Dáil debates

Friday, 4 July 2014

Electoral (Amendment) (Hours of Polling) Bill 2013: Second Stage [Private Members]


12:50 pm

Photo of Andrew DoyleAndrew Doyle (Wicklow, Fine Gael)
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I move: "That the Bill be now read a Second Time."

I thank the Whips office for scheduling this legislation. The Electoral (Amendment) (Hours of Polling) Bill 2013 sets down, in statute, fixed hours for voting in all elections and referenda at polling stations between 7 a.m. and 10 p.m. Given that the desire for political reform has never been stronger and the fact we have Friday sittings, which allow us to introduce legislation such as that just introduced by Deputy Cowen, I decided to avail of the opportunity to take an initial step to clarify some aspects of Irish electoral law.

The Title of this Bill is:

An Act to set voting hours for Dáil Elections, Dáil Bye-Elections, Presidential Elections, European Parliament Elections, Local Government Elections and Referenda as being 7.00 a.m. to 10.00 p.m. and for that purpose to amend the Electoral Act 1992, Presidential Elections Act 1993, Referendum Act 1994, European Parliament Elections Act 1997 and the Local Government Act 2001 and to provide for related matters.
Under the current law, the Minister for the Environment, Community and Local Government sets the hours of polling at elections and referenda within certain parameters, that is, that it must be for at least 12 hours. The existing law requires that voting be conducted between 7 a.m. and 10.30 p.m., for a period of not less than 12 hours.

Increasing and maintaining voting hours would have a positive influence on a sizable section of the electorate who are sometimes described as "circumstantial abstainers". They have been estimated to make up two out of every three non-voters. Some 15 hours of polling, a recently established trend, would certainly have a positive impact on the level of turnout among this section of the population, in particular in commuter counties. Voter participation in all aspects of the democratic process is important for our democracy.

I have seen instances where people who have been inadvertently or wrongly struck off the electoral register have turned up to vote, where people have been moved from one polling station to another one but there is not enough time to get to it and where people have found the polling hours have been curtailed. I have seen how upset they get, and rightly so. Increasing and maintaining voting hours will have a positive influence on the electorate on polling days.

Under the current law, the Minister for the Environment, Community and Local Government sets out the hours at his or her discretion, subject to electoral law. There is no provision for set or fixed hours of polling at Irish elections or referendums, which is not the norm in EU member states. An inherent problem with the electoral process in Ireland is that there are 31 different Acts and more than 70 statutory instruments covering election law. This makes it very difficult to follow. Such a multiplicity of legislation is not desirable and, as such, there is a reasonable case to be made for legislative consolidation in this area to clarify the rules and to make the voting process more open, understandable and accessible for citizens and voters.

Increasing and maintaining voting hours would have a positive impact among that section of voters to whom I referred to earlier, in particular in commuter counties. In recent years, in particular since 2008, a common trend has been established under different governments where the hours of polling have been 7 a.m. to 10 p.m. on one day. However, the current Government, in the 2012 children's rights referendum and in the 2013 Meath East by-election reduced the hours from 9 a.m. to 10 p.m. and 8 a.m. to 9 p.m., respectively, which led to a certain amount of confusion. As someone who was involved in the Meath East by-election, I remember people being very surprised they did not have that extra hour in which to vote. It does not benefit any party or give any section of the electorate an advantage but the people who commute are generally the ones to lose out.

Some counties have very high commuter populations, in particular counties Wicklow, Kildare, Meath and Louth which surround the capital. For many citizens living in these areas, the most convenient time to vote is early in the morning on their way to work in the greater Dublin area or late in the evening on their way home from work. When the hours of polling are cut at either end, this has a disproportionate negative effect on people living in these areas, thus hampering their ability to vote.

Voter turnout on recent days of polling has reached lows where hours of polling were cut.

In Donegal South-West during the children's referendum in 2012, turnout barely reached 24% while in Galway East it reached 28%. I accept that other factors may have been responsible for the low turnout but the result of the election was more marginal than expected. For that particular referendum, just over one third of eligible voters cast their votes nationally. In the Meath East by-election in 2013, when the polling hours were reduced, the turnout did not even reach 40%. Given the considerable focus on the by-election, the turnout was surprising.

The hours of polling as they stand are at the sole discretion of the Minister for the Environment, Community and Local Government of the day. When a Minister signs a polling order for an election or referendum, he or she can decide which hours to choose within the parameters of current electoral law. Changing hours of polling from election to election, as is currently permitted, creates voter confusion and probably results in lower turnouts. As such, there are inherent problems with our current system.

I will outline the provisions of the Bill. Section 1 seeks to amend section 96(1)(b) of the Electoral Act 1992 by replacing the existing text of the provision with the new text that provides that voting in a Dáil election, including a Dáil by-election, must be conducted between 7 a.m. and 10 p.m. Section 2 seeks to amend section 7(b) of the Presidential Elections Act 1993 by replacing the existing text of the provision with a new text which provides that voting in a presidential election must be conducted between 7 a.m. and 10 p.m. Section 3 seeks to amend section 13(b) of the Referendum Act 1994, by replacing the existing text of the provision with a new text which provides that voting must be conducted between 7 a.m. and 10 p.m. Section 4 seeks to amend section 10(1)(b) of the European Parliament Elections Act 1997 by replacing the existing text of the provision with a new text which provides that voting in the European Parliament election must be conducted between 7 a.m. and 10 p.m. Section 5 seeks to amend section 26(2) of the Local Government Act 2001 by replacing the existing text of the provision with a new text which provides that voting in local government elections must be conducted between 7 a.m. and 10 p.m. Section 6(1) sets out the Short Title and section 6(2) provides that the collective citation of each Bill will be with the relevant collection of Acts.

The provisions in the Bill aim to consolidate all elections and referenda into a single governing piece of legislation dictating the hours of polling. I would love to have been able to say we would dictate the day but I understand that is not reasonable, in so far as we cannot always be sure. However, other countries do so. Some countries even hold elections over two days. That is something we could consider. We seek to harmonise European law in many ways and in many European countries Saturday and Sunday are the chosen days for holding elections. However, a few schools might be disappointed if we did that.

The Bill seeks to remove the confusion that currently arises by providing in law set hours as I outlined. The Bill removes the Minister's discretion and places the hours of polling on a statutory footing. We have parameters but we do not have definite hours. As of May 2013, a total of 31 Acts concerned with electoral matters are in force and 77 related statutory instruments. The franchise section of the Department of the Environment, Community and Local Government, which manages elections in the country, has no current plans to consolidate such complex legislation. Such a move to consolidate this area would be warmly welcomed by the general public for reasons of access and transparency in the Irish electoral system.

I am very appreciative of the research carried out by the library and research service, providing details of the voting hours for elections across Europe. The information is based on a survey of EU member states conducted through the European Centre for Parliamentary Research and Documentation, ECPRD, in September 2013. The purpose of the Bill is a voter facilitation measure and will provide in statute for fixed hours of polling between the hours of 7 a.m. and 10 p.m.

The Government has taken numerous steps to reform and improve the political system. I believe the Bill I have published will positively contribute to the agenda of political reform. The Bill is both important and timely. The measures it contains are needed, and will make a very positive contribution to electoral turnout and participation, cut down on confusion and keep us in line with polling mechanisms across Europe. I look forward to hearing the views of Members and to having positive discussions on the proposals and amendments contained in the Bill. I am not sure whether it is allowed, but I thank Graham Butler and Brian Hunt for all their help in drafting the legislation. I commend the Bill to the House

1:00 pm

Photo of Fergus O'DowdFergus O'Dowd (Louth, Fine Gael)
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I welcome the debate. Voter participation continues to be a major challenge for everyone involved in the democratic process and any recommendations as to how we can stimulate greater participation is very much worthy of consideration. This Private Members' Bill is part of the debate and, accordingly, the Government does not propose to oppose it. The stated purpose of the Bill is to promote greater voter participation. I agree with the view expressed in the explanatory memorandum that voter participation is a core part of our democracy but we are not necessarily convinced that fixing the polling hours only, as proposed in the Bill, will deliver the increased voter participation we all wish to see.

