Oireachtas Joint and Select Committees
Tuesday, 16 June 2015
Joint Oireachtas Committee on Environment, Culture and the Gaeltacht
Electoral Commission in Ireland: Discussion
We have a quorum and are in public session. I remind everybody to switch off mobile phones. The mobile phones interfere with the microphone system and if there is interference, the proceedings of the committee will not be broadcast.
The meeting has been convened for the purpose of consideration by the committee of matters relating to the consultation paper on the establishment of an electoral commission in Ireland. It is proposed this part of our meeting will conclude at approximately 4.30 p.m, when there shall be a break for five minutes, and the committee will resume in private session. A meeting on the ECOFIN Council meeting will take place here after this meeting, so we are under instruction to be gone by 5.45 p.m. Is that agreed? Agreed.
I welcome Professor Michael Marsh from the department of political science at Trinity College, Dublin; Professor David Farrell, from the school of politics and international relations at University College Dublin; Dr. Theresa Reidy, lecturer at the school of government, University College Cork; Dr. Muiris MacCárthaigh, lecturer in politics and public administration at Queens University Belfast; and Mr. John O'Dowd, lecturer at the school of law, University College Dublin. I thank them for their attendance.
By virtue of section 17(2)(l) of the Defamation Act 2009, witnesses are protected by absolute privilege in respect of their evidence to the committee. If they are directed by the committee to cease giving evidence on a particular matter and they continue to so do, they are entitled thereafter only to a qualified privilege in respect of their evidence. They are directed that only evidence connected with the subject matter of these proceedings is to be given and they are asked to respect the parliamentary practice to the effect that where possible they should not criticise or make charges against any person, persons or entity by name or in such a way as to make him, her or it identifiable. I advise them their opening statements and any other documentation they provide to proceedings may be made available on the committee website after the meeting has concluded.
Each opening statement should be approximately five minutes. It is fine if it is a little bit over. I will allow ten minutes for questions and answers from all members. I will give a warning when approximately one minute remains and I will ask whoever is in possession, and I hope it is one of the witnesses, in the tenth minute to cease speaking.
I invite Dr. Reidy to make her opening statement.
Dr. Theresa Reidy:
I thank the committee for this opportunity to contribute to the public consultation process. I speak on behalf of a group of political scientists comprising Professor Farrell of UCD, Dr. Jane Suiter of DCU and Fiona Buckley of UCC. We have submitted a detailed statement but I will highlight several points this afternoon.
There is widespread agreement that Ireland needs an independent electoral management body. An excellent report published in 2008 provided a very detailed outline on how to establish an electrical commission and the structure and role it would have. The commitment to establish an electoral commission was included in the 2011 programme for Government, and a detailed agreement on establishing it was reaffirmed when Deputy Joan Burton took over as Tánaiste in 2014. The initiation of a public consultation process which made clear from the outset that no commission is likely before the next election only reinforces the impression that the management of the democratic process in Ireland is not a political or administrative priority and we consider this to be deeply regrettable.
Ireland has a particularly long and proud democratic tradition. We are one of the world's oldest contiguous democracies and are approaching the point when we will celebrate close to 100 years of free and fair elections, which puts us in a relatively small group of countries. This point is not often aired. An important element we want to highlight is data from successive waves of the Irish national election study and the European social survey have all documented a high level of trust in the electoral process in Ireland.
In our submission, we went into a great deal of detail on the first wave of the electoral audit by the Electoral Integrity Project of electoral procedures in Ireland. It is based on the 2011 election. The data that we present affirm the overall high levels of integrity and trust in the electoral process, but the headline figures obscure considerable variation. In particular, the data highlight serious concerns about the electoral registration process, political financing and equality of access to the electoral process for women and minorities. We note that reference is made in the consultation document to the work of Professors Jørgen Elklit and Andrew Reynolds. We wish to point to a particular contribution they made in 2005 in which they pointed out that countries with high levels of trust and electoral integrity could see those eroded quickly where there were electoral instances of malpractice. We would point to recent difficulties with postal voting in the UK and broader difficulties with voting in the US, all of which have contributed to a significant undermining of overall trust in the integrity of democratic systems where there had been high levels of trust beforehand.
The electoral commission should be established immediately. Indeed, it is advisable that a skeletal body be put in place before the next general election. We were persuaded by the structures that were advanced in the 2008 report, which we consider to have been sensible. It is important that the commission be established as a statutory agency and given responsibility for the management of the democratic process. It should have operational and regulatory powers under the legislation and be led by a chief electoral officer of Ireland. It should also have an advisory board that would be established by statute and be subject to clear criteria in its composition. We point to the question of gender balance in particular, but we indicate in our submission that members with communications and electoral expertise should be required. The commission should be accountable to the Oireachtas rather than directly to a Department and financial accountability should be to the Office of the Comptroller and Auditor General, following standard practice. It should have an annual budget, one that is negotiated directly in the normal practice, but also a statutory budget whereby it can disperse moneys in respect of the conduct of elections and referendums as required.
Regarding the remit or functions that the commission should have, it should be responsible for all areas of management and administration of the democratic process. This includes voter and party registration, boundary divisions, organisation of elections, voter education, campaign oversight, election and referendum research and political financing. It should also include the functions currently carried out by the ad hocreferendum commissions. All policy, management and oversight electoral functions should be located within the commission. The commission should be a relative small body. Following practices in other jurisdictions, it is probably best that the commission continue to liaise with local authorities in the decentralised provision of certain electoral functions, in particular, the recruitment of polling day staff and the counting and tabulation of votes. Ireland needs an electoral commission and steps to establish one should be taken immediately.
Professor Michael Marsh:
That is fine.
I have been invited to address a bewildering number of questions, but they are clearly things that need to be thought through by anyone setting up an electoral commission. Some of the matters are outside my areas of competence, including costs. There are various works of perhaps fiction about how much electoral commissions cost in different countries. It depends on what goes in and how it is costed but I do not want to get into that. We will let an accountant deal with it. Following Dr. Theresa Reidy's comments on the extremely thorough report of 2008, there are other matters on which I can add nothing of worth beyond the reports already available. We thought that report might have led to something but unfortunately, or fortunately for some people, there was an election instead. I would like to address with the joint committee the functions an electoral commission might fulfil. I can imagine that someone might ask why we need an electoral commission as everything is grand out there. Electoral integrity is quite high in Ireland and there are not a lot of complaints from the majority about the process. The outcome is another matter. I note the briefing document prepared by the Oireachtas Library and Research Service which references a brief submission I made to the Constitutional Convention on the topic of why we need an electoral commission. I will expand briefly on that submission in what I say today.
Most of the countries with which we might compare ourselves have electoral commissions. In particular, I mention Australia, New Zealand, Canada and even the UK, which does not tend to be ahead of the game on these things. The widespread use of the option reflects a norm that sees more legislation covering elections and the removal of electoral matters from direct political control. We have seen this in Ireland in the last few decades with the creation of ad hocinstitutions to determine boundaries which was a function the Minister used to have. We also have SIPO to look after finance and have had successive referendum commissions. As such, we have moved in that direction, albeit by setting up a number of ad hocbodies. Very often, they have been set up with many of the same people.
Table 1 of my submission compares functions across four countries, namely, the UK, Australia, New Zealand and Canada. It sets out the various functions electoral commissions in those countries fulfil. Managing the electoral registers is done by all commissions except in the UK where it is done locally. All commissions but that in the UK are responsible for conducting public elections and referendums. All the electoral commissions have responsibility for administering the rules, including funding registration and things like that. All the electoral commissions have some role in determining boundaries even if it is incidental, usually by an overlap of personnel and by providing the servicing function. All of the commissions have a function in terms of educating the public. They all educate, advise and inform government and parliament.
We might think about the Irish case and those same functions. In Ireland, managing the electoral registers is done by local government. Referendum commissions do a little bit of conducting public elections and referendums as do the Department and local government. Administering the rules is done by SIPO and electoral boundaries are determined by ad hocelectoral commissions. I am not sure who has the function of educating the public while the Government and Parliament are probably educated by the Department. Only in the UK are the first two functions not the preserve of electoral commissions. The rest are fulfilled by electoral commissions everywhere.
If one looks more closely at these research and educational functions to get a better idea of what they are, in New Zealand the role of the electoral commission includes advising the Government on changes to electoral rules, reviewing electoral law and procedures, and advising those involved in the conduct of elections and referendums. The functions of the Canadian electoral commission include reporting to the Parliament on the administration of elections and referendums, carrying out studies on alternative voting methods and, with the approval of parliamentarians, testing alternative voting processes for future use during electoral events.
Why should we give these functions to an agency dedicated to this relatively narrow range of functions as compared with leaving it with ad hocbodies and the Department of the Environment, Community and Local Government? First, they run less risk of being ignored or given a relatively low priority, and many of these functions have been given a very low priority in the past. Second, and this is most important for the research and new ideas function, apart from the fact that more research and new ideas might become available, these ideas come from a source that would be seen as non-partisan. It cannot be discounted immediately because it has the Minister's fingerprints all over it.
