‘Urgent action’ needed after majority of election candidates report abuse

More than seven in 10 candidates in the May election in Stormont reported abuse and intimidation, an Electoral Commission investigation found.

The Government must now take “urgent action” to tackle the upsurge in abuse, threats and intimidation faced by candidates across the UK, the Commission’s report says.

According to a new report from the election watchdog, around four in 10 candidates running in May’s elections in England, Scotland and Wales have been intimidated by voters.

But in Northern Ireland the problem was much worse.

Some 71% of candidates who stood for election to the Assembly earlier this year faced abuse and intimidation.

A total of 239 candidates stood for election to the Assembly (compared to 228 in 2017), including 87 women, i.e. 36.4% of all candidates.

The report states: “A majority of candidates who responded to our survey said they had experienced threats, abuse and/or intimidation.

“Most of the cases involved theft or damage to campaign materials, online and verbal abuse.

“It is important that candidates and activists are able to participate freely in our democratic processes, and we plan to meet with the wider electoral community to understand what drives candidate abuse and intimidation, and to ensure that this issue is being treated urgently.”

Jonathan Mitchell, Director of the Electoral Commission in Northern Ireland, said: “While confidence in the election remains high, campaigners and election candidates face additional challenges.

“The report highlights concerns about resilience and capacity in relation to the conduct of elections, with the Chief Electoral Officer noting issues recruiting and retaining staff to work on elections.

“A majority of candidates said they had experienced abuse and intimidation, with issues primarily related to theft or damage to campaign materials, online abuse and verbal abuse.”

Mr Mitchell added that “steps are needed to address the intimidation and abuse of candidates in elections”.

“It is vital that candidates can participate in elections without fear,” he said.

“We will work with the wider electoral community to ensure we understand what is driving this issue and address it as a matter of urgency.”

Among the candidates intimidated was Elsie Trainor of the SDLP. She was attacked after chasing two youths who removed her election posters in south Belfast.

Ms Trainor was called a ‘b*****d Republican’ as she followed and filmed the individuals in a 15-minute chase through Ormeau Park.

She had seen them take down her posters in broad daylight on Ravenhill Road.

During the episode, she said she was assaulted by one of the youths, and the second attempted to grab her cellphone as she filmed them.

Many other candidates at the time reported poster removals and sectarian abuse, both online and offline.

The survey also revealed that less than half (46%) of respondents who attended a vote count said they were satisfied with the efficiency with which it was conducted.

The count was not completed on the same day, and it took until the early hours of Sunday, May 8, for the last constituency to be declared.

In May, the media complained about the lack of even basic necessities, including food, electricity and Wi-Fi.

The report suggests that in this year’s election there were many more stages of the count where only a small number of votes could be transferred to each stage, with more stages then needed before candidates have enough votes to exceed the quota and be deemed elected.

He added that these challenges were exacerbated by the problem of retaining experienced counting staff due to Covid. Other common concerns raised related to traffic management and count admissions.

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