The electoral code already provides for a fixed period of polling on all occasions. A period of at least 12 hours between the hours of 7 a.m. and 10.30 p.m. must be provided. Apart from that, it is then at the discretion of the Minister for the Environment, Community and Local Government of the day to decide what additional hours, if any, are required. For most elections in recent years, polling stations have been open for 15 hours between 7 a.m. and 10 p.m. We must consider whether we wish to lock ourselves into that arrangement for all future elections or if we wish to continue with the existing arrangements, which embrace a degree of flexibility around a minimum 12-hour polling period.

Voter participation is a complex issue. Undoubtedly, polling hours play a part, in particular for voters who, as Deputy Doyle outlined, live in the commuter belt, as I do. I acknowledge his point. There are other variables that influence people. The issue is deeper than just one of polling hours alone. Other factors that may come into play include possible alienation from the political system and the value people place on playing their part in the democratic process. Of relevance also are the issues at stake in the particular election or referendum and people's interest in and understanding of those issues. The reality is that voter participation is very likely to be influenced by a combination of factors.

When we look at turnout figures at elections and referenda in recent years, there is no discernible positive correlation between polling hours and turnout. I will outline a couple of examples. Turnout at the Meath East by-election in March 2013 was 38.29% when polling stations were open for 13 hours. Turnout in the autumn 2013 referendums was only marginally higher, at 39.17% and 39.15%, when polling stations were open for 15 hours. Turnout at the most recent poll in the local election in the Ballybay-Clones local electoral area in County Monaghan was 58.49% when polling stations were open for 14 hours on a Saturday. Turnout at the recent European Parliament elections was lower at 52.44%, when polling stations were open for 15 hours on a Friday. When comparisons are made between the turnout at referendums in recent years, where polling stations were open for 15 hours from 7 a.m. to 10 p.m., the turnout figures vary and considerably so in some cases. For example, turnout at the second referendum on the Lisbon treaty in 2009 was 59% while turnout for the referendum on the abolition of the Seanad in October 2013 was 39.17%.

Turnout at the most recent general election was 69.9%, when polling stations were also open for 15 hours.

These examples suggest that factors other than polling hours are at play in determining the turnout. One of these must be the interest of people in the issue at stake. The highest turnout at any election or referendum since 2008 was the 69.9% turnout at the 2011 general election, which clearly captured the people's imagination. The relative importance or significance of the issue was also reflected in the turnout figures at the two Lisbon treaty referendums. The turnout at the referendum in June 2008 was 53.13%, when the people rejected the proposal, and it was 59% in October 2009 when the people accepted the proposal. Both polls were for a period of 15 hours, so factors wider than hours alone influenced voter participation.

It is interesting to note the post-campaign research on voter turnout undertaken by successive referendum commissions. According to the research undertaken following the autumn 2013 referendums, asked why they had not voted, 32% of those surveyed in the case of the abolition of the Seanad, and 30% in the case of the Court of Appeal, stated they had no interest in the issues and "weren't bothered to vote". The same research revealed that 25% of those surveyed were too busy to vote and 35% to 37% felt uninformed on the issues on which they were being asked to vote. The post-campaign research undertaken after the children's referendum revealed that 19% of those surveyed had no interest, 26% were too busy and 34% felt uninformed.

While focussed on referendum issues, the post-referendum research highlights the wider issues at play when voter participation is being considered. Successive Governments have been concerned to stimulate greater voter participation. The referendum commission has the function of promoting awareness of referendums and encouraging citizens to vote. Other measures include the display of a large print copy of ballot papers at polling stations to assist the visually impaired; provisions for photographs and party emblems on ballot papers; companion voting for persons with literacy difficulties; and support for election candidates posting election literature to voters.

The register of electors also has a role to play. Clearly, one cannot vote if one is not on the register. Over the years, the Department of the Environment, Community and Local Government and registration authorities have taken initiatives to encourage more people to register. Initiatives have been to make it easier for people to exercise their right to be on the register when election times come around. Information leaflets on the registration process are available in 17 different languages on the Department's website. Multilingual prompt cards are available to assist local authority staff and the various nationalities living in Ireland who wish to register to vote. When an election or referendum takes place, the Department of the Environment, Community and Local Government places advertisements in the national newspapers. These advise anyone who is not on the register to apply for inclusion in the supplement to the register so that they can vote at the impending election or referendum.

The current flexibility to decide what additional hours, if any, should be allowed for polling at elections and referendums has other benefits. Polling stations were open for a period of 13 hours at the children's referendum in 2012. The poll was taken on a Saturday between the hours of 9 a.m. and 10 p.m. It was felt that the later start of 9 a.m. was appropriate to a Saturday when most people were not at work. This approach generated savings of approximately €640,000 on staff costs compared to the previous referendum, where the poll was taken between 7 a.m. and 10 p.m. In the Meath East by-election in March 2013, the poll was taken between the hours of 8 a.m. and 9 p.m. and savings of an estimated €14,000 on staff costs were generated. The scope to generate savings where the circumstances are appropriate to do so provides a further argument for retaining the current flexibility to fix polling hours on each occasion.

We need to continually examine and remove any unnecessary impediments to greater voter participation and to explore new ways of encouraging people to exercise their mandate. The explanatory memorandum to Deputy Doyle's Bill suggests that the desire for political reform has never been more in demand. I concur with this view. Over the past three years, the Government has spearheaded much-needed electoral reform. This has included a complete overhaul of the political funding and donations regime, provision for a reduction in the number of Deputies to be elected to the next Dáil, revised rules for calling by-elections and reviews of electoral boundaries at all levels. More recently, legislation to repeal the prohibition on people who are bankrupt from standing for election was enacted. In total, seven separate pieces of electoral legislation have been enacted since the Government took office in 2011 and further reforms are planned.

The establishment of an electoral commission is a further significant reform to which the Government is committed. The Constitutional Convention recommended that an electoral commission should be established and this has been accepted by the Government. The chairman of the referendum commissions for the autumn 2013 referendums also suggested that an electoral commission could be tasked with examining the area of low voter turnout. Establishing an electoral commission will involve detailed and considerable work. The necessary policy analysis and preparatory work for the presentation of options is planned for advancement later this year. I look forward to the debate on the Bill which, as I stated, the Government is not opposing.

1:10 pm

Photo of Barry CowenBarry Cowen (Laois-Offaly, Fianna Fail)
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Like others, I compliment and commend Deputy Doyle on bringing forward the Electoral (Amendment) (Hours of Polling) Bill and acknowledge his contribution to the Government's commitments in this area, although it has not necessarily done what it said it would do. The previous speaker outlined some minor amendments it has made and pointed to them as huge success. I seek to differ.

We support the Bill. Standardising voting hours for all elections will help encourage easier access to the polls for voters. The Minister of State alluded to the fact that much more needs to be done to engage the electorate. He stated the Government is committed to establishing an independent electoral commission. It should be established to oversee all elections and commit to increasing participation levels.

The cynical broken promises on political reform by the Government have only deepened political disillusionment with the political process. For our part we have published comprehensive proposals to reform the political system from local government up and fundamentally empower citizens. While the proposition on polling hours is commendable, it is only a minor part of what must be a far bigger effort. The 15 hour period is significantly above the European average, but this does not mean it is wrong. It definitely needs to be set in stone. The Bill could go further and set out a standard voting day, such as at the weekend, to encourage greater numbers of younger voters to participate. This could and should be addressed by the Government on Committee Stage, having accepted the Bill this morning. Polling hours go only a small way towards explaining the broader decline in voter participation. Rising political disillusionment was evident not only in the by-election and some of the referendums, but also in the local and European elections in May. This continues to reflect the broader malaise which exists in politics.

The Government must move forward on the establishment of an independent electoral commission, having committed to it and recommitted to it again today, to oversee elections and drive on public engagement. This is not the first time I have heard a Minister of State say the Government is committed to it, but it needs to be backed up with action. In the immediate aftermath of the local and European elections, the Minister, Deputy Charles Flanagan, spoke about this, and now that he is in Cabinet I am sure he will drive it.