The right of citizens to vote is a central element in democracy. The electoral register, a list of who is allowed to vote and who is not, is clearly very important in that. It is widely recognised that the electoral register we have from our decentralised procedure is far from accurate. It includes many who have no right to vote and does not include many who do have that right. That has been talked about for quite a long time, and it is probably no better. Different local authorities have gone about maintaining it in different ways, with very different degrees of zeal and enthusiasm. They have to spend their money on it, and I am sure they can find, as they see it, better areas on which to spend their money.
As regards new ideas on electoral matters, in the past these have largely come from governments. Suggestions for change in the electoral system to a more majoritarian one was a brilliant idea in the 1960s. It was seen as partisan and rejected by the people in referendums. There have been relatively few other innovations. We saw the addition of party labels on the ballot, which most people would probably see as a good development, and later photographs added to ballot papers. In the recent past we saw a somewhat ill-fated experiment with voting machines. These ideas came from the then Department of the Environment, Heritage and Local Government.
When it comes to referendums, the practice now is to establish a referendum commission each time. The precise functions of this body have changed a little over time, but it has always been there to maximise citizen awareness and help them engage in the process properly. Anybody reading through the reports of each referendum commission, something it has been my professional duty to do, and all the members might not have read them assiduously, would think it was the same report because they always say the same thing, except the one set up on the second Lisbon treaty referendum that was so important we set up the commission a very long time in advance. The referendum commission always asks the reason it was not set up earlier because it could have done a much better job if it had been set up earlier.
Even allowing for the fact that Governments procrastinate in setting the vote, permanence would greatly facilitate the work of the commission.
Dr. Muiris MacCárthaigh:
I thank the committee for inviting me. It is a privilege to be here. I congratulate the committee on taking time to consider this issue. I am not an expert on electoral commissions. Much of my work is very much on public organisations.
Most of the members might be aware of the review by the OECD of the Irish public service in 2008 when it said it found this organisational zoo. To use that analogy, in my contribution I would like to assist the committee in considering the consequences of introducing a new animal, as it were, to the zoo. It sounds like a very good idea. There seems to be a good deal of support for the idea of an electoral commission but it is worth reflecting, as the members are doing, on what it will look like and how it will operate after day one, and that is where my contributions will be focused.
I will briefly summarise the paper I have distributed, which is in bullet point format. The general idea is that just as we have a long, proud democratic tradition in Ireland, we have a long, proud tradition of creating bodies in response to policy problems. That is usually in response to a new issue. It is not to take issues away from Departments and so on and rarely is it to consolidate functions, as seems to be the case for this electoral commission.
One must be a bit careful when taking bits from the system and putting them together in a new body. It sounds fine, plausible and logical to do so, but we should think about how these functions will be managed and co-ordinated in order to ensure there are no gaps and overlaps. These are common questions that arise in the organisation of government.
Everyone is talking about an electoral commission. Unlike in other countries, names do not mean so much in Ireland, because we have talked about commissions, councils, authorities, boards and agencies. Titles have no legal standing and, therefore, do not confer rights and powers. In Ireland, agencies are defined organisations that have a variety of governance arrangements. I must confess I have not read the paper prepared by Dr. Reidy, Professor Farrell and others. However, I believe it sets out a plausible governance structure at the higher level, which I shall discuss in a second.
In the context of the financial crisis, new agencies are now being created in a very different and much more regulated environment. For example, budgets are not necessarily on an annual basis but on the basis of a three-year envelope. Budgets are also subjected to critical review every three years, which is, quite possibly, a good thing for a new organisation.
In Ireland and internationally, there has been a move away from having stakeholders or people from affected groups on boards and towards having a more professional panel, as Dr. Reidy has mentioned, with people who have certain skills and competencies. I urge the committee to think carefully about whom the board will represent and what exactly the people on an advisory board or commission will contribute. The consultation paper that was written in 2008 was very good but it did not take the next step. If a judge, the Comptroller and Auditor General, the Clerk of the Dáil or the Clerk of the Seanad were involved, I am not sure they would have a chance to think through a situation. Were accountability dilemmas to arise, would the Comptroller and Auditor General suddenly be auditing himself? What would happen if a judge said there was a crisis, even though it had been decided that a judge would head the electoral commission? What would happen if a constitutional crisis arose and a judge were head of the commission? I cannot think of a specific example of same. I ask the committee to reflect on who is the most appropriate for appointment to the board of such an entity if one has a small board. When I looked at this matter in 2010 I counted a total of 2,300 board or governing authority memberships in Ireland. The average board was comprised of 12 people, but the number is getting smaller, and it is international best practice to have small numbers.
There is no best organisational formula, and I hope the committee has picked up that aspect from what I have said. If anything, we have seen more diversity internationally. As Professor Marsh pointed out, there is diversity among electoral commissions just as there is for other types of public organisation. We tend to look to other countries to see if we can copy them, but we need an Irish electoral commission which is unique and specific to the Irish situation.
With regard to accountability, if the commission is to be directly accountable to Parliament in the same way as the Environmental Protection Agency or the Ombudsman, that is fine. However, accountability is not just upwards; it is also downwards to the public. We must think about how the commission can be accountable to citizens in terms of what it does and how it can, in practice, demonstrate that. It is not just about an annual report; there might need to be television advertisements and so on.
There is something of a paradox of which we must be aware. We should always be cautious of attempts to depoliticise an issue - again, this has not really been an issue in Ireland, where integrity is quite high - by putting it in a body that is held at arm's length. Such attempts can often have a perverse effect - I refer the committee to the poor unfortunate HSE - in that the body becomes a real focus for political anger or criticism when things go wrong. When creating this entity we must ensure it is robust enough to stand up to any form of political interference well into the future while, at the same time, being responsible in dealing with genuine and fair political criticism of its actions.
As I have mentioned, new agencies cannot be divorced from changes that have taken place in the wider Irish public administration. Agencies will now be subject to much higher levels of scrutiny, financial accountability and audit compared to what has existed hitherto for a lot of bodies.
I thought it might be useful to the committee if I asked some colleagues in countries other than New Zealand, Canada, the United Kingdom and Australia whether anything had come up in respect of electoral commissions. The Netherlands made a major change recently in its electoral commission, changing the legal status of the employees of the commission. They thought it would be a good idea for the people working in the commission to have a separate legal status and not to be civil servants in the normal way of other government departments, in case there were undue pressures on them. It is interesting, also, that in Sweden, as well as having an electoral commission, they have created a further body to which decisions of the commission can be appealed. That is chaired by a judge. Again, I am not sure whether that is being considered, but in the event of a crisis, is it the parliament that decides, or does one need another body to decide? I will stop there.
Mr. John O'Dowd:
I thank the Chairman for the invitation to appear before the joint committee. The consultation paper produced by the Department is an excellent starting point for this exercise. As Dr. MacCárthaigh just mentioned, it takes things much further than we did in our study in 2008, particularly with regard to the examination of some of the governance arrangements in respect of an electoral commission. It was very gratifying to hear the nice things people said about the 2008 study. When we entitled it "Preliminary Study on the Establishment of an Electoral Commission In Ireland," we did not realise quite how preliminary it would turn out to be, but it may be useful after seven years to look back at some of the issues that have been raised in the consultation and to share my own thoughts on them as they have been formed at this point.
In compiling the 2008 study, we found it striking that there were different levels of satisfaction with the operation of the administration of elections, as previous experts have mentioned. At one end of the spectrum, in discussions with the political parties, the Department and the returning officers, apart from the occasional complaints about particular issues, there was generally a very high level of satisfaction with the way in which the core function of conducting elections was conducted, such as the nomination of candidates, the production of ballot papers, polling, and the counting of votes. It was recognised that it was appropriate to do this both at local level and at the level of returning officers, who are independent of the public sector to a large extent and are just brought in for this particular function periodically. More towards the middle of the spectrum of satisfaction, there was a fair level of support for the Standards in Public Office Commission in terms of its performance, but specific inadequacies in the legislation were identified, some of which have been remedied since, and there was also praise for the commission in the sense that it did a very effective job with very slender resources. In terms of enforcement, for example, it could have done with a much better level of resourcing.
The main area of dissatisfaction has been mentioned several times, and I am sure that members, as public representatives, are well aware of the dissatisfaction with the maintenance of the electoral register. We recorded this and several other reports noted it. Many of the concerns, as has already been mentioned, related to a lack of consistency and co-operation between local authorities and in particular the very different levels of performance that different local authorities were able to achieve. What we were told, although it is not the total explanation, was that in many local authorities this function seemed to have a very low prestige attached to it, so that if anybody did particularly well in the franchise section of a local authority, he or she rapidly got promoted to some more important post and somebody else had to start all over again learning on the job.
What was striking in our report - it is difficult to document it, but we learned this from talking to people - was that the actual role in the system of the franchise section of the Department of the Environment, Community and Local Government goes considerably beyond the formal description of its responsibilities. It is essentially the brain of this quite decentralised electoral system, and through various informal levers or channels of communication it has carried out much more of a co-ordinating role than is formally described in the legislation or in the published practice.
It is noted in the consultation paper that in the 2008 study we favoured a phased and partial consolidation of electoral functions into a new electoral commission. I do not see any reason to depart from that. Given the differing demands and expectations in relation to the various electoral functions, it still seems reasonable to me to concentrate on those functions that can be quickly and easily consolidated into a new body of this type, rather than attempting to set up a new institution and making radical changes to the administration of elections simultaneously.
