The SDLP has received some research from American researcher Dr Michael Moriarty (quoted in the Irish News) which suggests that they could benefit from the recent increase in the electoral register. Ronan McCay, SDLP Director of Organisation and Election Planning, writes that this research implies that:
" … we’re very much in the race. The Irish News article shows that this election is game on, that it’s in our hands and that it can be done."
Dr Moriarty's findings are, as yet, not in the public domain. But the parts quoted in the Irish News and on the SDLP Youth website are simply erroneous.
The article states that:
"Research for the SDLP by an American, Dr Michael Moriarty, points to 65 000 potential new voters on the register and claims that the breakdown is approximately 50 000 nationalist and 15 000 unionist. He adds that the party needs an additional 20 000 votes to win a seat."
However, a very quick consultation of the statistics published by the Electoral Office shows that, since the most recent election (the 2007 Assembly election) the electorate has only increased by 49,949. Even if Dr Moriarty is using the electoral statistics from the last European Parliament election in 2004 he is wrong – the increase since then has been 85,184.
Dr Moriarty's methodology for estimating the breakdown of the increase is unknown. But it is an established fact that deaths since 2007 have been around 30,000, and around two-thirds of these have been Protestants (and thus presumably unionists). New entrants to the electorate (those reaching their 18th birthday) have been around 50,000, of which slightly more are Catholic than Protestant. Putting these two figures together it is possible to estimate that the 'natural increase' in the electorate since 2007 has been around 20,000. Of these, largely due to the Protestant majority amongst the elderly, around 17,000 are Catholic and 3,000 are Protestant. So the net natural increase of Catholics in the electorate is less than 15,000.
Yet the electorate increased by 49,949 during the period. Evidently the Electoral Office has improved their registration rates, and it has to be assumed that these extra registrations are more or less representative of the areas in which they live. Multiplying the increase by the known voting breakdown (unionist or nationalist) in 2007 allows us to estimate how many of these new registrations were probably unionist and how many were nationalist.
Unfortunately for the SDLP (and nationalism as a whole) the increase in registrations was slightly stronger in unionist areas, so the effect of the improvement has marginally helped unionism.
Of the approximately 50,000 new voters in 2009, 20,000 are due to 'natural increase', and 30,000 are due to improvements in the register.
The 20,000 (natural increase) break down as 17,000 nationalists and 3,000 unionists.
The 30,000 (additional registrations)break down as 14,000 nationalists and 16,000 unionists.
The total increases in the potential voters for the two tribes is, therefore:
- Nationalism – plus 31,000
- Unionism – plus 19,000
Thus giving nationalism a net increase of 12,000 since 2007.
But turnout rates in the European elections are low (51.7% in 2004), and there is no reason to think that this election will buck that trend in any significant way. So the actual net increase in the nationalist vote may be barely 6,000 – shared between Sinn Féin and the SDLP.
If the SDLP needs 20,000 extra votes to win the third seat, it will not succeed.