Northern Ireland’s elections: the thousands of votes that don’t count

Thousands of votes are rejected at each election

Thousands of votes are rejected at each election

NEARLY 40,000 ballots were rejected at the last four elections in Northern Ireland – with voter error a major factor.

Analysis of rejected votes by The Detail has found that a total of 37,367 ballots were incorrectly filled in or were deliberately spoiled in the last four elections (2011 Assembly, 2014 Council, 2014 European, 2015 Westminster).

According to the Electoral Office: “We cannot comment on whether voters intentionally or accidentally spoilt their ballot papers – only the voters know this.”

Ann Watt, the head of the Electoral Commission in Northern Ireland, has confirmed that a new style ballot paper will be used at the 2016 Assembly election in a bid to reduce the number of votes that are being accidentally wasted.

The Electoral Commission states that: “Elections in Northern Ireland, with the exception of UK Parliamentary general elections, use the Single Transferable Vote (STV) system of voting. STV is a form of Proportional Representation (PR) that allows voters to rank candidates in order of preference.”

Parliamentary general elections (Westminster) use the first past the post system.

Electoral Office figures confirm that in the last electoral cycle, the number of rejected ballots was more than twice as high in the multi-seat STV polls, as in the first past the post Westminster poll.

Reasons given for the rejection of ballots in recent elections. Source EONI.

Reasons given for the rejection of ballots in recent elections. Source EONI.

In STV elections, the majority of rejected ballots have been as a result of: The number 1 not being put on the ballot paper to indicate a first preference, or the number 1 being placed to indicate a first preference for more than one candidate.

For example, the 2011 Assembly election saw 2,756 voters fail to declare a first preference vote and 5,489 attempt to give their first preference to more than one candidate.

This trend was also seen at the 2014 council elections where 3,385 people failed to indicate a first preference and 4,144 attempt to give their first preference to more than one candidate.

In 2015’s first past the post Westminster poll, 1,990 people attempted to vote for more than one candidate.

The number of rejected ballots is highest in predominantly nationalist/republican constituencies with Newry and Armagh (1,434), West Tyrone (1,373), Foyle (1,365) and Belfast West (1,251) recording the largest aggregate figure of rejected ballots for the 2011 Assembly and 2015 Westminster polls.

Despite the rejected votes representing between just 0.65% (Westminster) and 1.83% (Assembly) of total votes polled, even a small number of votes can have an important impact on election outcomes.

According to Ann Watt, the decision of officials to reject a ballot is a transparent process.

She said: “Ballot papers can be rejected for a number of reasons at an election count. Some voters deliberately spoil their ballot papers while others can be spoiled in error, for example if a voter places multiple ‘X’s on their ballot paper at a STV election rather than use numbers.

“The Deputy Returning Officer for each constituency is responsible for adjudicating on doubtful ballot papers and makes the final decision on if a ballot paper is deemed to be rejected and the reason for being so.

“This process is carried out in an open and transparent manner in front of candidates, election agents and electoral observers.”

Ms Watt does acknowledge that the difference in the number of rejected ballots at STV and first past the post elections is something that needs addressed – with a new format of ballot paper hoping to do just that.

“The number of rejected ballot papers tends to be higher at STV elections and more so at combined elections.

“At an STV election voters rank candidates in order of preference rather than placing a ‘X’ beside one candidate.

“Following a review of election materials in 2014 a new ballot paper will be used at the 2016 Northern Ireland Assembly election.

"The new ballot paper will include guidance at the top of the ballot paper to explain to the voter that they should number candidates in order of preference placing a ‘1’ beside their first preference, a ‘2’ beside their second preference and so on.

“The Commission will also be explaining to voters, through the media, important voter information in the days leading up to polling day, which will include information on how to vote at a STV election.

“We have also produced a short animated video, which will be promoted on Facebook, explaining to voters what they need to do to vote on 5 May.”


Originally, 229 votes in the 2015 Westminster election were rejected on the basis of not being on official ballot papers. However, the Electoral Office has confirmed that following a review, 228 of these have been recategorised as being ‘unmarked or void for uncertainty’.

According to the Electoral Office the change has occured as: "These were incorrectly categorised – they did not bear a mark but were official ballot papers."

The recategorised ballots were lodged in Fermanagh/South Tyrone (82), North Down (11), Strangford (79) and West Tyrone (56). This meant that the only ‘unofficial’ ballot paper in 2015 was lodged in South Antrim.

The recategorisation means that the total for the four elections for the number of ballots rejected for being ‘unmarked or void for uncertainty’ rises to 13,615.

According to the Electoral Office, this means: “The ballot paper wasn’t marked or it wasn’t clear who the voter intended to vote for.”

To view a breakdown of rejected votes for your constituency click here .

The Electoral Commission video explaining the new ballot paper.

Receive The Detail story alerts by email