I am still of the view that the Standards in Public Office Commission ought to remain the core of the new body and that in the short term it should have oversight of rather than direct responsibility for electoral registration. There is some scope for improving the performance of local authorities in this respect through establishing performance norms and supervisory mechanisms, while a more fundamental reform of electoral registration is planned and prepared for. It is noted in a number of places that PPS numbers might play a role in a new system of individual rolling registration rather than household annual registration. As we noted in the 2008 study, it is somewhat misleading to focus only on PPS numbers because experience in Northern Ireland and elsewhere shows that a wide range of identifiers must be used in order to satisfactorily establish the identity and entitlement to vote of a particular individual.
Similarly, in relation to the type of conduct in which the returning officers engage in administration of elections, we noted in 2008 that there is probably a need only for a general oversight function in the electoral commission rather than a detailed assumption of that role.
On the composition of the commission, I am open minded about whether the study we authored in 2008 made the right call, that the new commission should be constituted in broadly the same way as the Standards in Public Office Commission and similar bodies and that it should specifically exclude those who had experience of party politics. Dr. MacCárthaigh referred to the fact that there is a reasonable case to be made for a smaller specially-appointed board to exercise oversight over the operations of an electoral commission. There are cogent reasons for this, as I say, on grounds of effectiveness and accountability, but I remain to be persuaded that it will be possible in the short term to come up with a method of appointment that retains the undoubted impartiality and legitimacy that are clearly desirable here, particularly bearing in mind that the new body will have responsibility, not merely for the conduct of elections but also for referenda. I make that point because it might be possible to get agreement among the political parties as to who are suitable persons to serve on an electoral commission. However, if the electoral commission is to take over the role the Referendum Commission has in referenda, given in many referenda the political parties do not represent one side, the "No" side, it could be that a body that is satisfactory to the political parties is not seen by those who are proposing a "No" vote in a referendum as being a legitimate entity.
Where I would perhaps differ in emphasis from the consultation paper is on the planning and policy functions of a new electoral commission. The consultation paper, at page 42, observes that the circumstances have "largely changed", since 2007 or 2009, as to whether an electoral commission should have "a significant advisory role on electoral and political reform issues" because of the enactment of a considerable number of significant pieces of legislation, and the Department is entitled to take some credit for the fact that there have been substantial changes in party funding and other aspects of electoral law. I would not be as sanguine as the Department appears to be in the consultation paper about the fact that this is a closed chapter because there is a need for the electoral system to be kept under constant review and for forward planning in order to take a proactive rather than reactive approach to electoral policy and administration. It seems to be desirable that an electoral commission should have a significant role in these matters and that the franchise section of the Department should not be left as the dominant governmental actor in planning and policy change in relation to elections. As I noted already, the franchise section has a role in the development of policies and standards in elections that goes somewhat beyond the formal specifications of its responsibilities. For example, it is clear that there is a degree of long-term planning at work in the efforts of successive constituency commissions and it seems plausible that this element of continuity is influenced by the support role of the franchise section. The franchise section has generally discharged well its co-ordinating and planning roles in terms of the electoral system, but within the constraints of a departmental administration where particular Ministers have particular projects, with which they want to be associated, for which they want to take credit and which do not necessarily always go smoothly. It strikes me that a meaningful electoral commission must, to some extent, supplant some of these functions now performed within the Department and would, ideally, involve appropriate transfers of staff to the new body. In that context, perhaps it is not surprising that the consultation paper to some extent skirts around this aspect of the planning for the transition to the new body.
I will open the floor to members. As some have arrived since we started, I repeat that everyone will get ten minutes for questions and answers. When there is one minute left, I will indicate to the witnesses that such is the case and whoever is in possession will cease speaking. I will begin with the Opposition members, the leader of whom is Deputy Barry Cowen.
I thank all the contributors for their expertise and the submissions they made in light of the request for a consultation process on this issue. I have no questions per se. I acknowledge and appreciate everything that has been said.
I agree with much of it, especially the first contributor who mentioned the lack of leadership on the part of Government in putting forward a draft commission in order for a consultation process to emanate from it whereby we might be in a position to have an independent commission in place for the next election. The amalgamation of the Department's role with the local authorities and SIPO could have formed the basis for an electoral commission. There was all-party agreement on a report that emanated in 2008. There was a commitment on the part of this Government in 2011 in the programme for Government to do so and, as has been referred to by the Tánaiste and Minister for Social Protection, Deputy Joan Burton, when she concluded her discussions with the Taoiseach, after each election, especially referendums during the lifetime of the Government. A commitment has been made by members of Government to bring forward an electoral commission prior to the next election. Unfortunately, as with much of what was promised in the form of radical overhaul of the electoral system and the way in which politics is done and how it is led, we have seen nothing except balls of smoke. While I welcome the contributions that have been made, I do not think the type of leadership that was promised is being given by Government in this area. We will all be the worse for it in the context of the next general election. I would hope that the message that might emanate loud and clear from this gathering today is that the Government should take a bold step and make proposals that can be adjudicated on and agreed in order to move forward.
I thank Deputy Cowen. Before we go further, I wish to ask a question on an issue to which two of the witnesses referred. In regard to the international models in Australia, Canada and the UK, to which system should we aspire? Which is more apt for our electoral system?
Dr. Theresa Reidy:
Elections Canada is recognised internationally as one of the most robust election management bodies. It is a very large agency and it has evolved since about 1920 so it is a body that has developed over a long period. It has quite extensive roles and robust powers. In terms of scope and function, Elections Canada would be where we should aim if we are really looking for the best model. It is worth noting that in terms of a model similar to Ireland, New Zealand is also a small relatively homogenous country so it has certain elements in terms of scale. I suggest we look to New Zealand for scale but to Elections Canada in terms of scope and robustness.
I welcome the representatives. This is an issue that has been discussed for quite a long time. It was to the fore when the e-voting machines were introduced. That was a dreadful fiasco which cost the country in the region of €60 million plus of taxpayers' money.
If I understood Dr. Muiris MacCárthaigh correctly, he did not feel there was a great need to set up a commission. We need to fix a system that is not working. As a practising politician, I recognise that there are major problems with the electoral register throughout the country. After each election we are informed of the numerous errors that occurred in every single register. Sometimes people who have been on the electoral register for 40, 50 or 60 years turn up at a polling station to find their names are no longer on the register. This is due to the fact that the system of compiling the register is not a rolling one. It has to start from scratch every year from about September or October within the local authority. Local authorities do not have the resources to upgrade and supply an accurate register of electors. There is a need for a single independent body, a centralised electoral commission, to compile the register.
There would be a greater degree of accuracy with an electoral register than with the current system. I am not criticising local authorities because they have done the best possible job in the circumstances. The care of an electoral register should not be in their remit because it has placed an undue burden on staff who are not properly trained to compile a register of electors. I have spoken to local authority staff who work in the area of compiling the register and they feel the same. Have those people been spoken to? Clerks, and maybe junior clerks, are brought in from time to time to help with the register and would not have a great deal of experience in that area. The politician always faces the anger on polling day and for a few days afterwards if people find their names are not on the register. It can also cause a great deal of confusion at the polling station if there are inaccuracies in the register on the day. People are advised to check the register well in advance, but very few do.
There is an electoral commission in Northern Ireland which was established nearly 40 years ago and is working very satisfactorily. There is no obligation on people to vote, but it is compulsory to register to vote there. That is a very good system. They say the electoral register in Northern Ireland does not have the same problems as we have in the South. I met a person recently who told me they were on six registers. I know it would be illegal but it is possible that a person in those circumstances could have voted six times. That person would have been breaking the law and they knew that but that should not be the case. A person should be registered to vote only once and at one location. That crops up all the time and there are thousands of people whose names are duplicated on the register. We will not have an accurate register until we eliminate that type of error.
The administration of the electoral system has been piecemeal and has been lacking a cohesive approach. For a long time, I have felt that an independent body, free from Government or political interference, would be more acceptable to everybody and to all political parties. A CEO, who should not be a member of the Civil Service, perhaps with the same powers as a District Court or a High Court judge, should be an electoral commissioner and special terms of reference should be issued to that person. We need to put in place a system-----
I will move on to the questions now. Does any European country have a similar system to ours, or are we unique in having a register that must be compiled on an annual basis? Most other European countries have a rolling register. Perhaps the witnesses could give an indication as to what happens in the rest of Europe and on where we should model our practice.
Professor Michael Marsh:
I can speak about every country in Europe but I remember asking a professor of politics from the University of Amsterdam what they did about the electoral register in the Netherlands. He said they knew where everybody lived. Whenever one moves into a house one is required to register. Most of Europe operates under a law that is more Napoleonic than British and the role of the citizen typically has been more that of subject than it was under British law but their electoral registers are far more effective than ours. Ours is probably a bit more like that of the US, which is probably the worst electoral register in the world and one in which anything up to 30% of the electorate are not on the register at all. By US standards we are doing pretty well but by the standards of most of the rest of the democratic world we are doing poorly.
Does Professor Marsh think the new Eircodes, on which legislation was passed last week, will improve the accuracy of the electoral register? Does he believe the remit of the electoral commission should be extended to maintaining the register of political parties?