The series of broken promises by the Government on the so-called democratic revolution which was promised has further compounded the worrying trends in disengagement. Based on being the constructive opposition we believe ourselves to be, we have tabled comprehensive proposals to seek to ensure politics is revamped from the bottom up, with citizens at the heart of the process. The Government's failings on political reform need to be highlighted in this forum and many others. I will not miss the opportunity on this occasion.

Fine Gael together with Labour promised a democratic revolution, but their record has been disappointing with a series of broken promises. The voters entrusted the Government parties with the task of restoring the political system, as they promised to do, but they have been bitterly disappointed. It has proved a disillusioning experience for them, as borne out in recent elections.

The Government launched a failed power grab in trying to abolish the Seanad and it fatally undermined its own banking inquiry by parachuting Government Members on to it when it did not get the majority it so wished.

1:20 pm

Photo of Fergus O'DowdFergus O'Dowd (Louth, Fine Gael)
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If Fianna Fáil had not wrecked the economy, we would not need it.

Photo of Barry CowenBarry Cowen (Laois-Offaly, Fianna Fail)
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That has fatally undermined that inquiry. We will play our part, as we have said all along, in that process. Many Members present and past look forward to that opportunity, but they do not look forward to it in the context of a political show trial the Government has ensured it has become. The Minister of State is not on his own in the little comment he just made in adding to people's impression on that. That has come from the top down I am afraid and I cannot be surprised by any comments he might make in response to the accusation, which is not just my opinion but that of the vast majority of people. The Minister of State has walked himself into that realm.

Photo of Frank FeighanFrank Feighan (Roscommon-South Leitrim, Fine Gael)
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The Deputy is straying from the Bill.

Photo of Barry CowenBarry Cowen (Laois-Offaly, Fianna Fail)
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No, I do not think so. We are talking about political reform here, a Chathaoirligh.

Photo of Frank FeighanFrank Feighan (Roscommon-South Leitrim, Fine Gael)
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I understand the Deputy is straying from the Bill. He should stick to the Bill.

Photo of Barry CowenBarry Cowen (Laois-Offaly, Fianna Fail)
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The Government has systematically broken its programme for Government pledge on political reform. It committed not to guillotine Bills and the record shows that 63% of legislation has been guillotined to date.

Photo of Frank FeighanFrank Feighan (Roscommon-South Leitrim, Fine Gael)
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We are talking about the hours of polling. I ask the Deputy to stick to that.

Photo of Barry CowenBarry Cowen (Laois-Offaly, Fianna Fail)
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Amendment to the hours of polling was part of a political reform process and I commend the Deputy on introducing his Bill to address that element of it. The commitment to a political reform agenda is vaster than that. It is only right to put those points in context.

There was a commitment to allow only two weeks between Stages of Bills, which has failed in 78% of Bills introduced to date. The Topical Issue debate has descended into farce with relevant Ministers failing to turn up in 40% of cases. This Friday sitting unfortunately contains no votes or questioning of Ministers and is merely an exercise in registering a sitting day in order to compare and contrast with previous amounts of sitting days with no reference to the content or context of what happens on those days.

The Government promised to rid the system of cronyism in State board appointments but it has ignored its open public process in this regard. In recent weeks we have seen Ministers appointing failed election candidates to various boards. I suppose there is nothing worse than the sting of a dying bee. That appears to be the rule of thumb with some of those appointments in recent weeks.

As the Acting Chairman said, I may have strayed, in his opinion, from the agenda.

Photo of Frank FeighanFrank Feighan (Roscommon-South Leitrim, Fine Gael)
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The Deputy definitely strayed. It is not my opinion. We are dealing with a Private Members' Bill.

Photo of Barry CowenBarry Cowen (Laois-Offaly, Fianna Fail)
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It is the Acting Chairman's right to believe that. However, this proposal has been made in the context of the political reform agenda. It is only right and proper that I take the opportunity to inform the House on the public record and by association the vast majority of the public and the electorate of the failure of the Government to live up to many of its commitments to the public to create what would be known as a political revolution based on the agenda the Government parties had pursued prior to coming into office. As I have said, it has failed dismally. I hope the Committee Stage of this Bill in its own right might be the catalyst for the Government eventually entering into real engagement about what might be seen as political reform.

Photo of John O'MahonyJohn O'Mahony (Mayo, Fine Gael)
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I am grateful for the opportunity to support Deputy Doyle's Bill. I was under the impression that the polling stations for all recent elections had been open from 7 a.m. to 10 p.m. However, I did not realise that the hours were changed for the children's rights referendum and the Meath East by-election. It is a small but important point to bring certainty and avoid confusion. It will enable people to do the most precious thing that democracy brings, which is to cast their votes. As Deputy Doyle pointed out, it allows people in commuter areas and so on to get to the polling booths to vote.

I agree with some other speakers that considerably more needs to be done. For a number of years since I got involved actively in politics, I have supported the idea of weekend elections. I cannot see any reason for not holding elections on Saturdays. One of the referendums was held on a Saturday to test the waters. However, the only way really to test the waters is by holding a general election on a Saturday. Referendums do not do that because the patterns in referendums are totally different from those in general or local elections. Changes are also needed in how we deal with electoral registers and postal voting. I was not present in the Chamber when Deputy Tony McLoughlin raised issues about things that happened with the electoral register in Sligo-Leitrim in the recent local elections and people who voted and did not vote. I was amazed to read about it the following week in the Leitrim Observer. It needs to be fully investigated because democracy is very precious and everything should be done to ensure it is carried out in a transparent and accountable way. Some countries even have compulsory voting.

I very much support the Bill and I suggest that many other things should also be done. I nearly fell off my chair listening to Deputy Cowen, for whom I have good respect, talking about the Government's lack of reform. I was only elected in 2007, but I have followed events during all those years and I have doubts about the credibility of his party. It has a Bill to build democracy from the bottom up. In the past 20 years it destroyed it from the top down. The son of the late Tom Gilmartin appeared on a recent "Late Late Show". Based on the picture that painted of how the country was run over those years, it was not political reform that was being practised in those years, but political corruption. I will leave it at that, but I was absolutely astounded.

It is a pity to raise that in a debate like this. We are here on a Friday because of some political reform that has been carried out. We can argue that all sides make mistakes and may not do enough or whatever it is. However, it ill behoves people who destroyed many systems to criticise others for not totally reforming it in three years.

Photo of Frank FeighanFrank Feighan (Roscommon-South Leitrim, Fine Gael)
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The Deputy might stick to the Bill.

Photo of John O'MahonyJohn O'Mahony (Mayo, Fine Gael)
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I will do that exactly and I will finish on that note.

Photo of Terence FlanaganTerence Flanagan (Dublin North East, Independent)
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I also welcome the Bill which proposes to set out in statute that poling should take place between 7 a.m. and 10 p.m. As Deputy Doyle has stated, this would effectively take the power out of the hands the Minister for the Environment, Community and Local Government, who changes from time to time the voting hours. The Bill would remove that uncertainty.

It is a sensible proposal whereby people would know that for all elections, polling hours would be between 7 a.m. and 10 p.m. This undoubtedly would have an effect on people, would give them greater certainty and would ensure that those who live in commuting counties in particular would have an opportunity to vote. The proposal in this Bill is to have 15 hours of voting, which would undoubtedly have a positive effect.

If one considers the position in other countries around Europe, the actual day of the week on which voting will take place and the hours thereof are established in law. The issue of postal voting also must be considered, as the provisions in Ireland are extremely strict and rigid. However, if one examines how postal voting operates in the United Kingdom and other parts of Europe, an opportunity should be there for people who, through no fault of their own are unable to be present on the day of an election to vote. Advance voting is another tool used by other countries and may be something the Minister of State could consider.

