Tuesday, 5 April 2022
Electoral Reform Bill 2022: Second Stage
I move: "That the Bill be now read a Second Time."
I am glad to have the opportunity to outline the provisions of the Bill, which will deliver on the ambitious electoral reform agenda set out in A Programme for Government - Our Shared Future. The package of reforms set out in the Bill will address some of the most significant challenges our electoral system faces and, what is more, will create much-needed capacity within our system to anticipate and address new challenges into the future. At a time when democracy is under pressure throughout the globe, this is an opportunity to strengthen it in Ireland. Getting right the balance and legislative structure of the Bill has been a major undertaking, and I thank in particular my departmental officials and the Office of the Attorney General for the work they have done on it. It is founded on political consensus and public support built up over the years through reports and consultations.
The Bill contains detailed provisions in respect of four distinct areas. First, it will establish an electoral commission, that is, an independent, specialised body positioned at the centre of our electoral system, bringing a range of existing functions under one roof and taking responsibility for several new functions that will address emerging opportunities and challenges as our society and electoral environment evolve. Such a commission has long been promised and I am proud we are now delivering on it. The Bill will also provide a legislative basis for the modernisation of our electoral registration process, a modernisation that is long overdue. It will make registering to vote more accessible and streamlined and enable online registration in simplified forms, with a continuously updated, or rolling, register in order that people can update their details at any time.
In addition, the Bill will provide for the regulation of online political advertising. The spread of online disinformation in the run-up to electoral events is one of the most serious threats to our electoral system in Ireland. In response to this threat, the Bill will provide for greater transparency in respect of online political advertising during electoral periods. It will ensure transparency in political advertising and help protect our electoral processes from hidden interference. These provisions entail bringing the online electoral advertising space into line with our existing regulations for more traditional forms of advertising. Finally, the Bill includes measures to assist returning officers in running electoral events should public health restrictions be in place due to a pandemic, such as we have just experienced in the context of Covid-19.
I will now elaborate on the provisions of the Bill. Part 1, covering sections 1 to 4, inclusive, addresses preliminary and general matters. Part 2, which takes in sections 5 to 76, inclusive, will provide the legislative basis for the electoral commission. The commission will be assigned a broad range of functions and powers. In line with international best practice, it will be independent of the Government and will be directly accountable to the Oireachtas. The approach set out in the Bill to the commission's structure and functions is in keeping with the views of the Oireachtas, as outlined in the 2016 report of a Oireachtas joint committee regarding a proposed electoral commission, and with the views of the public, following a public consultation process carried out in 2019 on a regulatory impact analysis on the establishment of an electoral commission.
Chapter 3 of Part 2 sets out the governance arrangements for the commission. It provides for seven members, including a chairperson, who will be a serving or retired senior member of the Judiciary nominated by the Chief Justice. Two members, namely, the Ombudsman and the Clerk of the Dáil, will serve in an ex officiocapacity. They currently have a prominent role in several functions that will be transferred to the commission. The four remaining, ordinary members will be selected by an independent Public Appointments Service, PAS, process, which has been set out in detail in section 9. They will be appointed by the President following a recommendation of both Houses of the Oireachtas. These ordinary members will have skills and expertise in a range of areas that will assist the commission in its work. The commission will be led by a chief executive appointed by the Government following a public, independent PAS selection process. He or she will be responsible for implementing the policies of the commission and managing its day-to-day administration and business. It is intended the commission will be funded by its own Vote and the chief executive will be the Accounting Officer in this regard.
Chapters 4 to 8, inclusive, of Part 2 will provide for the transfer of existing functions to the commission. Chapter 5 will see the commission taking on the work formerly carried out by referendum commissions, explaining the subject matter of referendums, promoting public awareness of referendums and encouraging people to vote. Chapter 6 will transfer responsibility to the commission for the registering of political parties, with the commission's chief executive taking on the role of registrar from the Clerk of the Dáil. Appeals against decisions of the registrar will be handled by the board of the commission. Chapter 7 will empower the electoral commission to carry out reviews of, and make reports on, Dáil and European Parliament constituencies. This work is currently carried out by constituency commissions and legislated for primarily in the Electoral Act 1997. The current provisions will be repealed and their provisions transferred to this chapter. Such boundary reviews will be commenced following the publication of preliminary census results.
Chapter 8 will assign responsibility to the commission for the review of local electoral area boundaries, transferring the role from boundary committees, which are defined under the Local Government Act 1991. The terms of reference of such reviews will be subject to the approval of both Houses of the Oireachtas. Chapter 9 of Part 2 will provide for the commission to take on a new policy research and advisory function. As part of its work, the commission will prepare research programmes, conduct research on electoral policy and procedure, and provide advice, as required, to the Minister and the Government on electoral issues. It can make recommendations to the Government regarding proposals for changes to electoral legislation. The commission will also promote public awareness of, and public participation in, the State's electoral and democratic processes through education and information programmes. This is an expansion of the work that referendum commissions carry out as part of their roles. The commission may also prepare and publish ex postreports on how electoral events were administered. Chapter 10 will provide that the commission will have an oversight role in respect of the register of electors, while Chapter 11 will make technical, consequential amendments to a range of other legislation.
