Northern Ireland’s chief electoral officer has defended her office after a judge expressed grave concern about how apparently easily a man obtained a fake electoral identity card – the photographic identification which was supposed to end voter fraud.
The case relates to benefit fraud and there is no evidence that the man used the fake ID to vote.
However, the incident occurred in Foyle – the constituency where an SDLP MLA has alleged that proxy votes have been illegally obtained in recent elections – and adds to concern about the vast spike in applications for proxy votes in March’s Assembly election.
The court case, which was reported by local newspaper the Derry News last week, relates to a man who told police that he simply took a photo to the Electoral Office along with a fake name and obtained the identity card.
Such a card would not in itself allow an individual to fraudulently vote. However, if the name in which they fraudulently registered existed, it could be used to impersonate a real voter.
If the fraudster knew that that individual was – perhaps for medical reasons – unable to vote, the situation may not be detected because the person whose vote had been stolen would never know due to the fact that they would not turn up at the polling station to find that someone had impersonated them.
The man who appeared in Londonderry Crown Court was able to fraudulently claim benefits by using a false electoral identity card.
He was able to claim Jobseeker’s Allowance under two fake identities between January and November 2014, having been jailed for similar offences the previous year.
The court was told that when the man was asked during police interviews how he got the false photographic identity card he “indicated he just got a photo and gave them Mr Maguire’s [the fake name] details at the Electoral Office”.
The prosecutor went on: “I appreciate this is a little worrying.”
Judge Philip Babington interjected to say: “It is.”
The defence barrister told the court that “it was not highly sophisticated but clearly there is an element of pre-meditation”.
Judge Babington added: “It seems to be quite ridiculous that you are able to obtain a false identity card without any real checking by the Electoral Office.
“It seems to suggest some serious breakdown in their security, which one would not expect in these times of identity fraud.”
In further comments critical of the Electoral Office, the judge said that the offender’s crime had been “certainly assisted by the conduct of the Electoral Office”.
Responding to the judge’s comments, Chief Electoral Officer Virginia McVea told the News Letter: “No one in Northern Ireland can have an electoral ID card without first having successfully applied to be on the register in NI.
“This means that full registration checks are completed prior to the issue of the card.
“The circumstances by which this man perpetrated his fraud in 2014 are not known to the Electoral Office.
“The government brought in electoral ID cards as part of a legislative response to combat perceived electoral fraud in 2002.
“It was recognised at the time that in bringing in the legal requirements for photographic identification some people would not have a driving licence or a passport and the ID card was legislated for so that people could vote.”
She added: “The Electoral Office of NI operates in full compliance with the legal requirements to issue ID cards and liaises with the PSNI in relation to combating potential fraud.
“We would encourage anyone who suspects fraud to report it immediately to the PSNI.”
Yesterday Sinn Fein rounded on the SDLP for expressing concern about electoral fraud and then going on to appeal for unionists to support the SDLP.
Foyle Sinn Fein MLA Raymond McCartney said it was “remarkable that less than 24 hours after expressing his concern at a rise in postal and proxy votes from nationalist areas, Colum Eastwood is now appealing for unionist votes”.
Earlier this week it emerged that the number of proxy votes in Northern Ireland has soared 49% between last year’s Assembly election and March’s Assembly poll.
In total, there were almost 10,000 proxy votes in Northern Ireland.
The BBC highlighted that by comparison in the last Assembly election in Wales, there were just 3,000 proxy votes – despite Wales having a far bigger electorate.
But, joining a string of Sinn Fein figures who have dismissed concern about the rise, Mr McCartney said: “Let’s be clear: postal and proxy votes are entirely legitimate and all parties – including the SDLP and DUP – encourage voters to apply for them if they are unable to attend the polling station on the day of the election.
“So the source of the SDLP’s concern here isn’t the increasing numbers of people choosing to vote by postal or proxy. It is the increasing numbers of people choosing to vote Sinn Fein which is worrying them.”