Tuesday 17 September 2019

Liam Weeks: 'The people have spoken, but our voting system fails to tell us the complete story'

An unreliable electoral register and outdated voting methods could undermine public faith in our political system, writes Liam Weeks

Request: President Michael D Higgins asked for a delay of a few hours. Picture: Damien Eagers
Request: President Michael D Higgins asked for a delay of a few hours. Picture: Damien Eagers

That well-known lover of elections, Joseph Stalin, is reputed to have said: ''Those who vote decide nothing. Those who count the vote decide everything." Stalin's psephological amour (a term we use in academia for someone with an anorak-type fondness for elections) stemmed from the ability of him and his Communist Party to attract near 100pc support (and turnout) at elections during his rule.

While we might like to think that Irish democracy is far removed from the Soviet veneer, Stalin's logic has some relevance for our electoral process.

A number of issues around Irish elections, including the limited and antiquated methods of voting, all have the potential to undermine faith in the political system.

Take our most recent trip to the ballot box.

A few weeks ago, the people spoke, re-electing Michael D Higgins as president. But they didn't speak. The majority of them were silent, as only 43pc of the electorate, let alone the people, cast a vote.

Actually, we don't really know what proportion of citizens voted. Not because it's too soon to determine this figure, but because the authorities themselves never really know.

It is estimated that the electoral register may have a margin of error of up to 10pc, a figure unacceptable in any opinion poll, let alone an election. There may be dead people on the register, people who have left the country, or some may be registered in multiple locations.

The shambles that is our electoral register led to Ireland being ranked 137th for voter registration in a global study of election integrity earlier this year, the lowest score of any OECD country. We were on a par with Honduras, Tanzania and Kenya, not exactly world leaders when it comes to free and fair elections.

Knowing turnout matters because it affects the legitimacy of a result. In democracies, we accept the authority of election outcomes because we believe it represents the wishes of the people.

For example, although many people in Ireland are strongly opposed to the introduction of abortion services, they accept the result of the referendum last May in the belief that this is what the majority of people want. After all, the Eighth Amendment was repealed by an almost two-to-one majority.

But a majority of what? Let's be clear. Not the Irish people. Rather, a majority of those who voted, which amounts to 40pc of the electorate, and less than 30pc of the Irish population.

So, the massive mandate that abortion seemed to win was, in fact, a minority opinion. This was not an exceptional occurrence, as only two referendums have ever been approved by a majority of the Irish electorate - in 1972 on joining the EEC and in 1998 on the Good Friday Agreement.

In other words, most so-called majority decisions are, in fact, cases of minority rule. This could raise a considerable number of issues for the legitimacy of these votes, especially if the reliability of the turnout figures are in question.

Are we as citizens obliged to accept the results? What if we had a vote on an Eirexit from the EU, and what if this referendum attracted a low (or a seemingly low because of the poor state of the register) turnout?

This is why in a number of countries using referendums, such as Hungary and Italy, the turnout of a majority of voters is required to validate a result. Two years ago in a Hungarian poll, more than 98pc of votes cast were against the EU imposing migrant quotas. A clear outcome it seemed. Not so - 56pc of Hungarians did not vote, invalidating the result.

There is no such clause in the Irish Constitution on a minimum vote to authorise referendum results, which is where the unreliability of turnout statistics becomes a problem.

We also have to consider the phenomenon of various #hometovote campaigns. At the last few elections, thousands of Irish people living overseas travelled back to Ireland to exercise their voice.

But how many of them were legally entitled to vote? The electoral law limits the franchise to those who are abroad temporarily and for a period of less than 18 months. How many of those who travelled back fell into this category? We simply don't know.

More worryingly, the Department of Environment, the body responsible for the conduct of elections, doesn't know, and provided such voters had polling cards, there were no reported cases of individuals being refused a vote on the grounds of residency.

You might think I'm being pedantic, but what if marriage equality and abortion had been passed by the narrowest of margins, like divorce, which had a bare majority of 10,000 in 1995. Would there have been legal grounds for the defeated side to challenge the validity of the result, since most of those participating in #hometovote seemed of a liberal persuasion?

Challenging the result of an election happens in quasi- or non-democracies, but is not supposed to happen in established democracies like our own.

So, turnout has two problems. First, we don't know what it is, and second, it may not be at an adequate level to lend legitimacy to a result.

We'd like to think it wouldn't take much to resolve the first, but even the second problem could be remedied with some imagination.

Take Australia, pioneers in electoral democracy as they believe that getting everyone to vote is a civic duty, to the extent that voters are fined if they don't exercise their franchise.

To give voters every opportunity to participate, votes can be cast a number of weeks before polling day, postal votes are available to all, and votes can be cast for any constituency in any polling station. Just because someone from Sydney happens to be in Melbourne or Moscow on the day of an election, they are not disenfranchised.

In some cases, Australians also use internet voting. We couldn't even get a very basic form of e-voting to work properly.

Applying these different methods of voting has a positive effect on turnout, because contrary to the image some may have of an apathetic electorate, the vast majority of people want to vote.

Studies of non-voters in Ireland have found that most of them intended to vote, but something came up on the day of the election that prevented them from doing so. Making available different means of voting would rectify this.

Of course, if it was that easy to improve turnout, we would really have to wonder why it has not been done yet.

The American economist, JK Galbraith, wrote of a culture of contentment, in which the political elites prevent change in the belief that the contemporary system suits their interests.

Is there such a culture among the established parties in Ireland, who have a vested interest in not seeing higher turnouts?

We know that those from disadvantaged backgrounds are less likely to vote, and historically they tend to lean towards the more radical parties. Are the authorities afraid of who these voters will support if they are encouraged to turn out?

This has long been suspected to be a factor in why overseas voting is not permitted for Irish voters (whisper Sinn Fein), even though it is facilitated in most democracies.

There are many aspects of elections in Ireland that need improving - and in most countries, the usual body that considers this is an electoral commission. Unlike almost all other democracies, we don't have one of these.

Even Stalin's wannabe successor, Vladimir Putin, has an electoral commission. To count the votes, of course.

  • Dr Liam Weeks is director of the MSc in Government & Politics at University College Cork.

Sunday Independent

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