Dáil debates

Tuesday, 27 February 2007

3:00 pm

Photo of Brendan HowlinBrendan Howlin (Wexford, Labour)
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Question 87: To ask the Minister for the Environment, Heritage and Local Government the number of names removed from the 2006 electoral register; the number of names added to the register as a result of the revision of the electoral register; and if he will make a statement on the matter. [7455/07]

Photo of Pádraic McCormackPádraic McCormack (Galway West, Fine Gael)
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Question 138: To ask the Minister for the Environment, Heritage and Local Government the status of the electoral register; and if he will make a statement on the matter. [7415/07]

Photo of Dick RocheDick Roche (Minister, Department of Environment, Heritage and Local Government; Minister of State, Department of An Taoiseach; Wicklow, Fianna Fail)
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I propose to take Questions Nos. 87 and 138 together.

In law, the preparation of the register of electors is a matter for each local registration authority. It is its duty to ensure, as far as possible and with the co-operation of the public, the accuracy and comprehensiveness of the register.

Authorities were required to publish the final register for 2007-08 by 1 February last and did so. In working to compile the register, authorities undertook and completed the most extensive registration campaign in decades, and we are all indebted to them for their great effort. Figures received by my Department from them indicate that, in that work, some 555,000 names were removed from last year's register and 523,000 names added. Overall, the register for 2007-08 contains more than 32,000 fewer names than last year. Regarding those eligible to vote at Dáil elections, the new register contains some 62,000 fewer names than last year.

Since the publication of the draft register in November, local authorities have continued to make corrections, with the result that the final register contains approximately 93,000 more names than at draft stage, or 86,000 more in the case of Dáil elections. On the basis of the work undertaken, I am satisfied that there has been a very significant improvement in the accuracy and comprehensiveness of the register.

The final register for 2007-08 is now available for checking, and individuals not on the register can avail themselves of supplementary registration procedures until 15 days before next polling day. We still have a few weeks to get people on the register.

Photo of Eamon GilmoreEamon Gilmore (Dún Laoghaire, Labour)
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We will not really know how accurate the register is until polling day, when people turn up to vote. Has the Minister considered the number of voters in each constituency and the apparent inconsistencies in the new register? For example, I appreciate that Dáil representation is based on population, and it appears that most constituencies have approximately 18,000 to 20,000 voters per Deputy. However, there are very significant variations. In Dublin city, for example, Dublin Central, Dublin Mid-West, Dublin North-West and Dublin South-East all have ratios of 1:14,000 or 1:15,000 as against the norm of approximately 1:18,000. If one looks at some of the adjoining constituencies, one finds that Dublin Central has a ratio of 1:14,000 while Dublin North-Central has 1:20,000. Dublin North-West has 1:15,000 whereas Dublin North has a ratio of one TD per 20,000 voters. I appreciate that there are some demographic differences but in those adjoining constituencies they would not give rise to that degree of variation. It suggests to me that, notwithstanding the efforts that have been made to get the register right, in urban areas the numbers of registered voters are significantly lower than the norm. Even within urban areas there are wide variations which cannot be explained by demographic differences across those constituencies.

Limerick east is another constituency in which there is a surprisingly low ratio. One would not expect Dublin Central and Dublin North-Central to have the kind of variation that is presented in these figures. I wonder if any inquiry has been carried out into what has given rise to such variations.

4:00 pm

Photo of Dick RocheDick Roche (Minister, Department of Environment, Heritage and Local Government; Minister of State, Department of An Taoiseach; Wicklow, Fianna Fail)
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The Deputy is correct. In fact, the more one studies this matter the more one becomes aware of some quite extraordinary factors. I wish to place a few more statistics on the record of the House. As the Deputy knows, there is an academic hypothesis that the total number of people on the electoral register should be roughly the equivalent of 85% of the 18 plus population. That would mean that we still have significant over-registration. There may be all sorts of reasons for that. There is a tradition in Ireland that when a son or daughter comes up to Dublin to work, they keep them on the register at home. Theoretically, that is not a valid thing to do. That has been the case since 1974 but old habits die hard. The Deputy is correct in saying that there are some quite surprising variations between urban and rural areas in terms of the proportion of people aged 18 plus on the register. For example, in Cork city the registration figure is the equivalent of 87% of those aged 18 plus, whereas in Dublin it is the equivalent of 82%. However, in Galway it is 74%, in Limerick 84% and in Waterford 75%. It is hard to explain with any degree of certainty why those variations exist.

