What is Sinn Féin up to with its computerised voter database? I think I know, and I don’t like it. Perhaps this frank quote from an activist will help:
“The great benefit afterwards, of having a tally computerised, is, if you have a series of general elections tallied and computerised you can compare, box by box and road by road. And any party can then zone in on where their core vote is, and where they lost, where they gained, where they need to work.”
I think that’s what Sinn Féin are up to. And I don’t like the implications.
The quote above, by the way, was a Fianna Fáil activist, speaking to RTÉ reporter Margaret Ward, on camera, in June 1997.
That’s 24 years ago, at which point Fianna Fáil was already computerising its voter database.
Several years before that, a Labour Party activist collating and analysing voter data at a Dublin election count centre had a sticker on his computer: “Starry Plough Software”. The Abú system of its day, perhaps.
I asked him about it. His computer held results from several previous elections. He showed me how a few keystrokes revealed each change in the voting pattern over several elections. Street by street.
When my colleague Philip Ryan began reporting on the Sinn Féin voter database, I was hopeful. I used to write about data harvesting but no one cared. Philip has put the issue of data harvesting front and centre.
He acquired internal documents about the Sinn Féin voter database, and this allowed him to ask relevant questions.
The party answered slowly, but they answered. And Philip quite properly asked further questions.
A lot of Sinn Féin supporters, the Twitter wing of republicanism, were furious with Philip.
Listen, folks. Your party’s in politics, it’s going to be asked questions. Reporters are entitled to approach a story in the way they think most relevant, and you’re entitled to disagree.
Online abuse is not a vote winner.
The Fianna Fáil activist quoted above was admirably frank. Unfortunately, the harvesting of voter data has been widely regarded, in political and media circles, as normal activity. I believe it has helped stunt Irish politics.
Let’s look at what the Constitution says about the ballot.
Article 16:4 says: “voting shall be by secret ballot”. It does not say: “No one may look over your shoulder as you mark the ballot paper.” In its simplicity Article 16:4 goes much further.
The ballot — in itself — is secret. Full stop. It’s Constitutionally protected from anyone extracting information from it.
So, here’s how the parties breach secrecy and spit on the Constitution. It’s what I think Sinn Féin’s voter database is about and they learned all this from the success of the old FF/FG experts.
When you vote in your designated ballot box, say Box 333, the number is tied to a specific geographical area. And the names and addresses of the voters in that area are available on the Register of Electors.
On the day of the count, Box 333 is emptied in front of party activists acting as “tallymen”. They note the box number. Before the votes are counted, the count staff unfold the papers and stack them neatly.
Important point: each ballot paper, after it’s unfolded, is placed face up, facing the tallymen, visible for some seconds until the next paper is put on top.
The tallymen work in pairs. As the count staff unfold the papers, one tallyman calls out the name of the candidate who got first preference on that ballot paper. The other tallyman puts a stroke beside the appropriate name on a printed list of the candidates.
This continues as every vote from Box 333 is unfolded. It’s tough work.
Before a single vote has been officially counted, tallymen have harvested the complete first preference vote from the box. And this is done at every ballot box in the constituency, in as many constituencies as the parties can manage.
This tsunami of data is collated by other party members. On computers.
One remarkable aspect of this is the co-operation between party activists and count staff. And the co- operation between the parties, who constantly check and confirm tallies with each other.
Tallymen provide the media with early indications of a winner. This, however, is merely a by-product of data harvesting.
Political reporters are grateful for the help. In return, they make folk heroes of tallymen, instead of pointing out this is not done for fun, it’s to help manipulate voters at subsequent elections.
So, by the end of the count, Fianna Fáil, Fine Gael and SF have a list of the first preferences in each box; they also know the names and addresses of everyone entitled to vote in that box.
By cross-referencing this data with years of data accumulated by canvassing and through TD ‘clinics’, they can even more closely identify ‘their’ voters.
In the 1980s, in his rural home, a Fianna Fáil minister boasted to me that he got three votes more than he expected to get in one ballot box. Using harvested data, cross-referenced with canvass data, his tallymen found out who the three voters were. Just so he could say thanks. Of course, it was also a subtle way of saying: I know you didn’t vote for me before; I know you did this time; I’ll know if you don’t vote for me next time.
But the point of breaching ballot secrecy is not primarily to identify individual voters. When all the tallies are finished, the parties have a detailed map of precisely where each party got their votes street by street, for the entire country.
Our political system is rotten with patronage.
Decisions on allocating resources, whether it’s the location of a medical centre or a Garda station, or the distribution of Lottery funds should be on the basis of greatest need. Instead, the decisions are political.
Any Minister, TD or Councillor who might influence such decisions has access to precise local knowledge — stolen from the ballot box — on which areas, which constituencies, need massaging by the party. They can reward or they can punish.
Parties behave as though the electorate is their property, to be divided between them and then tilled, sown and harvested, using whatever tools their techies and tallymen devise.
The concept of politics — issues and aims — is eroded. It’s replaced by marketing slogans and ‘five point plans’. Problems remain unsolved because too many TDs have been elected with little talent other than the ability to ingratiate themselves.
Micheál Martin and Leo Varadkar imply that Sinn Féin are sinister pioneers in data harvesting. Yet their own parties have been at it for decades.
Unless I’m missing something, it seems Sinn Féin’s offence was it hadn’t fully complied with regulations that didn’t exist when the other parties began computerising data.
Regrettable, certainly, but hardly enough to justify Micheál Martin’s “sinister” remark.
However, I think Mr Varadkar is right, Sinn Féin should delete its Abú voter database; and so should Fine Gael and Fianna Fáil — all of them.
Article 16:4 demands a secret ballot, no aspect of which should be known to anyone. It’s not a suggestion, it’s a Constitutional imperative.
And Mr Martin is also right — data harvesting, of the sort his party and others use to help them manipulate us could be defined as sinister.
It should be a criminal offence for any unauthorised person to obtain or possess information extracted, by any means, from a ballot.
Who could realistically propose to enact such a law? Fianna Fáil, Fine Gael or Sinn Féin.
Will they? And let all that tough work go to waste? Screw the Constitution, baby, we have voters to manipulate.
By the way, if anyone of good conscience has some internal Fianna Fáil or Fine Gael documents on their voter databases, put them in the post. I’ll give them a good home.