Professor Michael Marsh:
An electoral commission should take overall responsibility for an electoral register. The advantage of the new Eircodes, about which I know very little, is that they have a unique address. Everybody in my road has the same address so it is not unique and the new codes might make it marginally easier to locate an individual at a precise address. The will at the centre is the most important thing and if there is an agency dedicated to providing us with a good electoral register we are more likely to have one. Then we might see an end, for better or for worse, of people flying back from Australia to vote as these people will not be on the electoral register now that they no longer live here.
There is broad support for a body to deal with these matters and the diagram which was shown is useful for giving examples from other countries of what an electoral commission would look like and the roles it would have. The difficulty is that we are in anti-quango mode at the moment and people will say this is another superquango. There are questions around whether it will take on the role of the Boundary Commission, the Standards in Public Office Commission, those of local authorities or of the franchise section of the Department of the Environment, Community and Local Government.
There are divergent views on whether it should be an oversight body or one which has oversight functions and is operational. Given the electoral and registration systems I am not too sure we can cut out local authorities. Some of the people working in local authorities will take exception to some of the criticism on their level of expertise but that is not the issue. Local authorities should be capable of getting people registered to vote and making sure they are not registered twice as it is not too complicated to do. The single biggest issue is the system we have for registration. I have been banging the drum on this for a long time and am very much favour in trying to weed out situations. I am particularly concerned about Deputies on the Government benches talking about meeting people who are on the register six times or stories such as the one about 28 people at one address, a derelict house in County Monaghan.
Examples like that highlight the urgent need to deal with the registration process and try to ensure that people are registered once and once only.
Deputy Bannon is correct that some improvements were made in the North and another party to which I belong insisted very strongly on doing that. In a subsequent election we improved our performance by about 25% or 30%. Having a good register worked well for us, and it is something parties and independents need to fix. I would like to hear some examples of how that might be addressed because it is the single biggest issue. How it is addressed will, in large measure, determine the operational remit of the body. If we are still going to tie it to an address, then the local authority will have to continue playing a major role because it will have some hope of finding out who lives where. The system worked quite well when we had rates collectors who were also intelligence gatherers in terms of the electoral register and there were more local councillors. I am not making any judgment and have my own opinion. We now have 950 rather than 1,450 town and county councillors - some were dual roles and on paper there were over 1,600 seats. Town councillors, in particular, were very good at gathering that kind of information, but that system is no longer in place.
The commission has merit and I would support it. In terms of its role, the jury should be out on registration until we decide how to make the register 100% accurate. Who would appoint the members of the commission? Who currently appoints the members of the Boundary Commission? I am interested in knowing how people are appointed and how they come to their conclusions, such as deciding to saw counties in half, cut off chunks of north Tipperary and lump them in with Offaly and bite off little bits of south Kildare and lump them in with County Laois. The suggestion that it would be accountable to the Oireachtas rather than to a Minister of the day is very good.
The witnesses may have views on the vexed question of funding for political parties. I am somewhat curious as to how a quango or body would fix the problem of gender balance. I have spoken to Members, in particular those elected to the Dáil, as well as those elected to local authorities for the first time last year. Women, in particular, have told me that getting a nomination is not a problem and it is easy enough to get going. It has been shown that when women put themselves forward, they can get elected. The problems for women, as well as men, begin when they are elected and are a result of the hours involved. It was 6.45 a.m. when I got home one morning. That is one of the issues. The roles members of local authorities and Deputies are expected to perform are also an issue.
It was proposed that local government would have a role in terms of election counts. While we have an address based system, I cannot see how local authorities can be taken out of the equation too easily.
I have suggested in the past that this could be linked to PPS numbers. I raised this with the former Minister, Phil Hogan, on many occasions. He made the valid point that we have many more PPS numbers than we have people living in this three quarters of the island of Ireland. In fact, we have as many PPS numbers as we have people living on the entire island of Ireland, despite the fact the Border cuts off six counties. This would indicate that many people who have emigrated, many emigrants who have returned and many people who have died still have PPS numbers. Is it the view of the panel that we could link the registration of voters to the PPS number system? Is there another system we could use to do that?
Professor David Farrell:
I might take a few seconds to give a response. There is some very interesting detail in Deputy Stanley's questions. They all come to the same point, to a large degree. They are all about trying to look at details. One of the reasons that Deputy Cowen is able to talk about how this Government has failed to meet the need to introduce an electoral commission, just as the previous Government failed to do, is that there is a great deal of focus on detail. It is a question of putting the cart before the horse. As we say in our paper, the establishment of an electoral commission is needed as a matter of urgency. When it is established, it should be given a remit which would include things like the sorts of questions about which the Deputy is talking. However, if we keep on talking about the details of electoral registers and PPS numbers, this is never going to happen.
Dr. Muiris MacCárthaigh:
I would like to make two points. I can attest that after I moved across the Border, I was never asked for identification until I went to vote in Belfast. I was certainly asked for identification then. It is quite difficult for one to get on the register there. One has to prove many things. I have moved once since I started living in Northern Ireland. I had to come off one and go onto the other. It is a different experience. It is a much more regulated system.
Professor Farrell made some important points about the exact role of the commission. I might differ a little with him in this respect. Maybe he is not saying that an electoral commission is needed and we can wait until it has been set up before we decide what it will do. I think the tendency to rush has been a problem in the Irish administrative system. That is why this discussion is very useful. Will the role of the commission be confined to ironing out kinks in the system - for example, in the register - as has been suggested? Perhaps it should be set up for just five years if it will no longer be needed after this work is finished. That probably will not happen. If it is agreed that we need an electoral commission immediately to sort out some glaring problems in the Irish system, that is fine. The bigger question is what it should do thereafter. I would see that as a greater challenge. How will we know whether it is doing a good job? Every public organisation in Ireland should be pushed at all times to improve the quality of performance; in this case, the quality of the performance of the Irish democratic process. I was very interested to read a list in the 2008 document which referred to codes of conduct for returning officers. It is important to think beyond day one about what else this commission can do. It should not be a case of merely setting up a commission that solves a problem, but then sits there with nobody quite knowing what to do with it. It needs to have an ambitious agenda way into the future.
Dr. Theresa Reidy:
We can learn a great deal from international practice in the appointment of commissions. I will go back to the Canadian example. The Canadian Government consults the other political parties in the Canadian Parliament, a person is agreed on, he or she appears before a parliamentary committee and he or she is formally appointed by a vote of the Canadian Parliament. There are three-person or ten-person commissions in many other countries, some of which were mentioned in the examples given by Professor Marsh. Similar procedures are followed and there is a great deal of advance scrutiny. I suppose there is nothing to say a Government could not insist on a partisan appointment but in a substantial democracy, it is very unlikely to get away with it. All of the procedures involve consultation.
The Deputy's other question related to scale. The annual budget of the body in New Zealand is NZ$6 million. It has a permanent staff of 30, which expands in advance of an election when polling and tabulation staff are recruited. On the other end of the spectrum, the Canadian body has a permanent staff of approximately 500. I think its annual budget was C$87 million last year. It spends approximately C$100 million on each election. Canada is an enormous country, even if its population is not that big, and it has quite a complicated federal structure. Perhaps the Irish case would be more towards the New Zealand end of the spectrum.
The last thing I would like to say relates to gender balance. The point we are making, and I think the Government and all parties have agreed to this, is that there should be a 40% gender balance on all State boards. That principle should also be adhered to in terms of the composition of the commission.
In regard to the gender legislation and the quotas which have been introduced, in due course, the electoral commission would be responsible for administering those and there are certainly quite a lot of other areas where it could make contributions in terms of improving gender balance. However, it is important to say that the commission itself cannot transform anything, although it can work with other strategies in that particular area.
I thank the speakers for their contributions. The question raised by Deputy Stanley reminded me that in the locality where I was born, there was a very strong political tradition which as a child I took very seriously, and that was that one voted early and voted very often. I am not suggesting for one second, given this is recorded, I ever did that, because I got out of there as quickly as possible. Nevertheless, whatever about the merits of an electoral commission in today's Ireland, there was certainly a big need for one back then but sin scéal eile.
I am not entirely convinced about the merits of an electoral commission. The 2008 report is very interesting. There is this question of population size as a big factor, although I am not suggesting it is the only one. We sometimes get carried away, particularly in this House, with the idea of our importance in the world and that we are some sort of superpower. Perhaps this is one of those examples, given there is a very small number of people and a very small number of voters. While that is no reason for not doing it in an orderly and accountable way, and I do not want to take away from that, I do not get terribly excited about this and will not be putting it on my literature next April.
I want to raise one of the great shortcomings in recent referenda. I was waiting for one of the five witnesses to refer to what happened during the Seanad referendum and the appalling way the wording of the ballot paper was dealt with. I have said this in the House in another debate because on polling day, I and other members saw people filling in the ballot paper relating to the inquiries referendum, looking at the other ballot paper-----
That is right. Even Deputies have shortcomings. I saw people putting back the ballot paper in regard to the Seanad. While everyone here may not agree with me on this, I could see people folding the paper and putting it back without voting because the wording was so bad. I thought, given the subject matter, somebody would have mentioned that.
As I have said before, the Referendum Commission made a bags of it in respect of that referendum. If that had happened in the Scottish referendum last year, there would have been another referendum and all hell would have broken loose, but it did not happen. It was one of those extraordinary things that so many people folded up their ballot paper due to the confusion. I am not saying it was by design or otherwise. I have my own opinion about the Seanad, although I will not go down that road today and irritate more people.
