow. It seems busy and these indicative figures seem to tell that story too.”
Voters will elect a total of 90 Assembly members (MLAs) – five in each of the 18 constituencies – using the single transferable vote system, a form of proportional representation.
A total of 1,373,731 people are eligible to vote in this Stormont poll, an increase of 119,022 compared to the last election five years ago.
‘People are all powerful’
The North's political leaders cast their ballots earlier on Thursday, with Sinn Féin's vice-president, Michelle O'Neill, filling out her ballot paper in St Patrick's primary school in her home village of Clonoe, Co Tyrone, accompanied by party colleague, Linda Dillon.
Thirty miles away, Mr Donaldson cast his vote at Dromore Central primary school in Co Down.
Unionist rival Doug Beattie, leader of the Ulster Unionist Party, voted at Seagoe primary school in Portadown, Co Armagh.
He said: “It’s polling day, I don’t think anybody really knows the outcome of this. Things change throughout the day.”
Naomi Long, leader of the cross-community Alliance Party, cast her ballot accompanied by husband, Michael, at St Colmcille's parochial house in the east Belfast constituency where she was once the MP.
Colum Eastwood, leader of the nationalist SDLP, voted at the Model primary school in his home city of Derry accompanied by his wife, Rachael, and his children.
He said: “The people are all powerful today and the people will cast their vote.”
Jim Allister, leader of the TUV, voted early in the morning at Kells and Connor primary school in Co Antrim.
Despite voters being encouraged to wear masks to prevent the spread of Covid-19, most people chose not to, according to the chief electoral officer.
“People don’t seem to be wearing masks. It seems that everybody is content in polling stations and they are mirroring the behaviours that largely we’re seeing in society,” Ms McVea added.
“I’m not hearing any reports of either staff or people being uncomfortable from a Covid point of view.”
The official turnout will not be known until verification on Friday morning.