I turn to Part 3 of the Bill, covering sections 77 to 116, inclusive. This Part deals with the new modernised arrangements for the registration of electors. It makes amendments to those key electoral Acts which set out the legislative basis for our electoral registration process, principally the Electoral Act 1992, which is covered by Chapter 1. Chapters 2 and 3 replicate and reflect those changes in other enactments, including the Electoral Act 1997 and the Electoral (Amendment) Act 2006.
Given that this is amending legislation, many sections are lightly amended. In general these relate to updates, for example, by removing references to the draft register or supplement that will no longer be relevant in the context of rolling registration. References to the qualifying date are also removed throughout as the date of application will be the date of relevance in each case.
Sections 78 to 81, inclusive, update sections 7 to 12 of the Electoral Act 1992 in this way, along with other technical adjustments. Section 82 amends the 1992 Act to provide, among other technical changes, for a new process where a person has no fixed premises at which they are ordinarily resident. It enables the provision of a correspondence address and a place at which the person considers themselves resident and registration authorities are given power to consider such applications. Also included is a requirement to review this provision after three years of operation.
Section 84 amends section 13 of the 1992 Act, which provides for the electoral register. The amendment provides for the introduction of continuous registration, which is a central plank of this modernisation process and will ensure a single process all year round, enabling updates at any time. It provides that the register in force at the time of commencement of this section continues in force to be updated and maintained by the registration authority in line with the provisions of the Act. It specifies the point after which an application will have no effect in respect of an electoral event and sets the requirement on local authorities to publish the register in advance of such an event.
Section 85 provides that the Minister may, by regulation, designate a single registration authority to establish, manage and maintain a shared database for use by all registration authorities in the performance of their functions. This work is under way and will over time enable a single high level of security and data protection to be applied to register data. Each local authority will remain responsible for its own register and will work within the shared system. This section also specifies the purpose and content of the database as well as providing for a cost-sharing agreement between authorities.
Section 87 provides the data-sharing framework that will enable and support the work of registration authorities in the new process. It provides for the sharing of information between local authorities in the performance of their functions and for the provision of confirmation of identifying particulars by the Minister for Social Protection for the purpose of maintaining and updating the register. These processes are further detailed in the Second Schedule to the 1992 Act which is amended by section 104. It also provides for the making of an order by the Minister for a periodic data-sharing exercise and sets the requirements for such an order. Data protection tests of necessity and proportionality are included throughout this section.
Sections 88 and 92 make changes to postal voting provisions and special voting provisions in the 1992 Act, including broadening the definition of illness and disability to those with mental health difficulties and, given the move to a rolling register, providing for a time-bound postal or special voting arrangement in line with medical certification.
Sections 100 and 101 make amendments to facilitate voting by special voters if their place of residence is temporarily inaccessible.
Section 90 provides for the new individual application process for entry to the register or for updating details. Such applications are to be made to the registration authority for decision in respect of eligibility criteria as well as the identity data checks provided for in amendments to the Second Schedule in section 104. A right of appeal in case of refusal is also provided for.
Section 91 introduces anonymous registration for those whose safety might be at risk if their name and address are published or made available. It sets out the evidentiary requirements, which can either be an order under specified legislation or a declaration by a qualified person. A postal vote is provided for in such cases.
Section 93 provides for the new pending elector list which will enable pre-registration by 16- and 17-year-olds. When they turn 18 they will be added to the register and removed from the pending elector list. The list will be separate to the register and will not be published or made available. Further detail on the application process, which mirrors that of the register itself, is set out in the Second Schedule as amended in section 104.
Section 95 updates and expands section 20 of the Electoral Act 1992 on the role of registration authorities in maintaining the register. Section 96 inserts a new section 20A into the 1992 Act, which requires annual reporting by each registration authority to the Electoral Commission.
Section 98 inserts a new section to set out a process of third party claims, ensuring that we retain the ability of any person to raise an issue in respect of possible inaccuracies or issues with the register.
Section 104 makes a series of changes to the Second Schedule to the 1992 Act. It further details provisions in the main body of the Act as outlined, including in respect of enabling the gathering of specified data such as Eircodes, PPSNs and date of birth, and sets out the processes for considering applications, including basic data checks, which will improve accuracy and integrity. These changes together will result in a more accessible, responsive registration process giving rise to a more accurate and secure register of electors.