If one considers the issue of voting and turnout, the 50% participation rate achieved in the most recent local and European elections is not exactly great. It is not a ringing endorsement of people's opinion on politics that they have not engaged fully in the political process. There are problems and difficulties in this respect and this is why the Bill states that at present, Ireland lacks an independent electoral commission. This obviously is a major oversight that must be addressed by the Government. If one seeks to improve democratic participation, a full-time and adequately resourced electoral commission will educate and explain to people how important it is to vote. It will explain that the voters have the ultimate say as to what type of government they want and that they should engage adequately in that process. In his opening remarks, Deputy Doyle mentioned that the turnout in the Meath East by-election, for which the voting hours were reduced, did not even reach 40%, which obviously is quite worrying. Were an electoral commission to be set up in the immediate future, perhaps it should examine the issue of voting over weekends. Were elections to be held over Saturday and Sunday, people would have full opportunity to exercise their vote and this might help matters. However, the proposed hours, from 7 a.m. to 10 p.m., are very sensible.

An electoral commission obviously would examine the issue of voter registration and the personal public service, PPS, number system appears to be the best way to deal with it. Were the political will there, the Minister would deal with the already-existing privacy concerns regarding the Department of Social Protection in this area, in order that information that already is being captured on one system could be used on the other system. All Members have encountered constituents who have been extremely disappointed by not being able to vote at election time. Such people have approached Members and basically could not understand why they were not on the electoral register. I believe that having one's personal vote linked to a PPS number would help the situation.

If the Government is serious about political reform, it must give consideration to same-day elections for the Dáil and the Seanad to give real legitimacy to the Upper House. The referendum on the Seanad was held recently and the people have decided on that. However, every member of the public quite properly should have a say in the Seanad election, which should be taken a lot more seriously than is the case at present. The Minister could easily initiate an order to the effect that this election take place over the same period as the general election to the Dáil. An electoral commission also should be charged with sending out to voters one item of communication that would outline the ballot papers on which the voters actually will be voting. This perhaps also might include a small biography of each of the candidates because people are very unsure. Recently, during the local and European elections, voters did not know which candidates were taking part in which elections. There is complete duplication and waste of money at present in respect of the litir um thoghchán. While I am glad that only one such letter is going to each household from each candidate, there is a series of communications from each candidate to each household. This is extremely costly and as my colleagues in the Reform Alliance have suggested, there is an opportunity to achieve economies of scale in this regard. This is a matter that must be considered by an electoral commission.

I also wish to raise the practice of postering, which is a huge health and safety issue. As a candidate, one dreads being obliged to organise and supervise this practice. No doubt all Members will have heard stories of near-misses involving people on ladders seeking to erect posters in the most difficult of locations. This is another issue that an electoral commission could examine and perhaps it could put into place what happens in other countries, such as France or Spain, where there are designated billboards on which a poster is put up for each candidate and that, more or less, is it. Such a practice would make more sense and the public probably would accept it because the waste of money that is involved here is very annoying for the public. It is a concern because some people are of the opinion that the State is subsidising and paying for postering for candidates, which is not fully the case.

The largest six political parties received almost €13 million in taxpayers' money last year. Most of the political parties - certainly the two largest - have made a commitment that their political party accounts will be made available online and that the public will be able to view the income, expenditure and balance sheets of each political party. Unfortunately, this has not happened, as the political will is not or has not been there in this case. This is another bone of contention the public has, as does the Standards in Public Office Commission, SIPO. It appeared recently in the media that despite legislation being enacted to the effect that political parties would publish their audited accounts for 2014, the current Minister for the Environment, Community and Local Government has refused to sign the guidelines regarding the implementation, as set out by SIPO, regarding the publication of annual accounts by parties.

People seek transparency and accountability and one must ask the question continuously as to why people are not engaging in the political system. They are concerned that there is too much privacy and too much concealing of information as to what is going on within politics in general. There is another issue whereby political parties are accepting moneys for Members who are no longer members of those political parties. Although a series of amendments were put to the Minister in that regard, sadly he did not accept them. At the end of each calendar year, political party funding and leader's allowance funding should be based on the members of each party who are present at the end of each calendar year. That is a fairer way of doing business, rather than the current position.

Overall, I accept and support this sensible Bill introduced by Deputy Doyle. As the Deputy mentions that his proposed legislation contains measures affecting five different Acts, the Bills Office or those involved in drafting might give consideration to creating consolidated legislation in the future regarding the electoral Acts.

1:30 pm

Photo of Jerry ButtimerJerry Buttimer (Cork South Central, Fine Gael)
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I welcome the opportunity to speak on this important Bill and commend Deputy Doyle on it. The democratic process is very important and voter participation in our democracy is of paramount importance.

I support the idea of having fixed polling and a fixed polling day, for example, a Saturday or Sunday or perhaps even a Friday. This issue should be discussed and Deputy Andrew Doyle is to be commended on providing Deputies with an opportunity to do so.

Previous speakers discussed the process of registering electors. I recall walking in New York one Saturday and being struck by how engaged people were with a registration drive being held by the Democratic Party on a city street. Perhaps we could hold such registration drives as a way of engaging with people and ensuring the electoral system is open and transparent. The Bill offers us an opportunity to discuss these issues.

I am disappointed by the tenor of the remarks made by Deputy Cowen on political reform. This Government has introduced more political reform than Fianna Fáil-led Administrations introduced in a decade and a half. I challenge the Deputy to debate political reform with me in any forum.

I hope the debate on this Bill will include a discussion on the location of polling stations. I will pose a question on which I do not have a fixed opinion. Should we use schools as polling stations or would it be preferable to use other premises for that purpose?

The day that is set for polling is important. The holding of by-elections on a Saturday was cited and the Minister of State noted the high turnout in a recent election in the Ballybay-Clones electoral district where the polls were open for 15 hours. From speaking to many polling clerks and presiding officers, I am aware that election days are long. Nevertheless, we must ensure that polling hours are sufficiently flexible to accommodate those living in the commuter belt, urban centres and rural areas as well as those who are working. We must also address the fact that people who are on holidays on polling day or travelling abroad for work reasons cannot vote.

The Constitutional Convention, in its meetings in 2013, discussed the Dáil electoral system. The convention was an important element of political reform, to which Deputy Cowen did not refer, which increased citizens' engagement with the democratic process. The Government has an obligation to respond to its reports and has already done so in some cases. A proposal to establish an independent electoral commission received 97% support at the convention, while the option of extending polling hours and increasing the number of polling days received 89% support. It is interesting that the majority of citizens in attendance wanted to have longer polling days and an independent electoral commission. The Government's political reforms include its proposal to establish an electoral commission, the introduction of gender quotas, a reduction in the number of Deputies and the referendum on the abolition of the Seanad, which was defeated by the electorate. The introduction of Friday sittings gives Deputies an opportunity to discuss legislation proposed by individual Deputies, including this Bill on the electoral system.

I support the Bill and hope the Government will go further by reviewing the days and times of polling. Before it proceeds to the next Stage, I ask the Government to consult presiding officers and polling clerks to ascertain their views on how to reform and improve the polling system. Many of these men and women have sat at desks in polling stations over a number of electoral cycles and will have views on the issue. The Bill is worthy of support and I commend Deputy Doyle on its introduction.

1:40 pm

Photo of Frank FeighanFrank Feighan (Roscommon-South Leitrim, Fine Gael)
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I welcome this important Bill and thank Deputy Andrew Doyle for the work he has done in preparing it. The purpose of the legislation is to try to connect people to various aspects of the electoral system. People are turning off elections. In the past, people took a great interest in politics and knew who their local politicians were. Politics has become much more controversial and assumed "X-Factor" characteristics in recent years. The Government and all politicians must try to ensure that everyone aged 18 years and over - some argue the voting age should be reduced - gets out and votes.

I used to be a member of a traders' organisation in my home town. We tried to hold meetings at times that allowed traders to attend. For example, we used to hold breakfast meetings and sometimes met at 6 p.m. on week days or 8.30 a.m. on Sundays. Regardless of what time we set, it never suited some people. I always made the point that if we offered the people who never came an incentive of €1,000 to attend, they would show up at 3 p.m. on Christmas Day if necessary. This ambivalence applies also to elections. Polling hours of 7 a.m. to 10 p.m. or extending polling to two days would still not suit some people. An incentive is required. In some countries, people are penalised for not exercising the right to vote. We must examine all options.