The Deputy asked if any inquiry was made, which is a fair question. There was such an inquiry. We know, for example, that in Waterford city there was a huge number of removals. That was not necessarily a bad thing because it turned out that there was a disproportionate number of deceased persons on the register. No matter how one approaches this matter, there will be a continuing challenge with the voter registration process. The process we have reflects more the 19th than the 21st century. I have already indicated my view that in future there should be a rolling register. In addition, we should examine marrying the register with other databases, although it is not something we can do on this occasion. It would be disingenuous, however, if I did not put on record the fact that I am extremely grateful to most local authorities that did a very good job. One or two would not necessarily receive any accolades or gold stars and the Deputy knows of one such that I have in mind.

Photo of Eamon GilmoreEamon Gilmore (Dún Laoghaire, Labour)
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That is because the Minister did not like what the cathaoirleach had to say.

Photo of Dick RocheDick Roche (Minister, Department of Environment, Heritage and Local Government; Minister of State, Department of An Taoiseach; Wicklow, Fianna Fail)
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No.

Photo of Eamon GilmoreEamon Gilmore (Dún Laoghaire, Labour)
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The Minister got upset.

Photo of Dick RocheDick Roche (Minister, Department of Environment, Heritage and Local Government; Minister of State, Department of An Taoiseach; Wicklow, Fianna Fail)
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To be fair to the local authority, it accepted that it had made a mistake. Let us not quibble about it. Voter registration is a challenging issue, as is the question of registration fraud. The Deputy said that some people will not know if they are on the register until polling day. I will examine the idea of having a further publicity campaign to ask people to check the register.

Photo of Fergus O'DowdFergus O'Dowd (Louth, Fine Gael)
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I have been canvassing hard in my constituency, fighting for my political life like other TDs.

Photo of Eamon GilmoreEamon Gilmore (Dún Laoghaire, Labour)
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Join the club.

Photo of Dick RocheDick Roche (Minister, Department of Environment, Heritage and Local Government; Minister of State, Department of An Taoiseach; Wicklow, Fianna Fail)
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We know the Deputy is under pressure.

Photo of Fergus O'DowdFergus O'Dowd (Louth, Fine Gael)
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A lot of pressure. I am discovering that many young people who turned 18 after November 2006 are not registered. One of the difficulties is that when one gives them the supplementary register form and tells them they must go to the local Garda station, they are somewhat reluctant to do so. They want to be sure they will be welcome at a Garda station. In that context there should be certain hours during which a designated officer can deal with these matters. In that way, young people would not feel intimidated by the process. Alternatively, a garda could attend local authority offices on certain days in order to make the system less formal. At the same time, however, young people wishing to access the supplementary register must produce proof of identity. That is a key issue.

The Minister mentioned the possibility of a new publicity campaign but he should aim it at those who have recently turned 18 or will do so by polling day. In a survey of approximately 120 houses in my constituency, we found over 40 young people who had recently reached 18 years of age but were not registered to vote. They should be encouraged to get on the electoral register.

Photo of Dick RocheDick Roche (Minister, Department of Environment, Heritage and Local Government; Minister of State, Department of An Taoiseach; Wicklow, Fianna Fail)
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I do not disagree with anything the Deputy said. The whole point of introducing the supplementary register arrangements a few years ago was specifically to try to assist those people who had reached the age of majority to get on the voting register. We should examine anything that would make it easier for legitimate voters to register. The Minister of State, Deputy Batt O'Keeffe, has told me that community gardaí could play a role in that respect, as could civilian staff.

Photo of Fergus O'DowdFergus O'Dowd (Louth, Fine Gael)
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Yes. They would be the ideal people, rather than a Garda sergeant with all his buttons.

