Sunday 25 February 2018

Dr Theresa Reidy: We need an Electoral Commission urgently

Counting of votes in the European election taking place in Castlebar, Co Mayo
Counting of votes in the European election taking place in Castlebar, Co Mayo

The polls closed at 10pm on Friday and days later, the counting of votes still has not come to an end.

The past few weeks remind us again that the way we run elections needs urgent attention. The twenty first century seems to have passed our election administrators by. This government, the last government and more along the way have committed to setting up an electoral commission but we are still waiting. We urgently need a centralised and professional structure to provide for the needs of citizens, candidates, political parties and the media.

Overall responsibility for electoral matters rests with the Department of the Environment and the administration of elections and referendums is organised on the ground by county councils. We have a very fragmented system with further roles around political financing allocated to SIPO (Standards in Public Office) and we get a new referendum commission for each referendum. Each council has a franchise section with responsibility for among other things, maintaining the electoral registers, candidate nominations, ballot papers and counting the votes. There is a clear body of electoral law and some discretion for staff involved in specific areas. The structures need to be integrated and more oversight provided.

First, there is no central source of information available for voters, candidates and the media at any election. Candidate information is maintained by each county council. There is no central place where voters where can find lists of candidates running across the country, their political affiliations, gender and age information, photographs or any other information that voters might be interested in. Voters must go to the websites of each of the councils, and even then, be assured that the information they might seek is not always prominently displayed. All of our media organisations (public and private broadcast media, all the newspapers) create their own election infrastructures, most really excellent but no doubt at huge cost, when a national system should support all of them.

Voter education is ignored entirely. We have no national system for providing information to people before elections. No information leaflet is circulated on which elections are coming up, what the roles and functions of the Council/European Parliament/Dáil are, or even how voters should vote when they go to the polling station. Voter apps on phones and youth engagement systems are now standard elsewhere but not in Ireland. It all hints at a great carelessness about our democracy on the part of those responsible for administering it.

As we observed over the weekend, the counting process is managed quite differently from location to location. Some count centres are open to the public, what you might expect in a democracy while others operate systems where passes must be applied for in advance. Why is there a difference, well who knows! After each count is complete, the returning officer makes a public announcement. Over the weekend, the information contained in these announcements varied, some gave the total electorate, some turnout, more none of this information. Some councils put the information up on the internet immediately while communication technology has completely bypassed other councils.The European Parliament count and re-check was over in Dublin on Monday but counting was only finished in Midlands Northwest on Tuesday night with a re-count due on Wednesday. Weak excuses for the variations in counting speeds were provided, we were told that ballot papers were very long and that there were more votes than expected.

There is an important education function to the count. PR-STV is a fairly complicated system and the main way that voters see how it works is through media coverage on election count days. Allowing counts drag on for days will see voters drifting from the coverage and erode the education value of the public counting.

Finally, we make little effort to consistently promote turnout. The polling day varies at the whim of ministers. The vast majority of our European neighbours voted on Sunday because they always vote on Sunday. Our postal voting rules are restrictive to the point of making the provision almost pointless. We have not looked at early voting, voters abroad (even those on short trips) have no way of voting, ballot paper design needs a lot of work and our constituency structure needs attention. Specifically, The European Parliament constituencies are now quite bizarre, they have no geographical integrity. Most EU countries have a single national constituency. It might not be suitable here but has it been considered?

Lest anyone be alarmed, there is no need to create a new super quango. Most electoral commissions run with a small staff of less than twenty. Their main function is policy with some co-ordination of the work of those in franchise administration. Currently, staff working in council franchise sections, polling stations and count centres are friendly, helpful and constructive but they are left to operate a system more suitable to the middle of the last century.

We have millions of potential voters, people across the country with a deep and abiding interest in Irish politics. They are not well served by our current administration of elections.


* Dr Theresa Reidy is a lecturer in the Department of Government at University College Cork

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