The electoral register has been skewed throughout the 15 year period I have been in politics. Many of the names on the register should not be on it and many people are not on it who should be on it. I do not have a solution to the problem. I am often asked why a person is not on the electoral register given that he or she has been living in the same house since birth. When I ask whether the person has received a letter about the electoral register, I am told that he or she did not respond to it. We all have a responsibility to check whether our name features on the electoral register. Before the most recent election, I had to check whether my own name was on it because I had been telling everyone else to do so and would have been embarrassed if my name was not on it.

Having represented two counties, I am aware that it was much easier to obtain a postal vote in one county than in the other. This issue has not been addressed. People who are on holidays on election day should not be entitled to a postal vote. If an election is called, people should be able to work around their holidays. While I have not considered the issue at any great length, I fear that people would simply apply for a postal vote and go on holiday.

It is cheap to argue that the Government has not introduced electoral reform. My home town of Boyle had the only town council in my constituency. The Government has abolished town and urban councils and decided, in the interests of fairness to areas with larger populations, to reduce the number of seats on Roscommon County Council from 28 to 18 seats. The number of seats on the country council in Leitrim, which I also represented, has been reduced from 22 to 18 and across the border in County Sligo the number of seats on the council has been cut from 25 to 18. These changes affected the number of councillors from my party who were elected as some councillors with a rural base did not secure a sufficient number of votes to get elected.

The Government has introduced significant electoral reform and lost a large number of councillors as a result. For example, the Fine Gael Party holds only ten council seats in three county councils in which it previously held 30 seats. While I accept that the electorate voted against the Government parties, the reforms we introduced did not help the re-election prospects of many councillors.

The number of Deputies in the Dáil will be reduced from 166 to 158 following the next election. In order to reduce the number further, a referendum will be required. I currently represent the constituency of Roscommon-South Leitrim. After the next general election, it will be the Roscommon-East Galway constituency. I am looking forward to meeting the lovely people in east Galway.

1:50 pm

Photo of Fergus O'DowdFergus O'Dowd (Louth, Fine Gael)
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Photo of Frank FeighanFrank Feighan (Roscommon-South Leitrim, Fine Gael)
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As I tell everyone, I am now a great Galway hurling supporter. However, I am also a great supporter of Leitrim because the people of that country helped to elect me on two occasions. They have been very good to me.

The Taoiseach gave a commitment prior to the most recent general election that he would put the question of abolishing the Seanad to the people in a referendum. That was a very brave and unselfish move. The people voted to retain the Upper House, as was their right. This was not a grab for power, rather it was an attempt to try to open up democracy. The people voted on the matter and I appreciate that.

I again welcome the Bill and commend it to the House.

Photo of John Paul PhelanJohn Paul Phelan (Carlow-Kilkenny, Fine Gael)
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I commend Deputy Doyle on introducing this Bill, which I support. It is the first step in reforming how we run elections and I congratulate him on it.

I am of the view that a 15-hour working day is very long. While I tend to agree with the point Deputy Buttimer made regarding how we, as practising politicians, are used to dealing with presiding officers and clerks at polling stations at general elections, local elections, presidential elections, European elections and referendums, we must ensure that the hours during which polling stations remain open are uniform and standardised in order that people might have an expectation as to the period during which they might cast their votes. I agree with other speakers in the context of having a set day for polling. I have always supported the idea of polling at weekends. It may perhaps be the case that Friday is the best day for polling but in continental Europe elections often take place over two days, namely, Saturday and Sunday. The practice of holding elections on Tuesdays or Thursdays disenfranchises people and it should not continue.

I wholeheartedly support the commitment in the programme for Government in respect of establishing an electoral commission. The electoral register in my area - I am sure the position is the same elsewhere - is in pretty poor condition. The official turnout in recent elections was between 50% and 60% but I believe the real figure is much higher than that. The names of quite a number of people on electoral registers should not be because those individuals may be deceased or they may have moved. In addition, people's names are on registers in several locations. In the past, rate collectors who knew the streets in their parishes and neighbourhoods very well would ensure that the names of people who turned 18 were placed on the electoral register. That system worked very well. The current state of the register is a symptom of the way in which society has changed. It is often the case that we do not know our neighbours as well as we would have in the past. The position of local authority rate collector is now dormant and, as a result, electoral registers in many areas are no longer fit for purpose.

We often refer to the need for joined-up thinking in government. Everybody's official information is known by one or other arm of the State. It should not, therefore, be beyond the bounds of possibility that when a person turns 18 years of age, his or her name should be placed on the electoral register. I do not understand why that cannot happen. When people move location, obviously there is an onus on them to inform the authorities that they have done so. If individuals make the effort to place their names on the electoral register at their new location, they are often placed on a supplemental register. When the next election or referendum is held, upon arriving at their local polling stations they discover that their names are no longer on the register. Some of them may still be listed on the register in the areas in which they previously lived but, worst of all, others have discovered that they are not listed anywhere and, as a result, they do not have a vote at all. I have come across quite a few cases of this on recent polling days.

Deputy Terence Flanagan referred to extending postal voting. He is absolutely correct. As is often the case, a family may have booked a holiday months in advance and then a polling day, which clashes with their trip, is announced at only three or four weeks' notice. Through no real fault of their own, that family will be disenfranchised. It should not be beyond the bounds of possibility that people who are abroad, whether for work or a holiday, should be able to vote by post. I wish to recount an anecdote that is strange but true. The annual pilgrimage from the Diocese of Ossory to Lourdes clashed with the two most recent general elections. I have never taken part in this trip-----

Photo of Fergus O'DowdFergus O'Dowd (Louth, Fine Gael)
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The Deputy should go.

Photo of John Paul PhelanJohn Paul Phelan (Carlow-Kilkenny, Fine Gael)
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-----but perhaps I will do so in advance of the next election. Over 100 people, whether it was those with illnesses and disabilities, their supporters or the volunteers accompanying them, were disenfranchised on both occasions because the two events coincided. Deputy Feighan made an interesting comment regarding the difference between local authorities. In that context, I am puzzled as to why people in Kilkenny who volunteer to work on the pilgrimage to which I refer are not designated in the same category as other workers and are not, therefore, entitled to a postal vote. No leeway has been granted in this regard in the past two general elections, which is wrong. It is for the reasons I have outlined that I believe postal voting should be extended.

I wish to reflect on some of the comments made by Deputy Cowen. I found it somewhat more than ironic when the Deputy, who is a member of Fianna Fáil, treated us to a lecture on political reform. There is no one from the party in the Chamber at present to respond to what I have to say but I will proceed in any event. Anyone with even a vague knowledge of Irish history, not just in the past 15 years but since the foundation of the State, will realise that Fianna Fáil's only significant effort at political reform was to try to abolish proportional representation. It tried to do this on two occasions and failed on both. There might be some merit in changing the system of proportional representation but Fianna Fáil wanted to introduce a first-past-the-post system for parliamentary elections such as those which exist in Britain and north of the Border. This was an attempt by that party to rig the system in order to ensure that it would remain in office in perpetuity. I am not prepared to listen to lectures on political reform from Deputy Cowen or anyone else in his party.

Deputy Cowen or someone from the Fianna Fáil press office may be watching these proceedings. If so, perhaps they might respond to what I am about to say. The Deputy made a very interesting comment and I am seeking to establish whether he made it in a personal capacity or as his party's spokesperson. He said the banking inquiry is now fatally flawed as a result of the Government adding two additional members to it. That is certainly not the impression being given by Fianna Fáil's representatives on the inquiry. We would all agree with the pious platitudes expressed by other members of that party to the effect that said inquiry should take place.

Photo of Michael KittMichael Kitt (Galway East, Fianna Fail)
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The Deputy is straying slightly from the topic.

