Northern Ireland's new electoral register was released
last month, Sinn Fein has been in high dudgeon, claiming
that 200,000 voters have "disappeared,"
including many in the Belfast constituency of Gerry
Adams. These wouldn't be the first folks disappeared
in Gerry's world, but it begs the question: can a
person who never really existed disappear?
register is the first since the introduction of measures
designed to combat the rampant fraud that sees elections
decided by the votes of the dearly departed. And since
lacking a pulse is no barrier to voting, it's unsurprising
that emigrants continue to vote also. Now, before
Rita O'Hare unsheathes her pen to refute this charge,
I hasten to add that while I have not cast a vote
since 1993, that vote has not been idle. I'm sure
Rita joins me in commending civic-minded parties who
ensure every vote is counted, legally cast or not.
new regulations are the crux of the row: those coming
of age must now register to vote instead of being
enrolled by a parent, and every voter must now produce
a photo ID. This poses a problem for voters who don't
actually exist, who were "created" with
bogus documents in more lenient days. The inability
of these folks to respond to inquiries from the Electoral
Office helps explain why so many names were struck
from the new register. Doubtless there are some who
have been wrongly struck from the rolls, but the opportunity
still exists for all those who are real to be registered
before the scheduled elections in May.
rightly rejects any suggestion that the rule changes
are aimed solely at his constituents. The total wiped
from the West Belfast register isn't substantially
greater than in East Belfast. What doesn't hold water
is his claim that this is all a ploy to undermine
the electoral growth of Sinn Fein. Yet it's understandable
that Adams should find comfort in a theory that can
neither be proved nor disproved. The alternative might
be a little too unsettling.
2001 census identified 1,260,029 eligible voters,
but the new electoral register lists only 1,072,346.
Sinn Fein says 50,000 first-time voters are missing
too. "In other words, within six months over
200,000 voters have disappeared," cried the Republican
News. This is a neat sleight of hand. The census indeed
tells us how many citizens are eligible to vote but
indicates only a potential voter. An electoral register
to which people must add their name offers a more
relevant statistic: how many want to vote.
it suits Sinn Fein to dust off the subterfuge theory
for another airing, there may be a reasonable explanation
for a decline in voter registration, especially among
first-time voters. Given the thuggery and barely disguised
bigotry that passes for political life, isn't it possible
that many might simply opt out of the entire process
and choose not to register? Who can blame them for
growing weary of a farce that delivers only demands
for their vote lest there be a return to bloodshed?
an effort to add some rhetorical meat to an otherwise
slender argument, Adams said the new registration
law most hurts disadvantaged neighborhoods like West
Belfast, where he estimates 20 percent of the electorate
has been struck off. This neighborly concern may face
a test in court: Adams's unionist constituents are
claiming his absence from Westminster disenfranchises
them and prevents their interests from being properly
course, having your candidate lose -- as unionists
typically do in West Belfast -- ensures your views
will not be represented. But views and interests are
not the same, and unionists say neither is represented
if your MP refuses to attend parliament. This is a
partisan argument, but not entirely without merit.
After all, refusals to swear allegiance to the crown
at Westminster ring hollow if you are on Her Majesty's
payroll at Stormont.
Sinn Fein may not need to fret over disappeared, or
even disenchanted, voters. The party casts a wider
electoral net today than ever before, a fact evidenced
by poll victories and a post-cease-fire influx of
first-timers and moderate nationalists. Tossing red
meat to the base is gradually less important too because
the base just ain't as green as it once was. Hence
the looming disbandment of the IRA won't trouble supporters
as it might have back when those who manned the party
barricades paid a heavy price for doing so. The grassroots
is now conditioned to expect anything and concede
everything, including the aspiration to unity in their
the fact that so many are obviously choosing not to
register to vote -- for whatever reason -- constitutes
a damning indictment of politics in Northern Ireland.
Voting may be a civic responsibility but sometimes
exercising the right not to vote sends a much clearer
article also appeared in the Jan 29, 03 edition of
the Irish Echo and is carried here at the request
of the author.
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