Friday 23 August 2019

Malcolm Byrne: 'Why our postal voting system must be overhauled'

Making it count: Erin Reddy (left) and Dee Campbell at the Central Count Centre in Dublin Castle as votes were counted in the same-sex marriage referendum. Photo: Brian Lawless/PA Wire
Making it count: Erin Reddy (left) and Dee Campbell at the Central Count Centre in Dublin Castle as votes were counted in the same-sex marriage referendum. Photo: Brian Lawless/PA Wire

Malcolm Byrne

The Government is currently considering a referendum on extending the right to vote to Irish people living outside the State for presidential elections. In order for this to happen, there will have be a system for votes to be sent out, collected and counted.

This could be done electronically, but given Ireland's experience with e-voting machines and current concerns about how democratic processes are under threat from malware or hacking, it is almost certain that we would adopt a form of postal voting.

However, at present, we have one of the most restrictive systems of postal voting in the democratic world, for citizens who are resident here.

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Postal votes are available for diplomats posted abroad, members of the Garda or the Defence Forces, those with certain illnesses, those not at home in certain circumstances for reasons of work or of study, or for prisoners.

If you happen to be away from your home polling station for family reasons or because of a holiday booked months previously, then you cannot vote if you physically cannot make it to the ballot box. While we saw many young people come "home to vote" during the marriage equality and abortion plebiscites, those journeys cost time and money to exercise a valuable democratic right.

Every election, candidates will tell you about the "certain votes" that they would have had from people who always exercise their franchise but on polling day happened to be out of the country. Turnout figures are thus lower than they could have been if those travellers had been facilitated in casting their ballots.

We know from the Central Statistics Office that about 2.25 million trips are made by Irish people out of the country in the months April to June. It is therefore not unreasonable to assume that there would be at least 20,000 to 30,000 Irish citizens out of the country on the Friday in late May when the local and European elections took place. In addition, there are likely to be many others travelling in Ireland and while they would vote, getting to the polling place may prove too awkward (weddings on a Friday in late May away from home, for example).

We should be seeking to encourage voter turnout and making it as easy as possible for a citizen to cast their ballot. This doesn't mean that we don't take security measures and we must do everything to stop voter fraud. But we can extend the postal voting system so that any citizen who wants to exercise their franchise can apply for a postal ballot and use it. Before we consider extending the right to vote to our diaspora (a move I support), shouldn't we be looking at making it easier for our own citizens to be able to cast their ballot first?

Malcolm Byrne is a Fianna Fáil councillor from Gorey, Co Wexford

Irish Independent

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