Photo of John Paul PhelanJohn Paul Phelan (Carlow-Kilkenny, Fine Gael)
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I am just replying to the very serious political point - in fact it went beyond politics - Deputy Cowen made about the banking inquiry being fatally flawed.

He might avail of the opportunity at some stage to explain whether this is a personal view or that of his party’s on the workings of the banking inquiry.

2:00 pm

Photo of Brian StanleyBrian Stanley (Laois-Offaly, Sinn Fein)
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I thank Deputy Andrew Doyle for bringing forward this legislation which would make it statutory for polling for all elections in the State to take place between the hours of 7 a.m. and 10 p.m. Sinn Féin believes it should go further, however, with voting on weekends which would provide people who wish to vote with a longer timeframe within which to exercise their democratic right. It means that people can vote before going to work and there is no longer the same pressure on people to get to polling stations.

One argument in favour of extended opening hours for polling stations is that it would increase turnout. That has not actually been the case, however. Turnout in the 1997 general election was 76.5% while turnout in the last general election when polling stations opened at 7 a.m. was 70%. However, this should not be the determining factor in whether there should be longer hours. It is more to do with facilitating people in exercising their franchise. Whether they choose to do so or not is up to themselves, but voting ought to be made as user-friendly as possible.

Several other issues might be considered to widen the democratic nature of elections. Sinn Féin supports the extension of the franchise to all citizens over the age of 16. People of that age are already fully participating citizens through the education system - some are even working - and have a valid right to be consulted through the democratic process by being allowed to vote in local, European, general and presidential elections, as well as in referenda. We would also like to see people living in the Six Counties being allowed to vote in presidential and Seanad elections. After all, we had a President from Belfast, Mary McAleese, who it is generally agreed did a good job. My party nominated Martin McGuinness as our candidate in the last presidential election. It should be noted that successive Presidents, including Michael D. Higgins, have said they are Presidents for all of the Irish people.

There is also a strong case to be made for providing emigrants with some means of exercising their franchise. Up to 115 states, including nearly all developed democracies, do so. Indeed, we are all familiar with seeing news reports of American citizens and citizens of other states who are living here going to their embassy in Dublin to cast their ballot. Surely, some similar mechanism to allow enfranchised emigrants to vote could be introduced.

The electoral register is totally inaccurate. I noted I could only get the register 95% accurate on the streets on which I lived as a councillor previously and as a Deputy. Many adults are not on it or are on it at the wrong address while other individuals are on it twice and three times. Local representatives will bring it to the attention of officials when they note someone on the register three times. However, it can take some time to rectify it.

The only feasible way of registering voters is through the use of PPS, personal public service, numbers. While I accept data protection issues come into play, there must be some way technically of placing the electoral roll number next to the PPS number without compromising data protection regulations. Such a system would also ensure people automatically come on to the register when they reach their eighteenth birthday. I noted during the recent local elections cases of people who were registered to vote for years, who have not moved house or out of the country but were taken off the register. Introducing a PPS-based system would ensure that people did not have to register proactively themselves and would encourage more young people to vote. The use of PPS numbers would also help to safeguard against electoral fraud by ensuring each person on the register had a unique identification number and was only on the register once.

We need to establish an independent electoral commission to be responsible for voter registration and voter education. That could be improved by making the electoral and overall political system an integral part of the existing CPSE, civic, social and political education, course in second level schools. That depends on individual teachers as some have an interest in it and others do not. The commission would have the task of maximising voter turnout and numbers contesting seats at all tiers of representation including the development of programmes for proactive enfranchisement of and increased participation by traditionally under-represented groups.

Such a commission could also take on responsibilities held by the Constituency Commission, the Standards in Public Office body, SIPO, and the Referendum Commission. The original function which required the Referendum Commission to set out the pros and cons of a referendum proposal should be restored. We have all seen the contentious issues that have been put to referendum in recent years and are familiar with the claims, justified in my view with regards to some of the European referenda, that the allegedly unbiased information provided to citizens was anything but unbiased.

Sinn Féin also supports the introduction of larger seven-seat constituencies while keeping the same number of Deputies. It would ensure smaller parties and independent candidates were provided with a better opportunity to win seats. Indeed, the Labour Party would have performed far worse than it did in the recent local elections had there not been such multiple-seat wards. Alongside larger constituencies, there might also be consideration given to the introduction of a partial list system based on proportional representation. List systems are common in other Europe states. We are fond of saying we should do things the European way. Here is one thing we could do the European way. Such constituencies allow party support to be measured simply on the basis of party preference rather than being totally influenced by the individual candidate. That might go some way in reducing the so-called “parish pump” influence which many people criticise as a factor in Irish politics.

I repeat my support for this Bill which, given its author, I assume will have the support of the Government and that the recent practice of opening polling stations between 7 a.m. and 10 p.m. will be placed on a statutory basis. We should go further and have voting on weekends to facilitate students and those working away from home. A simple system could be put in place to allow people on holiday to vote too. In the case of local elections, the election year is known in advance.

For example, if one had booked holidays for 23 May this year and was not here to vote, one should have been able to visit one's council offices several weeks beforehand and present one's identification to a franchise officer. The officer should have been able to check that one was on the register and then remove one's name from the register that goes to the polling stations, indicating that one had already voted. It should not be beyond our abilities to do it. I am sure everybody here met people who could not vote in the recent election because they were away on the day. If such a person is a supporter and would have voted for one, it is terrible.

2:10 pm

Photo of Seán CroweSeán Crowe (Dublin South West, Sinn Fein)
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I thank the author of today's Bill. It is a good debate in which we are all interested because it is so important to us, to democracy and to our communities. If we are serious about people participating in politics, it is vital we get it right. The Minister mentioned greater voter participation, with which we all agree. The different parties have all tried to enhance the process by getting more people involved and encouraging more people to register. I commend the Vincentian Partnership for Social Justice, which does much outreach work with marginalised groups, trying to get them on the register and encourage them to vote. In my constituency it has reached out to the new Irish, brought them along, had guards there and got people registered. It makes people feel part of the process and explains issues to them. Sometimes candidates are brought in and debates held. It has helped create interest among those groups.

Some speakers raised the issue of locating polling stations in schools. Depending on one's generation, for many people school was not a very happy period in their lives. I have met people on the doorsteps who are not happy, particularly those who have literacy problems. There used to be a garda on the door. Voters have to go in and present identification, and for people who have never voted, it is not very welcoming. It would be more welcoming to have polling stations in the community centres where people probably go more regularly rather than the schools. We need to open up the debate on the best location.

During the last election, the Holy Rosary School in Ballycragh was a polling station, but on the day of the election the school was a building site. People who had difficulty walking or who were in wheelchairs could not access the polling station. Another school in Dún Laoghaire had similar access problems. Eventually, local residents put together a home-made ramp, while the staff said they could not get involved for health and safety reasons. There was no way to access the Holy Rosary School in Ballycragh. A sign pointed through a hedge, which led to a gravel footpath. It sounds like something from "Father Ted" but I have photographs of it. After dark, there was no lighting on this long path. As a result, some people could not vote. I tried to telephone the sheriff's office but could not get through. I sent an e-mail and he sent an apologetic reply. He should not have apologised to me but to the people who did not have a vote. I said in future the venue should have been inspected the day before the election. Although it had been promised that the work would have been carried out, it was not. It is a scandal and should never happen, and we need to put in structures.

The Minister talked about alienation from the political system and mentioned the Lisbon treaty. There were other factors in this issue. Because of the "No" vote there was a lot of media coverage and everybody was coming out. It was like "Chicken Little", with people predicting that the sky would fall. There was a larger turnout, and many people who voted the first time did not vote the second time because they questioned how often one had to say "No" to the proposal. Such matters affect people. There is a disconnect between society and politics.

Speakers mentioned the electoral register. In the 2007 election in which I lost my seat, in west Tallaght alone, 4,500 people, including whole estates, were removed from the register. Many of us who were active in the election went to the council to ask who it had removed from the register, but were told it could not tell us. We went to the Minister of the day, there was a discussion in the House, and he was instructed that we were to get a list. While 2,000 people were put back on the register, 2,500 were left off. The register is supposed to be updated, not have people removed from it. This is still a problem. If someone knocks on a door and nobody is there, in some cases the person or household can be removed from the register. We all know of cases of families being removed from the register, and they usually find out on polling day.