I turn to Part 4 of the Bill, which runs from sections 117 to 139, inclusive. This Part provides for transparency in respect of online political advertisements which have been purchased to run during the period of an election or referendum campaign. This period has been defined in the Bill as that beginning on the day of the making of a polling day order and ending on polling day.
Section 119 requires the compulsory labelling of paid online political advertisements during electoral periods. In effect, each online political advertisement must be labelled as a political advert and must provide a link to specified information for voters, in a clear and conspicuous manner, on who is behind the advert, the total cost of the advert and why they are being targeted. This information must be displayed in a "transparency notice" which is clearly linked to the online political advertisement.
Sections 120 to 123, inclusive, set out the obligations on online platforms and the steps they must take to verify the identity of the buyers of online political advertisements and the information provided by them in connection with the purchase of online political advertisements.
Sections 125 to 128, inclusive, empower the Electoral Commission to appoint authorised officers to monitor compliance with the provisions of Part 4 and to investigate any suspected breaches by online platforms or by the buyers of online political advertising in order to determine if enforcement action is needed. Sections 129 and 130 provide for these compliance notices, and set out that appeals against them may be made to the District Court. Sections 131 and 132 provide for a streamlined enforcement procedure which will apply during the relatively narrow focus of an electoral period.
I flag that, in addition to the provisions in Part 4 and having specific regard to the dissemination of electoral information in the online sphere, I have asked the Attorney General to prepare proposals and options for inclusion in the Bill around the protection of the integrity of our electoral processes. This will include the Electoral Commission being assigned an appropriate function in this regard. Any necessary amendments to the Bill arising from this work will be brought forward as the Bill progresses through these Houses.
Lastly, Parts 3 and 5 of the Bill include legislative amendments to facilitate the holding of polls if public health restrictions are in place during a pandemic. Part 5 gives returning officers flexibility to allow polling to take place at electoral events over more than one day to facilitate social distancing at polling stations.
Sections 141 to 145, inclusive, apply this flexibility to each of the electoral codes, making the necessary amendment to the Referendum Act 1994, the Presidential Elections Act 1993, the European Parliament Elections Act 1997, the Local Government Act 2001 and the Local Elections Regulations 1995.
The Bill is a significant reform of our electoral legislation, processes and structures. It makes our system more accessible and inclusive. Its provisions harness the opportunities presented by technology while addressing the challenges that it also presents.
I wish to flag further amendments on electoral funding to protect our State from malicious interference in our democratic system. The issue of islands voting simultaneously with the mainland will also be addressed on Committee Stage. I will engage further with committee members on these key issues as drafting progresses. My Department is engaging with the Central Statistics Office, CSO, on population estimates and I will table amendments to satisfy the requirements under Article 16 of Bunreacht na hÉireann on Dáil representation.
I am thankful to the Joint Oireachtas Committee on Housing, Local Government and Heritage for the detailed pre-legislative scrutiny that was afforded to the general scheme of the Bill. The perspectives of the committee and the wide range of expert witnesses it consulted with were invaluable in the course of the drafting of the Bill. I am glad to say that a significant majority of the recommendations set out in the committee's report are reflected in the Bill.
I look forward to Deputies' contributions as we progress through the parliamentary process.
I thank the Minister for his comments and for the significant work his officials did with our committee to facilitate pre-legislative scrutiny. Sometimes, our debates around this Department can be fractious, but there was broad consensus throughout the committee's proceedings, not only on supporting the Bill, but on trying to work on a collegial basis to ensure it was as strong as possible for reasons I will explain in a moment.
I welcome the publication and introduction of the final legislation last week and its Second Stage debate now. I look forward to us progressing it to Committee Stage. I see no reason that the Bill could not be passed and enacted by the summer recess. That would be a positive step and would come around a little faster than many of us believed it might. I thank the Minister and his officials for that.
This is important legislation. Across the House, the calls for the modernisation of our electoral system and the Register of Electors, the creation of an independent electoral commission, better regulation of online advertising and the use of online platforms during elections, and combining what is still a fragmented electoral system architecture into a much more efficient and streamlined body are positive developments. On this basis, Sinn Féin is happy to support the legislation.
It is not a cliché to say this is once-in-a-generation legislation and that it will set the framework for local, general and presidential elections and referendums into the future. Therefore, it is important we get it right. The comments I am going to make will be made out of a genuine desire for the Minister and his officials to consider some improvements to the Bill that we could discuss between now and Final Stage.
There was a desire throughout the pre-legislative scrutiny discussions, including among many of the expert witnesses whom we had attend, not only to see the electoral commission established, but also a framework created along which its powers, functions and role could evolve in an organic way. There is a lack of clarity in the Bill about how that will be possible. We are keen to have the matter discussed further in the concluding remarks of the Minister or one of his ministerial colleagues and when we reach Committee Stage. If we set the commission up right and put it in train, it could grow into a substantive body, not unlike some of the more significant electoral commissions in New Zealand and other jurisdictions. I would strongly recommend this approach to the Minister.
