Thursday 27 October 2016

E-voting, and other foolish things

Con Houlihan misses the old cut and thrust at polling stations -- and hands off our fairer election system

Con Houlihan

Published 18/05/2008 | 05:00

Con Houlihan
Con Houlihan

'The sighing Midlands" said Sean O Faolain. "Whoever heard of Offaly?" said Dick Walsh a few days after Offaly had won their first All-Ireland. These words appeared in the Irish Times. My dear departed friend wasn't being literal: he merely meant that Offaly didn't appear very often in the headlines.

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Their emergence in football was remarkable; their emergence in hurling was miraculous because the ancient game is played in only a few parishes in the county. That quiet revolution produced two folk heroes -- Matt Connor and Johnny Dooley. Brian Cowen has a hard act to follow.

He has, however, the comforting thought that he belongs to a bold and successful tribe. He will need all that as in Shakespeare's words he takes up arms against a sea of troubles.

His biggest problems are in health and education; radical change here will be a long and costly process. There is, however, a field in which he can make an indelible mark without spending one euro. I am talking, of course, about electoral reform.

For a start, everybody should be obliged to vote -- and for a finish, everybody should have a proper means of identity. A driving licence is no good. You might as well take a dog licence. You need an identity card with a reasonably up to date photograph, not one taken at your First Communion.

Impersonation is all too easy. In rural Ireland the old sense of community has been breaking up since the proliferation of the motor car. People now living a hundred yards apart hardly know each other.

Things are even worse in the modern estates. As I have said, impersonation is all too easy. To go to the polls and find that your vote has been stolen is not a pleasant experience. We heard of several complaints after the last election. The possibility of this ever occurring again should be made almost impossible.

We are supposed to be a democracy but Brian Cowen has the power to make it more of a democracy. It won't be enough to eliminate impersonation: the register should be kept up to date. This is a simple task but it is often neglected. John Gormley should have a say here.

Some years ago a new law was passed that prohibited canvassing within a certain distance of the polling booths. Seemingly those that brought in this law were afraid that people would be intimidated. That was nonsense.

Activists near the polling booths create a great atmosphere and very often they come in useful by showing people how to vote. That crazy law should be amended. In the old days there was great atmosphere around the polling booths. In recent years they have the atmosphere of a suburban pharmacy.

Give us back our old ferment.

Brian Cowen must make a decision about our electronic voting machines. He must decide whether to bury them or to destroy them by some chemical process. He has a third course open to him: he can put them in some special museum where admission is free but you are charged to come out. There is a terrible danger that we will have electronic voting again. Not too long ago Bertie Ahern said "we should do away with oul pencils". I agree with him completely -- we should get new pencils.

In this context, Dick Roche takes the biscuit, I would give him a year's production of Irish biscuits. He is alleged to have said: "We have the machines. Why not use them?" Some people think because a thing is new it is better. This is a crazy fallacy. The arguments against electronic voting are so many that it is incredible that anyone should favour it.

We are told that they produce the results in very quick time. What's the hurry? Waiting for the count is one of our favourite sports; it shouldn't be taken away from us. Even if a count took three or four or five days, what about it?

Brian Cowen will probably agree that we should have bigger constituencies.

We seem to be convinced that three and four and five constituencies are ideal. This is far from being the case. There was an argument long ago for three-seater constituencies because communications were bad. Phones were very few as were motor cars: a man setting out to see his TD might have to travel 50 miles on a bicycle or perhaps on a donkey and cart. You can imagine the worry of his family as he set out, fearful that they might never see him again. Communications are very good now: the three-seat constituency should be a thing of the past.

There is no reason why we shouldn't have six and seven or eight-seater constituencies. This would give hope to the small parties and make our Dail more democratic.

There is one danger still lurking: Fianna Fail may again attempt to subvert democracy by trying to abolish proportional representation. Their last attempt was shameful and shameless: they combined the referendum with a presidential election -- the slogan was "Vote Dev and Yes." This was cynicism at its worst. Fortunately, it failed.

Under the "first past the post system" we would have seen Fianna Fail gain a huge majority. The Labour Party would have been almost wiped out. A spate of strikes would have followed; industrial action would have crippled the country and the economy would suffer damage from which it might take years to recover.

This is the system they have in Britain. You may ask why it works there. The answer is simple: Britain is such an industrial world that Labour are almost guaranteed a certain number of seats. I doubt if it can be written into the Constitution but I would be happy if the possibility of abolishing PR is put away forever.

Only America could produce such a roadshow as the OJ Simpson trial and the battle between Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama. America is a democracy, kind of. Anybody can be president if he or she can come by a vast amount of money.

The system of nominating the candidate for the presidency goes back to the days of the covered wagon and the log cabin. It made sense then but it is woefully outdated now. It is a blessing for advertising agencies. That is about its only virtue. The amount of campaigning necessary makes it impossible for someone without huge financial backing to even dream about The White House.

Barack Obama's mantra is 'Change' but there is something he cannot change: the people who are paying the piper will always call the tune. The men in the street that is called after the wall that was built to keep the Indians out will go on having a major say in American foreign policy. If Obama can change that, he will make the world a far better place.

The Democrats' candidates are in danger of destroying each other and allowing the Republicans an easy run. The war in Iraq will have a huge bearing on the election: if George Bush can make some kind of a settlement or the appearance of a settlement, his party could win the election.

To make some kind of a settlement in Iraq seems almost impossible: there are three main forces there who are unlikely to come to any kind of agreement -- the Kurds, Saddam Hussein's followers, and the Arabs in the marshes.

Whom would I choose if I had a vote? I might tend towards Obama. I have my doubts about Hillary: any woman who christens her only child Chelsea is not to be trusted. It might be worse --it could have been Arsenal.

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