I recently had a bizarre case of a Traveller woman who was to vote for the first time in her life. Her name was Elizabeth Ann, but because her identification gave her name as Ann Elizabeth, the presiding officer did not allow her to vote. It was crazy. In another case, a young man's polling card went to the wrong address and, again, there was a problem because the identification did not match the address on the register. One can go to the presiding officer and argue with him or her, but these are simple issues. We want to encourage more people to get involved.

At the British-Irish Parliamentary Assembly, BIPA, people from the British jurisdictions told me how important the postal vote was to their system. We have gone the opposite way, and it is more and more difficult to get a postal vote. People talked about holidays and so on. They have much more flexibility in their system, and people can vote by proxy. They have tried to adapt their system to make it more voter friendly, and we need to do the same. Others spoke about the importance of the diaspora vote, which was highlighted by the Constitutional Convention. The figures on establishing an electoral commission were interesting. If we had an electoral commission, it would instruct each local authority to inspect each polling site to be used in the next election and, if it were found to be unsuitable, arrange an alternative. There are many halls and centres and we could be flexible.

I thank the Deputy for moving the Bill. While I agree with the Minister that there needs to be greater time flexibility, a fixed time and day would be helpful. In past elections it has been difficult for students or workers to return to their constituencies.

Most presiding officers reckon the 7 a.m. starting time is not really much use to shift workers and it would be more helpful if polls opened at 6.30 a.m. That would provide some leeway, although it would lead to longer days. Some say that 10.30 p.m. should be the closing time and I would prefer the polling day to be earlier rather than later. It is just my opinion but the 7 a.m. start does not really help matters.

I thank Deputy Doyle for his Bill and this should be the start of a debate rather than the end. We must keep working to refine this process. I am glad we are having a debate on this for the first time, and I say "well done" to the Bill's proposer.

2:20 pm

Photo of Noel HarringtonNoel Harrington (Cork South West, Fine Gael)
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I thank Deputy Andrew Doyle and commend him on putting forward this Bill on polling times, as giving certainty to voters on the issue is very important. I use the opportunity to mention in particular those who do not work from 9 a.m. to 5 p.m., including many people in rural areas and especially in summer. For example, those in the farming sector essentially work from dawn to dusk and may not know if a polling station will open at 8 a.m., 8.30 a.m., 9 a.m. or 7 a.m., and they may not know if it is closing at 9 p.m. or 10 p.m. Giving absolute certainty on the opening and closing times of polling stations in all elections would be particularly helpful for those who work the land, especially in summer, but also for some of the communities I represent, including the fishing communities. Those working times are dictated by issues such as tides, and they would welcome greater certainty about polling times.

This may bring a very long day for polling staff but my experience, having spoken to polling clerks and presiding officers, is they are quite happy to work the long hours the day presents. What makes their job difficult are the problems described by many previous speakers, and unfortunately in every election I have participated or been a part of over a number of years, we have always got phone calls, texts and Facebook updates from people who on going to vote discovered they were not on the electoral register. With one unfortunate case in my area, a person moved but the entire family of eligible voters was struck from the electoral register, causing major distress for a family that never failed to vote. The idea that the responsibility is on individual electors to check the register is valid but the operation of the electoral register leaves much to be desired.

There is an opportunity with the new regime for water charges to change this process. We have not had a database of households in this country since 1977 but we now have one from the household charge, the non-principal private residence and properties charges, as well as the introduction of water charges. Not only do we have a database of households but we also have a record of people aged over or under 18 in those households. It beggars belief that with every engagement that the citizen has with the State, through the health services or other agencies, there is no part of the application process or a box to tick so that we could cross-reference the engagement with the franchised offices of the various local authorities or the Department of the Environment, Community and Local Government. We could include or exclude people on an ongoing basis if we had such a process rather than having to spend so much time and resources in the approach to elections advertising that if people are not on the register, they cannot vote. We can act on this through social media and other avenues but cross-referencing State agencies and Departments with the franchise offices must be improved. We should be able to achieve this through the new local authority charge processes that will be fleshed out over a number of months.

The alignment of European elections with local elections must continue, and I shudder to think what would be the turnout for European elections if they were not aligned to local elections. Perhaps we could go further in securing greater participation in European elections.

I feel strongly about how polling cards are distributed. They arrive when literature from every candidate is coming through the letterbox, along with publicity post circulars about hearing aids and methods of discarding clothes. The polling card is indistinguishable from such junk mail, so there would be greater engagement if the polling card arrived in an envelope addressed to a particular voter. Far too often, the polling card is put in the same filing cabinet as all the other junk mail coming through the letter box, so when people are looking for them, they may be unsure if they were received and, as a result, whether they are on the register. This is also an issue for those who are visually impaired. How do those who are visually impaired or totally blind know they have a voting card? Could we not do something to help them, like send an embossed envelope? That would help them to know that what is in their hand is not a request to dispose of old clothes or a great offer for new hearing aids but rather a polling card.

A Minister of State, Deputy Ring, yesterday announced the allocations of the sports capital grant, making the point that each area received the money on a per capitabasis. Although it may seem facetious, if the likes of the sports capital grant were allocated on the basis of voter turnout, I wonder if it would open a better discussion about the disadvantages of poor voter participation. Other countries have different methods, including mandatory voting or the imposition of financial penalties on those who cannot give a reasonable justification for not showing up at a polling station. Relatively speaking, we do not have poor voter turnout but it is always heartening and it provides a greater mandate if there is strong voter participation. Anything that can be done in that regard should be considered.

I was disappointed to note the tenor of Deputy Cowen's contribution, and as his party's spokesperson for the environment, he could have been a bit more proactive about his thoughts for electoral reform, especially if he had given a minute to addressing the Bill introduced by Deputy Doyle. One could easily argue that Deputy Cowen's party has been the least transparent, and it put a bulldozer through freedom of information legislation in recent years. It decimated local authorities when it abolished household rates in 1977, and it will take 75 years for local authorities to catch up and provide modern services. Does Deputy Cowen believe his party has a greater claim to democracy than the current Government?

I echo the sentiments of Deputy John Paul Phelan. A senior Opposition spokesperson for the environment has stated in the Dáil that the banking inquiry is fatally flawed and such a contribution needs further clarification.

What is Fianna Fáil's policy and what is its position on the banking inquiry? I am quite content for it to reflect the make-up of this Dáil. If the Deputy has a different idea he needs to elaborate on that and not further damage the democratic process which he has railed against here.

2:30 pm

Photo of Bernard DurkanBernard Durkan (Kildare North, Fine Gael)
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I am glad to have an opportunity to speak on this Bill and congratulate my colleague, Deputy Andrew Doyle, on bringing it before the House. It gives us an opportunity to focus on a very important part of our democratic system, voting. There is merit in setting out opening and closing times of polling stations because it will give people advance warning of the time when they should be there to cast their vote. I am not certain there should be provision made for people who arrive late or just in time and have to queue. That happens within the polling station. If a person is waiting to vote and the station has not closed I wonder whether provision should be made to accommodate them in those circumstances. We have all seen people turn up when the door has closed or as it closes. Presiding officers will generally make allowances and accommodate the person but not always.

I do not call for the simplification of voting systems. Democracy is sacred and there is a certain ceremony attached to it, as there should be. A basic tenet of democracy is that people vote. They do so after careful consideration. There has been a tendency recently for people to say it should be an open door and people should only vote if they see fit or feel fit to do so. That is nonsense. The voter has a responsibility to make a decision seriously and not cynically. Cynicism is dangerous in any democracy. European history demonstrates that being cynical does not solve any problems. Every time we cast a vote we must think about its consequences because we are choosing the people who will represent us in our legislative assembly for the foreseeable future. People can and do dismiss that, saying it is too complicated, it should be simpler and so on. The only simple thing about democracy is that if it fails the consequences are serious. We should recognise the importance of ensuring that people are registered to vote.

