Thursday, 10 April 2014
Electoral (Amendment) (No. 2) Bill 2014: Second Stage (Resumed)
I add my voice in support of this legislation the Minister has introduced. As previous speakers noted, when the original provision was introduced to bar people from membership of what was a different Parliament, it was during the Victorian era when a rather Dickensian view of bankruptcy was held by all and the idea of debtors' prisons was current. I was struck by Deputy Catherine Murphy's comment when she noted how in those days people of property contested elections. In fact, in those days it also was people of property who voted in elections. At the time, there were strict restrictions on those who could cast a ballot. The Reform Act 1832 was the first to extend substantially the franchise and it was not until 1867 that many categories of working people were given the franchise. In 1918 the Representation of the People Act extended voting rights to women in a limited way in that while every man over the age of 21 years had a vote, women did not get the vote until they were over the age of 30 years. A few more years elapsed before that rule was changed. Consequently, this amendment is to be welcomed. I am aware that a case is before the courts and this legislation has been introduced with a view to dealing with some of that contents of that action. It is appropriate that this rule be amended.
I wish to use the bulk of the time available to me to add my voice to others, in particular that of Deputy Brian Stanley, with whom I do not often agree. However, he raised the issue of the need for the establishment of a permanent electoral commission. This is a matter to which the Minister has given consideration. It should be introduced as the conditions in the old days, whereby rate collectors were familiar with who was over the age of 18 years and who could keep electoral registers up to date nationwide, no longer obtain. In many parts of the country, electoral registers are significantly out of date and do not reflect the people living in that area who are eligible under the terms of legislation to be on that register. Many people who make the effort to vote only find this out on polling day. All Members will have encountered cases, perhaps of friends and neighbours, who had previously been on the register but found, in attempting to cast their ballots, that this was no longer the case. The existing system in updating the electoral register is inadequate in this day and age. The amount of local knowledge that used to be available previously in updating electoral registers is no longer available.
As a result of a change in the way society works, people are not as familiar with their own neighbours and communities as would have been the case in the past. Many of those older rate collectors have retired and their expertise and knowledge has gone with them. As a result, electoral registers in many parts of the country - in most parts of County Kilkenny the electoral register is pretty good - are not as accurate as they should or could be. One of the benefits of an electoral commission would be permanent responsibility for the redrafting of electoral boundaries. I refer to the recent farcical situation in which the Minister was attacked by the Leader of the Opposition about the matter of local electoral boundaries in a desperate attempt to hide his own embarrassment before the upcoming elections. Several members of the independently appointed commission had to state publicly that their decisions were completely removed from any intervention by the Minister or the Department of the Environment, Community and Local Government. Its decisions were enforced uniformly across the country without regard to any other external interests. In the future, the establishment of a permanent electoral commission could provide a mechanism for the upgrading and the renewal of electoral boundaries for local, European and general elections and also for the upkeep of electoral registers. I suggest that the Minister consider introducing that reform over the course of the next couple of years.