With regard to one of the merits of the electoral commission, the witnesses quite rightly point to the registration of electors. Like my colleague, I think local authorities do the best job they possibly can. I am obviously very pro-local government and think we are very lucky to have good councils, particularly in Dublin. The staff do the best they can. Professor Marsh used the word "civic". One of the problems we have, which is due to the reality of being an island off another island, is that we do not have the sort of civic responsibility that other Europeans have.
The Romans did not come here and we have a strong Luddite tradition. While some people take voting very seriously, others who go up to the polling booth and find they are not registered do not feel it is the end of the world. They go home and watch "Eastenders". We have to get to a place where people take the franchise very seriously, and education is part of that.
Nobody has referred to the new difficulty which all politicians now experience in respect of elections and referendums. The number of people going out to vote does not decline. I do not talk about the turnout any more. I am not sure about Carlow-Kilkenny, but in the by-election in my constituency of Dublin South-West, and in the recent referendums, the issue was not the turnout but the number of people who stayed at home. People are not going out to vote. There are those who argue that it will be repeated again next April. I take my share of responsibility, but that is what has happened.
In respect of the possibility of setting up a new commission, there is accelerating hostility among the public towards another body or quango, so to speak, appointed by the Government. I have said before that this Government or some other is going to run out of retired judges. We will have to import them because we have so many inquiries and commissions.
I am always amazed by this notion of the independence of judges, although I do not know any; none of them live in my estate so I do not mix with them. Judges in this country are the most political and ideological - I know what side of the House they vote. To suggest we can bring in a judge who is going to be entirely impartial, I would be more inclined to bring in a retired judge from Greece than to put in one of our own.
Professor Michael Marsh:
On the wording of the question, it is very important that, when referendums are given to the people, the question is clear. In my submission I pointed to the role of the UK Electoral Commission, which is starting research now for the referendum on the European Union. It is already undertaking all sorts of research on the different ways in which that might be worded. It can then advise the British Government. That is one of those things which an electoral commission can do in a neutral way.
The UK Electoral Commission also examines whether the vote should be held on the same day as other elections. Mr. David Cameron announced the other day that he saw no problem with this. They did it with the alternative vote referendum in 2011 and he was pleased with the result. For him, the fact that the public was thoroughly confused by it was beside the point. We know that when we have referendums on the same day as other elections, people can sometimes get a little confused. We had a wonderful referendum on the power of the Oireachtas to conduct inquiries and the evidence was that never in their lives had citizens been more confused about any referendum. Most of them did not know there was a referendum because there was a Presidential election on the same day. Electoral commissions can help with that.
In terms of the expansion of government, I suppose I am not particularly keen on seeing ever more civil servants, since they will be looking for pensions. I will be looking for my pension and I do not really want the money to go to anybody else. The whole point about an electoral commission is that the Government or ad hocbodies are already doing all these things, one way or another. We do not necessarily need any more people. Arguably, we would only need one judge, not three, in future. It is a matter of combining functions so that they can be better carried out, rather than anything else.
Professor David Farrell:
I would like to reinforce the final point about creating more quangos, as it has come up twice. All of us around the table, and we are not alone in this, have repeatedly been saying that introducing an electoral commission would reduce the number of quangos. The Boundary Commission, the party register, the referendum commission and the Standards in Public Office Commission will all be replaced by one body, with one judge rather than several. We would actually be making government more efficient.
I am in favour of an independent electoral commission. It has been raised in the Seanad many times and has been voted on there too. It is an absolute disgrace that the Government in its five years has failed to deliver on this cornerstone of political and electoral reform. I concur with Dr. Reidy that it is regrettable that after five years an electoral commission will still not be delivered on for the next general election. Whatever about fears of quangos, ultimately, failure to establish such a commission undermines potential political participation, good positive political culture, trust and accountability. It is a slight on both Government parties that they were not able to deliver this in five years, even with a pre-existing report from 2008. The Independent group in the Seanad has called for the establishment of such a commission many times. I welcome the fact the committee is pushing for it. What is the likelihood, however, of it being instituted by the next Government?
I am mindful about what Professor David Farrell said about detail. I must mention Professor Michael Marsh taught me in Trinity College, Dublin just in case there is a conflict of interest.
Yes, it is his entire fault that I am not even an elected but a nominated Senator. Although the referendum to maintain the Seanad I take as an endorsement of that.
What has the delegation seen in other countries regarding easier and more transparent voter registration and how it can link up with increased participation? We saw recently a surge in late registration to vote during the marriage referendum. We can do digital banking and, God forbid, even pay for water charges online. Recently, I was a witness at the local and federal elections in the state of North Carolina where one could register up to the morning of the elections. I was involved in a ridiculous scenario of trying to convince the former environment Minister, Phil Hogan, on decreasing the timeline for applying for and casting a postal vote. The philosophy in this country is to make it more difficult for us to vote. Are there examples where easier voter registration has worked? Professor Michael Marsh stated the UK is the only country in which the electoral commission does not manage the electoral register.
What is the delegation’s view on lowering the age of voting?
Professor Michael Marsh:
I am not an expert in how people register in most countries of the world as I have not done direct research on it. What I know about it is something I have come across in passing or, as I said earlier, I asked a professor in Amsterdam how the Dutch system worked. I do know about some countries such as the US which is one of the worst systems. The problem in many parts of the US is that many people do not get on the electoral register. In some states, that suits the state as it does not want poor and uneducated people on the register because they might vote for the wrong people. It is the same reason we are not necessarily keen on 16-year-olds getting the vote because they might vote for the wrong people.
That is the position, although certain things have been tried in the United States. For example, in some states people registering for a driver's licence, and everyone seems to have a driver's licence in the US, registers to vote at the same time. This is known as "motor-voter" registration.
Regardless of which system we adopt, we do not want one that places the responsibility for registering on the individual because the responsibility for ensuring people are registered lies with the State. The State considers it important that people have a right to vote and should make sure they have that right, regardless of whether they want it.
We then move to the issue of turnout. At the moment, we speak a great deal about turnout, yet we do not have a clue about the level of turnout. It may be 5% or 10% more than the figures indicate. The only thing we can be certain about is that more people vote than the statistics would indicate because the electoral register is deficient. The strong probability is that it is deficient because it features more names than it should.
The age at which people should be able to vote is probably outside the scope of this discussion. One of the things I expect an electoral commission to do is generate some ideas and research on precisely this type of issue. In Australia, which uses exactly the same electoral system as we do in certain circumstances, as does New Zealand - contrary to what we may believe, the system we use is not unique - the electoral commission produces regular reports about how to improve the operation of the system. Extensive discussion takes place about the system in a way that it has not been discussed here since the foundation of the State. This is what an electoral commission can do for us.
Dr. Theresa Reidy:
I agree with Dr. Marsh, especially with regard to conducting research on elections. In Canada and New Zealand, the electoral commissions regularly produce research on issues such as lowering the voting age. Some countries also do trial runs, which means they will temporarily reduce the voting age, for example. In certain regions in Germany, for example, the voting age was reduced to 16 years for some local elections. Following an evaluation, it was decided to stick with the lower voting age. These are precisely the types of things an electoral commission should do.
In terms of increasing participation, while the levels of trust and integrity in the electoral system are high, one of the problems we have is that the system of electoral administration is moribund and has not moved into the 21st century. Other countries have experimented with postal voting and Latvia has looked a great deal at online voting. In Ireland, we restrict access to postal voting when we should be examining how to provide greater access to the polls for citizens through, for example, early voting, more postal voting and alternative ways of casting ballots. If one had a structured framework such as an electoral commission with the capacity to do research and subsequently, with the agreement of parliament, as occurs in Canada, conduct trials about how this would operate, it would be possible to expand the electoral functions while maintaining trust in the system. Care is needed, however, and we should not adopt a system that randomly trials any form of innovation. This must be done in a structured fashion that is accountable to citizens and grounded in research.
There are many different options available in the area of voter registration. As Professor Farrell noted, the electoral commission should, in the first instance, initiate a consultation on this issue before proceeding as changing the electoral registration process is a big job. One of the reasons a commission should be established quickly is that one of the biggest jobs it will face is to decide how electoral registration should occur. It will then need a significant lead-in time to prepare for the next set of elections in order that a robust electoral register is in place beforehand and no glitches occur on election day.
Professor David Farrell:
That was the point I was making. We would expect an electoral commission to set standards, experiment and monitor.
I lived in Manchester for 20 years and can remember voting in a local election in the Asda at the far end of Manchester from where I lived. There were no limitations on my ability to vote because the British electoral commission was experimenting and that is what we would be considering here. I will give members one potentially mundane example of just how bad things are here. Where does one go when one wishes to learn who won an election or what were the election results? One goes to RTE, to a television company. That should be the function of an electoral commission and one should not be using a utility to try to get that information. It should be the job of the electoral commission of Ireland to provide such information as it happens but that is not available in this country.