I cannot understand how with modern technology and scientific advances it is not possible to have an accurate electoral register. People have made suggestions such as the use of PPS numbers. An Post is the one organisation that has daily access to almost every house in the country. It is in a better position to monitor the electoral register than anybody else. Some interventions made in the registers have made them worse. In some cases, swathes of people have been taken off the register, in others, people who voted a year ago no longer have a vote. Somebody will say a random sample was taken but because the person was on holidays he or she has been taken off the register. That is ridiculous.

People have mentioned the introduction of a list system. I am profoundly opposed to such a ridiculous system. The fact that it is used across Europe is no recommendation whatsoever. On the list system people who could not get elected would be elected to public office on the basis of a party's or another person's performance. The system has no merit at all. There is only one system, the one where an individual votes for an individual, whether that individual is in a party or not. The system for replacement, such as that in the European Parliament, is daft. It is ridiculous that somebody on the list automatically takes up a position without being elected at all. It is crazy.

By minimising the importance of voting we diminish the importance of democracy. We should never do that. Consider some of the countries that do not have democracy, where the United Nations and others have sent many of us to monitor elections. There we can see the importance that so many who had no democracy attach to the act of voting. They will queue up all morning for hours before the polling station opens at 7 a.m. and remain there until 12 o'clock the following day in order to cast their votes because they regard it as very important to participate in the act of nominating the person to represent them. It may well be that the person elected does not represent the people to the best of his or her ability, or as he or she should, or does not act not in the best interests of the nation but the people can change that decision at the next opportunity. We should always allow for the opportunity to change.

We need to ensure that access to polling stations is dealt with in a meaningful way. During the most recent election I visited a polling station in my constituency. The polling booth was in the porch of the school with no lighting or proper facilities for privacy. It was ridiculous.

I again thank my colleague for giving me the opportunity to speak on these issues.

Photo of Fergus O'DowdFergus O'Dowd (Louth, Fine Gael)
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I listened with great interest to the debate today. Apart from one or two contributions it was a very positive and constructive engagement which is how this Dáil works. We all share the same commitment to the democratic process and the desire to increase voter participation. Many different views and interesting points have been raised here today. All of these will have to be considered on the next Stage of the Bill. We were debating the proposal that a fixed polling period of 15 hours between 7 a.m. and 10 p.m. would lead to increased voter participation. We heard all the arguments about that from both sides. It is important to continue to be open to new ideas to promote greater voter participation.

The Government has been very active in the area of electoral reform and plans to continue in that vein. The establishment of the electoral commission is a further significant reform to which this Government is fully committed. I have no doubt that the work involved in developing the electoral commission will widen the debate on electoral matters, including voter participation.

In respect of electoral reform we have abandoned the acceptance of corporate donations over €200, unless that body has registered with the Standards in Public Office Commission and the donor has declared to the recipient that the donation has been authorised by a general meeting of the members of the body concerned; we have reduced the limits on political donation by a political party from some €6,300 to €2,500 and by an individual from €2,500 to €1,000; reduced the thresholds at which donations must be reported by a political party from €5,000 to €1,500 and by an individual from €634 to €600; and reduced the threshold from €5,078 to €200 above which companies, trade unions, societies and building societies must report on political donations in their annual accounts. In the recent European Parliament elections we saved €3.8 million on the Litir Um Thoghchan by changing its basis from one letter to every person in a household entitled to vote to one letter per household.

Finally, I want to congratulate Deputy Doyle and his staff on the excellent work they have done. The significance of it all is that we have had an excellent, constructive and positive debate on this Bill, which will now advance to Committee Stage for further development. I welcome today's discussion.

2:40 pm

Photo of Andrew DoyleAndrew Doyle (Wicklow, Fine Gael)
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I thank the Minister of State and all my colleagues in the House for their generally positive contributions to this debate. As I said at the outset, I am introducing this Bill in the context of the Government's commitment to Dáil reform and to political reform in general. With the exception of Deputy Cowen, who unfortunately decided to go on a tangent by bringing in other issues, all of those who spoke showed that Friday sittings allow for better discussion and more rational debate. Perhaps the absence of media focus on the set pieces that take place on other sitting days lends itself to a committee-type atmosphere.

I anticipated that something as fundamental to politicians as how people vote would generate some interest. It is in all of our interests to show an interest in this matter. When I was considering this legislation, I was tempted to include a provision requiring people to vote on Saturdays, which is something I would favour. I decided to focus the Bill precisely on the issue of voting hours. It was argued that the hours I am proposing, which are the most common, are very long. Like all Deputies, on election day I try to get to as many polling booths as possible and talk to every presiding officer. I am aware that the turnout, rather than the hours of polling, is the biggest issue for the presiding officer and the staff who work on polling day. They will tell one that it is a long day if no one is turning up. They understand the ebbs and flows of voting patterns during the day. They will always say they are hoping for a good turnout in the evening because it keeps everybody active. By the time polling ends, perhaps at 10 p.m., they feel it has been a good day for democracy.

I am reminded of two things that are somewhat humorous. Winston Churchill, who is credited with many things, is supposed to have said once that even though democracy is a terrible way to run a country, nobody has figured out a better way. In the 1980s, when Lech Walesa led the Solidarity movement in an industrial protest that was specifically aimed at allowing the people of Poland to have the right to vote, the father of a current Fine Gael member in Arklow was elected to represent a town or city of 75,000 people. The man in question suffered as a result but was subsequently elected after political reform had taken place and the right to suffrage had been gained and exercised. The turnout in Poland, in the initial stages at least, was over 90% because people valued the right to vote. I agree with Deputy Durkan's statement that "by minimising the importance of voting we diminish the importance of democracy". We should always hold on to that view.

Deputy Crowe spoke about the access to, and the suitability of, particular polling stations. This is something that needs to be addressed. The issue of the register of electors has come up time and time again. I welcome the fact that everybody has something constructive to say. The general theme was that the register of electors needs to be maintained and an electoral commission needs to be established. I welcome the fact that the Minister said in his concluding remarks that "the establishment of the electoral commission" was in the programme for Government and is something "to which this Government is absolutely committed". The explanatory memorandum that accompanies this Bill makes it clear that "Ireland at present has no independent Electoral Commission, has no fixed hours of polling for elections or referenda, and no consolidated electoral acts".

I hope the introduction of this Bill and the debate we have had today will start a wider discussion on the issue of the electoral system. All politicians and members and supporters of political parties get phone calls from people who have turned up at the polling station only to find they are unable to vote. In 2011, I dealt with the case of a 93 year old woman who was disenfranchised even though she had never moved house and had voted in every election almost since the foundation of the State. I do not know who she was going to vote for, but I know she was not impressed about not being allowed to vote. Members of her family had been involved in the struggle to allow this country to have a vote. Those are the cases we all hear about. We need a body to focus on them.

We have all sorts of organisations, including the Commission for Energy Regulation, the Commission for Communications Regulation and the Office of the Ombudsman. Given that the citizens' franchise to vote is a fundamental piece of democracy, I think an electoral commission should be established on a statutory footing as a dedicated entity. It should make recommendations to the Oireachtas, regardless of who is in government or in this House. It was interesting to hear what Deputy Buttimer had to say about the Constitutional Convention. He indicated that "the option of extending polling hours... received 89% support" and that the proposal to "establish an independent electoral commission received 97% support". If we accept that the Constitutional Convention was reflective of society, it can be argued that we have the imprimatur of society to debate this matter further. I thank the Minister of State and the other Members of the House for their comments. I consider this to be the start, rather than the end, of the discussion and debate of the hours of polling and on voting in general.

Question put and agreed to.

Photo of Michael KittMichael Kitt (Galway East, Fianna Fail)
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As this is a Private Members' Bill, it must, under Standing Orders 82A and 118, be referred to a select or special committee. The relevant committee is the Select Sub-Committee on the Environment, Community and Local Government.