Saturday 24 August 2019

Mary O'Rourke: 'Voter registration system must feature high on reform agenda'

Current political dramas mean we've had little time to ponder the plan to set up an Electoral Commission

DEMOCRACY: Counting votes in the recent elections
DEMOCRACY: Counting votes in the recent elections

Mary O'Rourke

The Government held its last full business meeting about three weeks ago, and in the course of that crowded agenda, one of the items which they agreed to was the setting up of an Electoral Commission. Since then, politicians, onlookers and interested citizens have been very caught up in the high politics of everything that is going on.

We had the election of Boris Johnson as the new prime minister in the UK, his massive Cabinet cull, followed by his electrifying initial speech in the House of Commons with its not-at-all hidden electioneering spirit and promises all round - much like what we used to do here many years ago, only that we have learned to curb our instincts in that regard.

So with all that immersion in high politics, we have had little time to ponder this announcement by the Government that they are going to set up an Electoral Commission.

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Many will be interested in this. It has been long mooted. I remember, back in 2007, when the late Seamus Brennan was the facilitator for organising the Green Party and Fianna Fail to form a Government after the General Election, it was one of the stipulations which the Green Party put forward and which Fianna Fail was keen to endorse. As an aside, readers will remember the late Seamus Brennan saying, in a precautionary word, to the Green Party, "Hey lads, you're playing senior hurling here!" Ah, those were the days.

But back to the Electoral Commission: so that was in the Government manifesto for 2007. Nothing has been heard of it since, though it has been included in the various governments we have had since that time.

Now we are in 2019 and Leo Varadkar, or perhaps some canny adviser, has decided that the time has come to announce it again and to dangle it in front of putative partners, the Green Party, prior to the next General Election.

I don't care how it came about; the fact is that the Government has announced that it is going to set it up. Having made inquiries, I understand there are no details available as yet, except that it is going to be set up, and that it will require legislation which it is hoped the Government will bring forward in the early autumn. So far, so good.

Because there is no background news, there has been very little comment about this very welcome announcement.

I am well aware that it will embrace many items of legislation which are embedded in various departments. Boundary commissions, and electoral funding establishments, and all sorts of diverse items with regard to an Electoral Commission will be contained, we hope, therein. Much will depend of course on the legislation and on the arrangements which the Government sets up afterwards.

But to me, and to the many people who have ever been in the electoral process or were involved in some way in the recent local elections, there is a huge need for a proper voter registration system.

Now, I know the Department of the Environment in the weeks leading up to an election warns everyone via TV, radio and the print media that there is an election coming, and that you can check online if you are on the register, and if not can go about registering. All that is admirable, and where it applies it is the ideal way that the Electoral Register should be managed.

But of course, that is not the real world. In the real world, when you hear at the end of a day of voting that such a percentage of people came out in such and such an area, all such statistics should be treated with a great deal of distrust and disbelief. Any person who has done the doorsteps in the recent elections, and indeed going back two or three elections, will find that the Register of Electors is hopelessly out of date and irrelevant to the voters as found on the doorsteps.

Yes, of course most county councils have a franchise officer within their ranks whose job it is to register voters and to ensure that they are included in the initial registration books which come out, and later the full register of electors. But going back some years, most county councils employed people who, in the course of their council business, were able to check up on newcomers, changes of address, transfers, etc.

In the case of south Westmeath, there was a rent collector, the late lamented Bob Nixon, who did the urban area of Athlone and its surrounding areas. In the rural area there was John Joe Rushe. Both of these men took on, as part of their other duties, to check up on changes to the individual households on which they called.

I understand that is no longer the case, and in the meantime we have voting registers which are hopelessly out of date and mostly irrelevant in the areas which they are meant to serve. Jobs have become much more fluid, people are moving about much easier now than heretofore, and therefore the changes in the register in many, many cases have not been noted. There are many areas of apartment blocks where there is very little registration, and they remain outside the remit of correction or verification.

This is a huge issue and it cannot be emphasised enough. I would ask the Government to get its legislation in order as quickly as possible, and even before that to set up its Electoral Commission, with a clear remit and able to be added to with the amendments which will be put forward in the Dail and Seanad.

Yes, we are living in a period of high drama and high politics. But the everyday, ordinary politics, such as is outlined in this article, must be looked after as well. It is important that we undertake a proper, thorough voter registration investigation, and an ongoing way of coping with it as an important mechanism of the yet-to-be-founded Electoral Commission.

Mary O'Rourke is a former Minister for Education, Health and Public Enterprise. She is the author of two best-selling books, 'Just Mary' and 'Letters of My Life', and is co-editor of the book on Brian Lenihan Jnr, 'In Calm and Crisis'.

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