I was just reflecting on the point made there and I agree with Dr. Reidy's comment about encouraging people to vote. I am unsure whether Professor Farrell referred to this - I note his observation about voting in shopping centres, that is, where people actually go - but having a day for voting and whether we really have experimented with Saturdays or Sundays, which for many people are not working days. The evidence shows that in the early part of the last century, there were many more polling stations. However, if one specifically considers shopping centres, that is where people go in their tens of thousands in cities and in their hundreds in smaller towns.
I am not criticising local authorities but the day of the rent or the rates collector looking after the register is long gone. Change, in particular in an urban environment, is so frequent and so massive that there is no way one can keep track of them casually or as part of a part-time job in addition to other work. Were one to consider any agency, An Post should be considered, as that company knows exactly where everybody lives, as it delivers the mail and the bills. Were one to use such organisations that already are visiting people's homes daily, one would have a far better register than one has at present. Moreover, if one contacts people on the register the day after one receives it as a public representative, one will find that 10% to 20% of those people are incorrectly on the register for some reason and there is a huge margin of error there. Consequently, if one gets a 70% or 65% turnout at a polling station, it probably is akin to an 80% turnout of the people who are alive and who are actually able to vote at that time.
The other important issue is the question of reform to which Senator Mac Conghail referred. He is an example of the reform the Government has brought about and is in the Seanad because the Taoiseach properly and rightly nominated him. Indeed, the vast majority of the Taoiseach's nominees to the Seanad were non-political appointments and to state there has been no reform flies in the face of his own voice, because his is a non-political voice and I make that point to the Senator. Moreover, I have no problem with listening to criticism, which I welcome. However, I welcome the Senator, in particular, as well as everyone else. Every voice should be heard in the Oireachtas. As for the Seanad, the Government tried to reform it and while I acknowledge the people made a choice on that-----
I did not interrupt the Senator. The Government put that to the people, they gave a result and the Government accepted it. The other reform proposed by the Government concerned the power of Oireachtas committees, which was put to the people. That was turned down but to state there was no reform is not accurate.
The other point I wish to make concerns the question of local government reform. One major reform that took place was the introduction of a highly unpopular tax, namely, the property tax. However, that tax put on a statutory basis an income for local government that would be independent of the tax system and would be based on property values locally. One thing I would like to see a commission examining is the entire question of local government reform. There have been political experiments but I do not believe the last one has worked particularly well. I certainly believe that large towns, which have lost their corporations or councils, are now at a major disadvantage because they have been subsumed into a county-based structure. Moreover, most people do not know the local councillors any more because they go off to the county town, nobody knows what is happening and there is no local debate on local issues. While I acknowledge it was unproductive in some respects, it involved the community. Politics is about everybody having a voice, everybody being aware of what is going on and helping people to participate.
If an electoral commission were to compile reports on local government reform or other issues, it would have the necessary stature to ensure that such reports would be of the best quality. Commissions are separate from and independent of Government and it is they which should be charged with having such reports compiled.
There is a great deal of potential for change. I welcome our guests and I thank them for sharing their professional views with us. Ultimately, however, the most pressing reform required relates to the electoral register. Most of the previous speakers referred to that issue. Apart from An Post, the only other entity which might be able to maintain the electoral register in an extremely capable fashion is the Office of the Revenue Commissioners because it has information on where citizens live. The days of local authorities being responsible for maintaining the electoral register are long gone.
Mr. John O'Dowd:
The electoral commission in New Zealand has subcontracted the maintenance of the register to that country's postal service so there is an international example in this regard.
On the Deputy's point regarding the structure of local government, it would be seeing the remit of the electoral commission as being rather too wide to say that it would be within its functions to review the scale and organisation of local authorities. It probably would be sensible to try to limit what it does to the electoral process itself. Perhaps it might review matters in a broad sense but not widely enough that it would be expected to advise the Government as to whether, for example, town councils should be reintroduced. It could, I suppose, express a view regarding the ratio of numbers of local representatives to numbers of citizens and there might be some incidental issues on which it might advise. However, the idea that it is some form of panacea for political reform generally is to be avoided.
I do not disagree with what Mr. John O'Dowd states but perhaps I did not make my point sufficiently clearly. Local government is both hugely expensive and extremely important. The problem is that it is currently not functioning either adequately or well. The authorities in the bigger towns are failing in terms of their responsibilities. I am not referring to the smaller-----
I am entitled to make my point and I disagree with the decision in question. I accept that the commission should not be examining the possibility of tinkering with the system. What I am suggesting is that it should consider what are the alternatives, rather than leaving it to the Government of the day to do so. Obviously, the Government must ultimately either introduce legislation or put a proposition to the people. I am genuinely convinced that local government is losing out and that towns are definitely losing out. More power has been transferred to the Executive, to officials and to administrative systems locally as a result of the changes that have been made. That is my honest opinion.
I am open to the idea of a commission but people are concerned that it will just be another quango. How would such an entity impact on current council staff? We do not, for example, want people to lose their jobs. Neither do we want to see the maintenance of the electoral register or other electoral commission functions being privatised. I would baulk at the idea that judges must automatically preside over every commission. Why should that be the case? There are capable and competent people who are not judges. In fact, one could argue that many judges are not necessarily automatically competent and capable. I just do not understand why - no offence - it must be a male judge or academic who runs these things. The staff complement attaching to the commission should be small.
The people who should be involved in the electoral commission are the members of the four largest sectors that are currently outside the system. The first such group is migrants. Some 23% of the people who live in my constituency of Dublin West were born outside Ireland. Most of these individuals are completely disenfranchised. They live, work and pay taxes here and they have their children here. Many of them might be citizens but they do not realise that they are entitled to a full vote because they have never been informed of that fact. The remainder are not citizens but they should also be entitled to the vote, particularly if they have lived and worked here for five years or more. Many of those felt excluded because they could not vote in the recent referendums. Such people should be involved in any discussion on this matter.
How will these people be integrated into the political process they are currently excluded from?
The second group I have huge concerns about is renters. Every time people change address in this country, they have to go to the Garda station, fill a form, which they have either downloaded or gotten from the council and then queue in the station, which could take any length of time. I bore witness to this last year when I stood in a by-election. Why is this the case? The number of renters has increased by 52% in 18 months in the State, according to the Irish Independentrent report, published yesterday. A total of 700,000 people are renting. How can we have an accurate electoral register with that number renting and when we make it difficult for people? I agree it is insane the lengths people are put to to go on the register or to take part in the voting process.
Young people are another issue. As we witnessed during the recent referendum, they will vote when they feel there is something worth voting for. Young people played a critical role in the passing of the referendum, as did working class people, who do not normally vote. There was a higher turnout in working class areas and among women. Those where the people who were concerned about the issue based on my own canvassing. I favour the lowering of the age to vote but why do we make it difficult for young people to get on the register. Surely, when they do their leaving certificate examinations, there should be a table in the room where they can register to vote because they generally will be aged 18 at that point. These initiatives need to be considered and they are not being brought forward currently.
Finally, there is a debate to be had about people who have been exiled from the country, mostly for economic reasons, although some have left for social reasons and by choice. However, much of our recent emigration was forced and, therefore, there is a debate about whether voting should be opened up to them. I am more concerned about people who live and work here having a vote. I live in a constituency which is new, diverse, etc., and many people are being excluded. They contact me with housing, homelessness or rent problems but they have no vote and Deputies do not care about them. Councillors might care because they might have a local election vote but there seems to be no concern about our new population having a vote. We have mostly focused on the register but I agree other reforms need to be examined to make it easier for people to cast their vote.
I am not necessarily a fan of postal voting. I was recently in America, which uses a different electoral system, the primary system, and people have a postal vote, which must be submitted within a two-week period in this particular state. It is difficult to get people to vote. At least when a vote is held on one day, one can pull out the stops. I am open to postal voting. It is amazing that when people go on holiday, they automatically lose the right to vote. It was booked well in advance of the election being called, for example, or for work reasons and we have all experienced that.
Professor David Farrell:
They are valid points. I do not disagree with anything the Deputy said but her points group into at least two areas. She referred to the rights of emigrants, migrants and young people, in particular, and they all group in my area to the discussion about franchise and whether the franchise should be extended to groups that are currently not included. A properly developed electoral commission would commission research to explore the issue and come forward with policy proposals.
Second, the Deputy referred to renters. That addresses the question of voter registration, which has come up so often. An electoral commission that is properly constituted would monitor, set down standards, look for good practice, experiment and come forward with proposals for change. I am completely on the same page as the Deputy.
Professor Michael Marsh:
There is good work done on reasons for turnout. The views are not entirely consistent on postal voting. Many of the conclusions on such voting say it makes it easier to vote for those who would vote anyway. Clearly, if one goes on holiday and otherwise could not vote, it would help but those who do not tune into politics and would not think about voting still would not vote even with a postal vote. There are other consequences of postal voting.
In Sweden, where postal voting is very easy, at least two thirds vote long before the election is actually held which means running around campaigning is a waste of time as most of the people have already voted.
I was asked about judges. I sat here before and suggested a head of a tabloid newspaper should run the electoral commission rather than a judge because they might be rather better at communicating with the people than the average judge, although there have been some very good ones. I do not know that I still necessarily subscribe to that view but, equally, I do not know why a judge is thought suitable. Having met quite a few of them, I do not think they are particularly neutral. In comparable countries, such as the UK, Australia, New Zealand and Canada, what we used to call the "English-speaking world", they seem to have a high opinion of judges and a low opinion of the rest of us, but that is the way it is.
