Well of course there are the Westminster elections next year and the Stormont elections the following (if the Assembly manages not to end up suspended by then).
It may seem like it’s an never ending cycle of politicians harassing us to, the cynical might say keep them in a job but for each legislature be it the new super councils, the House of Commons or the house on the hill we merely get to put a cross in a box twice a decade. It doesn’t quite match the democracy of Athens in ancient times when citizens gathered in person to directly participate themselves in the voting of legislation as opposed to electing people to do so exclusively.
However, the birthplace of democracy had quite a few democratic deficits. Only men who had completed their military training had the right to be in the government so this was only about 20% of the city’s population. Slaves, freed slaves, women and children were all excluded. Women were barely considered citizens being subject to restricted movement in public and were made to be segregated from the men.
At least in 21st century Northern Ireland all citizens over the age of 18 can vote and as I have written excitedly several times in this column I was elated to finally be able to do so this year. I was actually counting down the days and I was like a child anticipating Christmas when it came to a week until polling day-I actually felt that same buzz in me when I was eight years of age in bed waiting on Santa to come that night.
So imagine my absolute disappointment, despair and anger at realising a few days before the big day that I would not be able to vote. I don’t think many people can fathom the extent to which I was crushed; I had lost and been denied the democratic right which I was not only entitled to, but which I craved so badly to exercise.
The source of my woes began with sending off a form to change my voting location from Fermanagh to South Belfast. I had keenly registered for Fermanagh in autumn but weighed up that voting in Belfast would be much more productive as I would be able to vote for parties that went beyond sectarian and tribal politics. I filled in the form to change about a week in advance but forgot about it until the day before the deadline, when I posted It. With some unease I admit but I had faith in the Electoral Office; surely if I didn’t get to change my voting location I would still have my vote in Fermanagh.
Ringing the EONI a couple of days before polling day due to not having heard any word from them I found this very much not to be the case. I was told at first that changing over my location was a 4-6 week process (which would seem to defy the point of a deadline) and that I was half way through that process. With several more phone calls which resulted in me actually crying down the phone practically begging for my right to vote (I wasn’t joking about how badly I wanted to) I was told that my form had arrived on the 7th, a day after the deadline and that I had been taken off the Fermanagh register one week later. I was told that there was nothing that could be done, that I wouldn’t be on the Belfast register to June and that I would not be permitted to vote.
I couldn’t believe it. I was the girl at age 10 who wanted to know who Ian Paisley and Gerry Adams were, who aged 16 thought the leader of Alliance David Ford to be some sort of rock star of the political world (I even added him on Facebook-he never did accept), who upon being reminded by a friend a few weeks back that a really minor Students Union referendum on minute details of the student constitution was 20 minutes to closing and I had forgot, ran to a computer in the university library with the same enthusiasm a fireman would run to a baby caught in a burning blaze. I had joined two parties in my short life, lead the youth wing of one of them, protested outside Stormont and attended debates in Stormont. When I was in London in July I spent a whole day in Westminster, actually enjoying watching debates. I would have gone back every day that week if I was able to.
Basically, I live for politics and it cut very deep to have come so close to for the first time taking an active role in it all. It seems so illogical that the EONI would take me off a register so close to voting, knowing they couldn’t put me on another in time. It is not made public knowledge that you forfeit your vote in your old area as soon as I you arrange to switch either. I however was not the only person let down and denied a vote by the incompetence of the Electoral office.
Two of my friends from England were also unable to vote. One had sent off her form to register five days prior to the deadline but turned up to vote and was told that she wasn’t on the register. The other was subject to much misguided measures asking her to prove she was a UK citizen having to send I.D, proof of address, proof of residence in Northern Ireland for at least six months as well as her National Insurance card (despite the number being included on the form). She was told she needed to send all of these in on the 9th, a week after she had sent her form in and that all the documents would need to be with the EONI by the 12th. The EONI took no responsibility for possible loss of the documents and would not cover postage. She went in person to the EONI but was rejected due to one of the documents (an internet bill) deemed unacceptable, despite no description of what a rates bill is in the letter.
Both of these friends are also passionate about politics with one of them being elected onto QUBSU student council the past year and the other elected to be women’s officer for NUS-USI next year. We represent two massively under represented groups in politics falling into the most apathetic age bracket for voting (18-25) and being women. It is reported that the turnout of the elections this year was 58.9% across Northern Ireland but how many would be voters like myself and my friends were let down by the EONI?
I was left very angry by the whole experience and coming home this week to see my Fermanagh polling card on my bed was painful. However, the experience has also left me with an even greater appreciation of the importance of the democratic right to vote, for those who fought for it and for those who still do.