Friday 18 October 2019

Theresa Reidy: 'The growing intolerance of election posters is a slap in the face for democracy'

Colourful: Election posters adorn lampposts in Ranelagh in April. Photo: Steve Humphreys
Colourful: Election posters adorn lampposts in Ranelagh in April. Photo: Steve Humphreys

Theresa Reidy

There has been a surge in complaints about election posters in recent weeks. Tidy Town committees have sought to ban them while several councils have debated motions intended to limit their use or prohibit them outright. These proposals might seem fairly benign and irrelevant but actually they are intolerant and show disregard for the value of Ireland's old and vibrant democracy. They also reflect an ill-informed and misguided view that voters have many sources of political information and posters can be easily replaced. This is just not true.

There is a legitimate discussion to be had about the environmental costs of posters. They are single-use plastics and although many are recycled by candidates for financial reasons, as much as for environmental concerns, there are alternative materials that could be used and the Green Party has come forward with proposals on European-style election hoardings where all candidates could display their posters on large platforms provided by the election authority. But the Green Party is largely alone in its constructive contributions.

For many more, it is a chorus of anti-politics sentiment.

Canvassing teams from all parties will be able to attest to notices on front doors that request election literature not be put through the letterbox. And, there are even a few signs which go further and explicitly threaten that if canvassers disturb the household by knocking on their door, they will certainly not vote for the party which causes the disruption. These citizens are free loaders.

They absorb the benefits of living in one of the world's oldest and most peaceful states, they enjoy the political freedom which entitles them to put up these petulant notices, but they do not seem inclined to share any of the obligations which come with democratic citizenship.

We do not obligate citizens to vote at elections in Ireland as they do in other countries because we value individual freedoms and think it important that citizens make their own political decisions. But we must provide more voter education which outlines the value of democracy.

Freedom House is a global organisation which measures the level of democracy in the world.

Earlier this year, it produced its annual report which showed that 2018 was the 13th consecutive year in which global freedom had declined.

Democracy is a precious commodity. It is not free or inevitable.

Posters and election literature play an important role at elections. For new candidates or parties, they are one of the few ways they have of alerting voters that they are contesting the election. New candidates will often have limited resources and cannot afford ads in newspapers.

Advertising on radio and television is prohibited even if the candidates had the funds. Posters also provide information on which election is taking place, and when, and sometimes posters can give policy information. Policy positions are often clearly communicated at referendums where some of the main messages of the Yes and No sides get displayed. It is true that much of this information is available in other places, but posters are displayed in public and that is their great strength.

The content and style of posters are seen by everyone. Any information on them can be contested by other candidates or parties. This is not true of material that appears on social media which is often suggested as an alternative. Social media ads can be tailored to the people who receive them and these ads are consumed in private spaces, on mobile phones or tablets. The other electoral contenders may not see the content and can find it difficult to rebuff it.

This is how false information can spread online. Governments across Europe are developing plans to regulate and possibly even prohibit this type of advertising.

A further complication of substituting online sources for posters is that improvements in data protection and regulation mean that it is more difficult to 'push' material at users if they have not signed up for it. Voters who are not that interested in politics might not be signed up for any political notifications.

Posters might not be the most visually appealing sight but they are particularly important for informing voters who may not be very interested in politics but who value their vote, that an election is taking place.

More than 10pc of respondents to the RTÉ exit poll at the abortion referendum reported that they found posters useful. We also have research which shows that at referendums which have had few posters and low levels of canvassing, voters can be confused about the issues and indeed, even surprised when they go into the polling station and receive a referendum ballot.

Refusing to take election literature is rude. Banning posters is short-sighted, we could make them environmentally friendly and create designated spaces where they are displayed.

These are useful suggestions. But just prohibiting them is reactionary and buying into a simplistic and ill-informed anti-politics sentiment.

Dr Theresa Reidy is a political scientist at University College Cork

Irish Independent

Today's news headlines, directly to your inbox every morning.

Don't Miss