Dr. Muiris MacCárthaigh:
The issue of redundancies is very real and there are huge hidden costs which people do not think about when trying to merge organisations and suddenly they discover there are not enough, or are too many, people and different IT systems. These are practical issues and real concerns. The media will talk about another quango and another €50 million. If we are going to set up an electoral commission, we must ask about the transitional arrangements and where people's jobs are going to go.
The issue of different social groups is vital to the whole discussion about what the design of the electoral commission will be. Will it be a small group of the great and the good, the Clerk of the Dáil, the Clerk of the Seanad and a judge of some sort? I would point to the success of the Road Safety Authority, which seems to have cracked this problem by setting up a stakeholder board. This was not in the legislation but it brought in people from various groups and listened to them on a quarterly basis in the early days of the authority's existence in order to determine the issues. The Road Safety Authority board was concerned with governance and was not a stakeholder but the advisory stakeholder board is an idea that might address the questions raised by Deputy Coppinger.
Dr. Theresa Reidy:
As regards jobs, a lot of what we are talking about involves consolidating existing positions under the one umbrella. There are things we can learn from other countries. One of the reasons we recommended following something like the UK model, where they still use staff from local authorities, is because the experience of both Australia and Canada has been that it is difficult to hire staff. These staff work for two or three days at election time. They work quite long hours and the pay tends to be pretty poor. Canada saw a 25% drop in the number of applications between two elections and the cautionary note in the research on electoral management bodies suggests that if there is an existing structure that works well around the provision of these ad hocservices that should be maintained as it can be difficult to establish new ones. It is not that people would lose their jobs - the people who currently do the work would do it under a more structured framework with clear standards and better provision for training.
Mr. John O'Dowd:
There is a problem worldwide in that when votes are counted manually, the people traditionally employed to do it have been bank tellers but there are very few bank tellers left. The people with the occupational skills of counting pieces of paper are rapidly disappearing. On the question of a quango, there is a very good analogy in the establishment of the Courts Service in that previously the administrative support functions for the courts were scattered among the local authorities, the Department of Justice and Equality and the Department of Finance but the Courts Service has generally been recognised as being a great success over the past 15 years or so. It has brought all those things together and been able to plan effectively. It has also absorbed substantial budget cuts successfully in the past few years. Its board has a majority of judges but that is another story. We only have the Courts Service because of Harry Whelehan and Fr. Brendan Smith, etc. so it may well be that we have the same scenario with the electoral commission. Perhaps only if we have a major scandal relating to the administration of elections will we see such a body.
I support the idea of an electoral commission. I served on the Constitutional Convention and many of the constitutional issues we looked at brought us to a recognition of the need for an electoral commission.
There was an exploration of issues and matters that could be brought within its remit. There has been practical input from citizens working with politicians, which would be helpful.
We are focused on shortcomings, but one very interesting fact which arose from the Constitutional Convention was that most people are happy with our electoral system in terms of the single transferable vote and the PR system. We had the opportunity to examine many other systems and it seemed that everybody was happy with ours. In terms of reform, there has never been a Constitutional Convention before and we would not have had the referendum on marriage equality if it had not ratified it and suggested that the opportunity be given to the people to decide whether they wanted to endorse marriage equality. That is all pretty reforming and a new and different approach to bringing forward procedural and substantive issues around the Constitution.
One irony which strikes me in Ireland, and perhaps the Western world, is that we are very evangelical when it comes to democracy in developing countries. We think things such as the Arab Spring are wonderful and that countries will embrace democracy. We make sure things are done fairly in Eastern Europe and Russia. The United States, for example, pumped a lot of money into Kenya to develop a new constitution or katiba. We all see the value of democracy outside our country, but unfortunately when it comes to Ireland it seems the value of our democracy seems to be constantly diminishing.
In terms of reform, we no longer have town councils, we voted on whether to abolish the Seanad and there are fewer Deputies. On the other hand, much of that matches people's general feelings about things, which may not always be rationally thought out. The general view concerned what politicians were doing, what it was all about and quangos. There were many buzzwords, and people felt irritated because of the pressure on them. There was a backlash.
An electoral commission, if done the right way, would not be a quango and could encapsulate many things. We have to go back to our citizens again. Are we at a point where, having had the benefits of democracy for so long, now more than ever the rights of individual citizens and the right of people to live their lives they way they want to are valued more than they ever have been? There are certain parameters, but people have the right to self-determination. Are we now more self-centred and not as bothered by what we need to do to keep the overall framework going?
We are all outraged by the atrocities of the past and the not-so-distant past, as well as what is happening now, such as systemic failures and so on. The children's rights referendum was brought forward on the premise that we would strengthen children's rights, yet the turnout was poor. I visit polling stations on the day of a referendum or election and touch base with the people running them. They told me young people did not turn out for the children's rights referendum, which was held on a Saturday. It was not just young people that questioned its relevance.
We know a certain socio-economic group does not vote despite being, arguably, one of the largest beneficiaries of the welfare state. We need a reality check. In terms of stability, perhaps democracy is boring because it all about conversation, dialogue, listening to diverse views and ultimately accepting that we will not all agree on things, such as in the most recent referendum. Everybody does not agree on things, but we need to respect that democracy is about conversation. Of late in this country, we have seen extreme protests which were more akin to intimidation and bullying and did not respect that the other side, be it a politician or another group, may have a different view that can be respected.
I suppose I just want to mention it. The whole water protest was changed by what happened to the Tánaiste in Jobstown. I thought it was a disgrace. What was the point of preventing her from leaving for three or four hours? Were those involved hoping she would be intimidated and would change her mind? Did they think she did not have a deep-held conviction about the particular policy she was putting forward? Democracy is delicate. It is only good if we keep working on it. We constantly strive towards excellence in improving and supporting the organs and instruments of our democracy. Sometimes I think it is important for us to reflect on that.
I would like to make another point about electoral reform. I think it was touched on by Deputy O'Dowd. After the Abbeylara judgment, we could not conduct inquiries in the Oireachtas in a certain fashion. When that was put to the people, they said "No". They decided not to give all of these powers to politicians. That was fair enough. Notwithstanding the problems with the ballot paper in the Seanad referendum, which were mentioned by Deputy Maloney, I do not think the public wanted to give all of the power to people in the Dáil either. We can look at the mechanics and where things could have been done better. Regardless of whether we think the decisions ultimately made by the electorate are wise, we respect them and uphold them in our laws.
I think much of this relates to how we can get people to engage again. When we were at the Constitutional Convention, it was suggested that we reduce the voting age and the age at which one can be a candidate in a Presidential election. The people who made those suggestions believed that if we reduced the relevant ages, we would get more engagement and people would see the process as more relevant. I do not agree with that. I think there is something else to be tackled here. People need to see the correlation between the peace and stability we enjoy in this country, compared to so many other countries, and the personal freedoms we have that are not enjoyed elsewhere. We should have debates. We are not always going to agree - that will be the way forever - but at least we have a vehicle to deal with it. I definitely think an electoral commission would have a great role to play in this.
As I have described, attempts have been made to introduce many reforms. In many cases, people have said they do not want them. I do not think that is really what is bugging people. What is bugging them is the economic pressure they are under. Of course they do not want to see any sort of latchico-ism or all the sort of stuff that might have been associated with politics. I just think we should celebrate our democracy and not be so cynical. There are many people out there who are trying their very best. Regardless of whether I disagree with people on a different political spectrum, I respect that they are trying their best as well. That sort of conversation needs to be had. I know that is not question; it is just a view. I was one of the members of the Constitutional Convention. We got a chance courtesy of Professor Farrell and a number of others to hear some expert and professional contributions and to hear from citizens. I think we have a lot to celebrate in this country. Maybe we should remember that first and foremost.
I thank all our visitors for turning up. I apologise for having to be out of the room for some time because of some of the demands of this place. I strongly agree with the comments that have been made about the register of voters. I agree with the witnesses and the speakers on this side who have said there are very serious problems in that regard. This issue alone presents a very good case for having an electoral commission.
I would like to make two other points, the first of which was made by Dr. Reidy at the beginning of her presentation. We need to recognise that we are a strong democracy and that we have a strong and long tradition of unbroken democracy. I think there are just four or five countries in Europe that have had such a tradition since the time we became an independent state. It is something we should cherish because it is not something any of us should take for granted.
I would also like to ask about the drawing of electoral boundaries. It seems from what Deputy Maloney said to me that the witnesses may have touched on this.
At the moment, in some instances, they are drawn in a ridiculous way. To take the area Deputy McLoughlin represents, the Sligo-Leitrim constituency will now have west Cavan and south Donegal in the same constituency as Enniscrone in the west of Sligo, which is ridiculous. I could give other examples. There is a good example where part of south Mayo was put into west Galway, which is another bit of lunacy. If it had to be put into Galway, it would have made far more sense to put it in with east Galway because at least Tuam is nearby, which would be a centre. I do not know whether the commission would be involved in trying to iron out that kind of ridiculous nonsense, which no retired politician who was involved would inflict on anybody.