Photo of Dick RocheDick Roche (Minister, Department of Environment, Heritage and Local Government; Minister of State, Department of An Taoiseach; Wicklow, Fianna Fail)
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The Deputy is correct. The process should be made as informal as possible. I am not suggesting that all young people are frightened to go into a Garda station but the less formality one has the better. At the same time, we must protect the system against fraudulent registration.

Photo of Fergus O'DowdFergus O'Dowd (Louth, Fine Gael)
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The community garda is the answer.

Photo of Arthur MorganArthur Morgan (Louth, Sinn Fein)
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I acknowledge the hard work of many local authorities in trying to keep the electoral register right and in tidying up the mess that resulted from years of under-resourcing. There is a short timeframe during which people can apply for inclusion on the supplementary register. Would the Minister consider changing the format of the supplementary register whereby people could apply to a local authority and then appeal to the county registrar, pending the introduction of a rolling register? I would rather see a rolling register than the current fixed-time process. Given the turmoil we have come through, there are many people who are entitled to vote but who are not yet on the register. In order to facilitate them, the Minister should change the format for applying for inclusion on the supplementary register. That would offer an opportunity for such people to exercise their franchise.

Photo of Dick RocheDick Roche (Minister, Department of Environment, Heritage and Local Government; Minister of State, Department of An Taoiseach; Wicklow, Fianna Fail)
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There may well be some merit in the Deputy's point but it would require primary legislation. The Deputy will recall the debate we had in this House on that subject. One of the extraordinary things we discovered was that when we tried to make a modest change to allow for an extension of dates, which was something everyone in the House supported, we had to do so by legislation. We discovered that the electoral registration process is rigidly protected in primary law, and rightly so. We got the balance about right in terms of the supplementary register. Some protections must be in place, otherwise it would be wide open to abuse. I agree, however, that after the election we should all sit down in this House, and hopefully I will be in this seat at that time——

Photo of Fergus O'DowdFergus O'Dowd (Louth, Fine Gael)
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Deputy Roche will be over here.

Photo of Dick RocheDick Roche (Minister, Department of Environment, Heritage and Local Government; Minister of State, Department of An Taoiseach; Wicklow, Fianna Fail)
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Maybe not but that is a matter for the people to decide, rather than the Deputy or myself.

Photo of Arthur MorganArthur Morgan (Louth, Sinn Fein)
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Some of them cannot vote.

Photo of Dick RocheDick Roche (Minister, Department of Environment, Heritage and Local Government; Minister of State, Department of An Taoiseach; Wicklow, Fianna Fail)
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I strongly believe that the electoral registration process is something we should take out of party politics. We should have cross-party agreement on it and do the job as soon as the election is over.

Photo of Eamon GilmoreEamon Gilmore (Dún Laoghaire, Labour)
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It would be interesting to hear some details from Deputy Morgan as to how his ideas on the supplementary register might work in practice, and how people might go about being registered under the system he has described.

As regards the figures provided by the Minister and the comparisons to which I have drawn attention, is it not the case that we still have a problem? We are still not sure if the register is accurate. Does the Minister regret not having accepted the recommendation by the Labour Party at the beginning of last year whereby all this could have been avoided? We could have an accurate register now if the Minister had used the census system to assemble it.

Photo of Dick RocheDick Roche (Minister, Department of Environment, Heritage and Local Government; Minister of State, Department of An Taoiseach; Wicklow, Fianna Fail)
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I was open to any suggestion that would work.

Photo of Eamon GilmoreEamon Gilmore (Dún Laoghaire, Labour)
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The Minister was not at the time.

Photo of Dick RocheDick Roche (Minister, Department of Environment, Heritage and Local Government; Minister of State, Department of An Taoiseach; Wicklow, Fianna Fail)
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I made the point that it simply was not possible or appropriate to run the census-gathering exercise at the same time, as part of the registration process. The Deputy and I disagreed on that matter. The advice I received and international practice suggest that was not a practical solution. I was and still am very open to any means of further improving the matter and this will still be the case with the new Fianna Fáil-led Government after the election.