NI Assembly election: Polling station dos and don'ts
With the assembly election rapidly approaching, it's worthwhile to know what you can and cannot do in Northern Ireland's polling stations.
Ahead of 5 May, here's a guide to what is allowed and what is not allowed.
What can you wear?
If you're considering voting early, you can do so in your pyjamas if you want. Basically anything that would not be considered indecent is acceptable, except overt political clothing. Voters dressed in political party T-shirts or displaying party emblems would not be able to enter the polling station as it may be intimidating. More general, historical figures, such as a Che Guevara t-shirt, would be considered OK.
The only people permitted to wear a rosette are the candidates and their polling agents. The rosette must be plain and not refer to the candidate or bear a slogan.
While in the rest of the UK it is acceptable to wear clothing such as a hoodie or burka that covers the face, as photographic ID needs to be shown in Northern Ireland this does not apply.
Can you take a selfie?
If you're particularly pleased with how you're dressed and how you've voted, can you take a selfie inside the polling station?
There's nothing in the law that specifically bans taking photos, but the Electoral Commission very strongly discourages any photography inside a polling station, primarily because of the laws about maintaining the secrecy of the ballot. It's illegal to reveal how someone else has voted, which could happen inadvertently via a selfie.
Taking a photo of a ballot paper's unique identification number is against the rules. The key is a law against releasing any information "obtained in a polling station", which is in order to protect the integrity of the poll.
So if someone wants to highlight the fact they've just voted, they're advised to take any pictures outside the polling station.
Can you tweet about voting?
The Electoral Commission warns against tweeting inside the polling station, even if it's about your own vote. Outside the polling station you are free to publicise your vote.
However, as with selfies, there are strict laws against revealing someone else's vote, including influencing whether they publish it themselves. It is a criminal offence to communicate information about the way someone has voted or is about to vote, and specifically to "directly or indirectly induce a voter to display his ballot paper after he has marked it so as to make known to any person the name of the candidate for whom he has or has not voted".
Can you discuss candidates?
Not inside the polling station, as political discussion is banned. Polling station staff will intervene if people are heard to be discussing the merits of different candidates or parties, as it may unsettle other voters. You are also not allowed to ask someone who they are voting for as this will compromise the secrecy of the poll. Any such discussions should take place outside the polling station.
Similarly, people cannot distribute party leaflets or other literature in the polling station. Anyone seen doing so will be asked to take them outside.
Can you bring your children with you?
Yes, polling station staff are expected to be welcoming to under-18s so as not to put off future voters. In exceptional cases where there are large numbers of young people in the station, presiding officers have the power to ask them to wait outside. If someone has several young children, a member of the polling station staff can look after them while the parent or guardian votes.
A child is not allowed to write on the ballot paper.
Can a friend come and help?
You're welcome to enter the polling station with a friend if they are also eligible to vote there. But voting is a private matter so you must be alone when you go into the polling booth. If the friend is not registered to vote there then they will not be allowed inside the polling station.
If you have a disability, or are unable to read the ballot, and cannot vote on your own, you may come with a companion. The presiding officer can also help.
Can you vote again if you've made a mistake?
Yes, as long as you haven't already posted your ballot paper in the box. Return to the desk and tell staff what has happened. They'll be able to cancel your ballot paper and issue you with a new one.
Can you vote if you've been drinking?
Possibly related to the above question and the answer is yes, polling station staff cannot refuse a voter simply because they are drunk or under the influence of drugs. However, if the voter is being disruptive they will be asked to return when they have sobered up.
Can you play music?
Only if it doesn't disrupt other people. If you are listening to music on headphones you'll need to remove them when being addressed by polling station staff. If your personal music player is playing at high volume in the polling booth you'll be asked to turn it down or leave. The same goes for loud mobile phone conversations.
Can you write a message to the politicians?
You can but it may mean your vote won't be counted. There's a tradition of deliberately spoiling your ballot. "None of the above" is one of the more polite ways of showing you are not apathetic, just contemptuous of the candidates on offer. These votes are included in the overall turnout.
However, if you wish to vote for a candidate you should avoid writing comments in the margin. It might confuse the counters and lead to your vote being deemed doubtful and subsequently rejected.
Can you bring a pet?
While they definitely are not yet allowed to vote, dogs can accompany voters into the polling station as long as they don't disrupt the vote. In cases where a voter has two or more dogs and will struggle to control them while casting their ballot, polling station staff may be able to hold the dogs' leads. There is no guidance on other animals, so any decision will be at the discretion of presiding officers.
In Northern Ireland a correct form of photo ID must be brought to polling stations.
The following forms of ID will be accepted:
- A UK, Irish or EU passport
- A UK, Irish or EEA driving licence
- A Translink senior smartpass
- A Translink 60+ smartpass
- A Translink war disabled smartpass
- A Translink blind person's smartpass
- An electoral identity card
The identification does not need to be current, but the presiding officer at the polling station must be satisfied that the photograph matches that of the person intending to vote.