I have a couple of comments, although some of the issues have been raised already. I previously raised the issue of abuses involving the draft register of electors in my constituency at the last local elections, particularly at the Leitrim end of the constituency. In particular, this concerns the number of people on the draft register who were actually out of the country but who were submitted for voting purposes. While this issue has not been mentioned, it is vital that the abuses taking place with the registers are addressed.
Mr. John O'Dowd referred to bank tellers doing the counting. I think we will keep the bankers out of elections, whatever else we might do. Over the years, as I have seen first-hand at many local and national elections, the work done by the county council staff in the various constituencies is excellent. They have worked extremely hard, they have the experience and the know-how and they have been working there for generations. These people, both male and female, have done an excellent job over the years. Why change something that has been very successful? In the past, we had rate collectors who would have known everybody, including people's ages and when they came to voting age. Unfortunately, we do not have a system like that at present.
Previous speakers said that nobody leaves their constituency offices without the Deputy or staff checking to see if they are on the register.
I make no apologies for making representations and assisting them. I check the register before they leave in order to know if they are on the register.
There is a problem in every constituency with regard to rentals, particularly in built-up areas, where it can be very difficult to know the position. Professor Marsh referred to the Swedish system but that would not work with us at all. If all of the voters had voted by postal vote in advance of a three-week election campaign, we would nearly be redundant for that three weeks, which I would not appreciate.
We talked about electronic voting, which was a fiasco, both financially and politically. I honestly believe we will never go back to that again after what has happened in this country. I would be glad to hear the comments of the witnesses.
Mr. John O'Dowd:
If I can pick up on Deputy McLoughlin's point, our 2008 study recommended that the administration of elections should remain at local level, with only supervision by the electoral commission for the reasons mentioned by the Deputy and by Dr. Reidy concerning the flexibility involved. The one shining light in the electoral system seems to be the role of the returning officers. The political parties and others are very pleased with their independence and integrity and the efficiency of their operations. I do not think anybody advocates changing that aspect of the system.
Dr. Theresa Reidy:
In the last couple of months, Professor Farrell and my colleague at UCC, Fiona Buckley, were involved in the audit of the 2011 election. Again, the data that have come back from that have been very strong in regard to the impartiality and effectiveness of the staff who are involved in the conduct of polling and the counting of votes.
There is not seen to be any difficulty there, which is why we talk about consolidating these functions and providing structures and guidance. There are examples of very good practice in this position already.
Professor David Farrell:
I would like to pick up on one of Deputy Mulherin's comments about how we are very prone, in this part of the world, to advising new democracies on how to develop and on what is good. When we look at the audit of where independent electoral commissions exist, it is telling that they are more prominent in the newer democracies. Clearly, although we are very quick to advise new democracies that they should have independent electoral commissions, we are a bit more slow to adopt them ourselves. Perhaps we should start thinking about following our own advice.
Mr. John O'Dowd:
It is interesting that many of these new democracies do not look to us in western Europe or north America for their inspiration; they look to India, where an electoral commission has been operating since the early 1950s. In many ways, the Indian commission has set the standards. It can ensure that people who live in tin huts by the side of the road are registered to vote and get to vote without any difficulty. That rather puts the problems we have in Ireland into perspective. The Indian commission also introduced electronic voting very successfully.
Professor Michael Marsh:
I would if I could. There would be more work for academics.
On a cautionary note, we should not see an electoral commission as a panacea for people's lack of involvement in politics. I would suggest the reason people are not involved in politics is that they do not think it matters. They only think it matters if the candidate they vote for makes a difference. Otherwise, many will ask themselves why they should bother. It may be good that it does not make a difference. If there is a choice between two politicians, both of whom are going to do sensible things, why bother choosing? If, from the voter's point of view, one politician is going to be a disaster and the other is going to be sensible, that is the time to vote.
Turnout is affected more by whether people think it is worth it. On the whole, they think it is worth it when politicians are more active. We see that turnout is highest in those areas where politicians probably do the most to get involved with the community. We see it in referendums, when the pattern of voting is entirely different from the pattern for elections. It is down to the activities of politicians and they, not an electoral commission, can get people out to vote. An electoral commission can do all sorts of good work to facilitate voting.
The two countries with electoral commissions which I mentioned in my submission have electronic voting. Curiously enough, both Scotland and New Zealand use exactly the same electoral system as us. Perhaps under the advice of their electoral commissions, they had the good sense to give people ballot papers to fill in by hand. They then scanned the ballot papers and counted them electronically. They do not need bank tellers. Well, perhaps they do - that is how bank tellers deal with our money.
I am sorry I was late, I had to go to something else.
Obviously, this approach has served our democracy fairly well. I presume enough has been said about the electoral register. We have been speaking about it ad infinitumand the witnesses do not want to hear what is wrong with it from me again. There is a lot right with it but a lot to be done. Accuracy is best.
On the setting up of an independent commission, we need a definition of "independent". We must ensure that everybody is independent. Political scientists vary. Professor Marsh mentioned one's point of view. Obviously, political scientists are independent but, very often, what happens with science, particularly in an electoral register where boundaries are being drawn, is that the people go out the window and the science comes in the door. There is splitting of parishes right down the middle and it does not produce the best result for the people. It produces the best result numerically, to serve the population in proportion to the number of Deputies, but on the ground it may not be the best.
That has to be a significant consideration for any commission examining the electoral register system.
Professor Michael Marsh spoke about being on the register and how it is important for people to vote. In some countries, there is a penalty for not voting which is another measure which should be looked at. It would make people think about it. "Why bother?" might be one argument. Why not bother if it is important to everybody else? It is important to vote as everyone has a valuable point of view. Some people may think it is not worth their while to vote but it is important.
I was in the Citywest Hotel the night they used electronic voting in an election and a former Minister learned she did not regain her seat. It was an awful shock to the system. That electronic voting system had no obvious countdown or backtrail. If these were included in an electronic voting system, I cannot see how it would not work as it would be fast and much more efficient. However, electronic voting has a bad name. It is ingrained in the psyche that electronic voting is bad and, as some say, it also takes the fun out of elections.
The committee will be having hearings on the issue of the electoral register from various stakeholders such as the local authorities. What is the best international model to which we should aspire? Is there a way of enhancing the status quowithout departing from it?
From my experience in the Cork South-West Constituency, there has been a conscientious franchise operation there, seldom having a controversy. Former rate collectors, for example, are still temporary franchise people and are very good at unscientifically adding people to the register. That is a significant human resource which might not be the case in other areas.
A former environment Minister, Dick Roche, tried to confront this issue several years ago but it backfired. It was a problem because of the number of individual local authorities involved and inconsistencies in approach. It was difficult to find a single consistent solution to this. What is the best system to which we should aspire?
Professor David Farrell:
I agree with that. One of the risks that the committee’s process runs is if one goes too much into the detail of how to do X and Y, then the big objective is missed. An electoral commission needs to be established and, when it is, it should be given the remit to explore issues such as this.
Dr. Muiris MacCárthaigh:
It would not be a financial burden or otherwise for the committee to hear about the cross-Border experience. My experience of living and voting there is very different.
We all know the background to the tightening up of the electoral system in the North. Perhaps the joint committee could invite before it an official from the equivalent of the franchise section in the devolved Department of the Environment to discuss how it manages this process.
Mr. John O'Dowd:
That issue was an important part of the 2008 study. We discussed with George Bain the experience in Northern Ireland, which is not perfect by any means. It struck us, in compiling the 2008 study, that Northern Ireland would be the logical place to start. The broad principle in use there is a single, nationwide register which tries to track the identity of the individual and uses not only national insurance numbers but various forms of other information, including drivers' registration, etc. What one must do is try to triangulate on the identity of the individual using a variety of sources rather than relying on any particular measure. It struck us that, rather than trying to invent a totally new system, it would be sensible for the electoral commission to look at the Northern Ireland system as the basis for a system to operate down here.
Dr. Theresa Reidy:
Some of the issues that have arisen fall into the broader category of electoral policy, which would remain in the remit of the Government and Parliament. This includes such matters as the electoral system and the major question as to when elections will take place. It could be interesting to tease out in a little more detail the intersection between broad questions of electoral policy and certain technical elements of how elections are conducted vis-à-visthe electoral registration system or practices such as electronic voting. For example, it could tease out the extent to which it is the role of the electoral commission to recommend policy and the areas in which it has scope to introduce policy.
Rather than specifically considering each individual area, perhaps the electoral commission should consider the point at which broad electoral policy meets technical election issues and who is responsible for what. One of the issues that repeatedly arises is that all kinds of developments take place in the electoral area and we must wait for legislation. I refer, for example, to the role of the Internet and social media. In what space does the electoral commission have the capacity to respond to these types of developments and in what space does one rely on Parliament to lay the groundwork or set the framework within which decisions can be taken?
Mr. John O'Dowd:
One interesting detail we picked up about the Northern system is that one of the ways in which 16 and 17 year olds are sold the idea of registering to vote is that the voter registration card is a very cheap form of age identification and young people use it for whatever purpose they use age identification.
That is a very interesting point. I thank Professor Marsh, Professor Farrell, Dr. MacCárthaigh, Dr. Reidy and Mr. O'Dowd for their contributions to our first consideration of this important topic. Their interaction with members has been much appreciated. I found the exchanges fascinating and interesting. Sometimes solutions and answers are to be found in the question. The witnesses are free to go as we are not holding them against their will.