I am still unconvinced that the chair needs to be a former judge. That is too restrictive. Some consideration should be given to the key criteria that someone needs. They may include legal expertise, but not necessarily judicial expertise. There is a question over the rationale behind this approach as opposed to an approach that would be just a little broader to ensure that we got the best person to lead this new organisation.
Much of what the Bill is doing will come down to funding. While the legislation precedes the funding, the Minister might give some indication in his concluding remarks or on Committee Stage as to what his plans and hopes for the future are. Some interesting comparisons were made between the amounts of money being spent in election years and non-election years in New Zealand. I am mentioning that example because it is a small country with a small commission and with a good track record. The gaps in funding between what the Minister and his colleagues were considering during pre-legislative scrutiny stage and what was seen in that jurisdiction were significant.
One of our main debates was on the need to ensure that those who were most excluded from our electoral process, whether by virtue of social class, ethnicity, language, disability or other factors, were brought in from the beginning - not as peripheral considerations, but mainstreamed throughout. The committee's pre-legislative scrutiny report made specific recommendations in this respect. I cannot see them reflected explicitly in the Bill, though. It could be that we have missed something, but it is an issue to which we will return. I wished to bring it to the Minister's attention.
Our party has a long-standing commitment to lowering the voting age to 16 years. It has been tried in other jurisdictions. It would not only be positive for the political system, but also encourage young people to get active and get voting as early as possible. This could have been a matter for the commission's consideration at a later stage. It is a missed opportunity and I urge the Minister to consider it.
There is considerable disquiet among NGOs involved in policy advocacy, which are still concerned that the definition of "political purposes" might be too restrictive. We should have very robust rules – I am with the Minister and the legislation in this regard – to ensure there are no external influences on our electoral processes, including referendums, but we must also ensure that, in making that protection robust, we do not limit the ability of NGOs and others to be involved in legitimate policy advocacy work, which is essential to the functioning of our democracy. I know the Minister agrees with that. Some of the language around "political purposes" could be too restrictive. We would like to work with the Minister and his officials to tease this out and see if some further tweaks – they are more likely to come from the Government side on Report Stage – are in order.
I have made the case that our postal and proxy voting system is too restrictive. There are people who are denied the right to vote despite the fact that they are unable to do so or are not present in the jurisdiction for legitimate reasons. Other jurisdictions have good, robust systems for postal and proxy voting. We could improve our system. I wish to flag this issue.
Notwithstanding the criticisms from some social media platforms that presented to the committee, we must have the most robust controls and protections, not only where online advertising is concerned, but for any use of online platforms, so as to ensure that the kinds of negative activity we have seen in other jurisdictions – thankfully, there is no evidence that they exist in this jurisdiction – never come to play a part in our elections. While I welcome the moves in the Bill, and I recognise that it can only deal with the election period and the wider regulation of social media is work for another Minister and another committee, its provisions in this respect could be strengthened. I hope the Minister will be open to discussing this matter with us on Committee Stage.
Regarding pre-legislative scrutiny, I am conscious that the Minister's officials are already overloaded with a great deal of work, but it would be useful if they were able to give the Oireachtas Joint Committee on Housing, Local Government and Heritage a short memo setting out how the departmental officials believe that the spirit, if not the actual letter of the pre-legislative scrutiny recommendations, is reflected in the Bill. Sometimes, the Minister works something in that he believes reflects such recommendations but we do not necessarily see it. Rather than wasting his time with amendments that are unnecessary or have already been dealt with in the Bill, it would be useful if we had access to that information.
I thank the Minister for his letter, which he issued to members of the committee on 1 April. He referred to it at the end of his comments. Some of the amendments will be technical, so I urge the Minister to make his officials available for a private briefing, for example, with the committee's members. We will not have put any of them through pre-legislative scrutiny and are not asking to do so.
Rather than giving us less than a week's notice when we get the white list of amendments, however, we should have a briefing. The Minister will remember, when he was on this side of the Chamber, his predecessor often brought in officials to meet with me and him, even when the amendments were not finally crafted. It would be very useful to give us a sense of some of that. We would support the Minister in that.
I again acknowledge this is a very significant piece of legislative work by officials. There has been very significant public consultation. A very significant piece of work has also been done by colleagues on the Oireachtas committee. I commend all of that. All I urge the Minister to do is to take the same collegiate approach on Committee Stage, and on Report and Final Stages, as we have taken to date. We could see some improvements to the Bill by doing so. We are supporting it anyway. We want to see this over the line but let us make sure that when it is passed, it is the strongest, most robust and most effective piece of electoral reform that will stand not only to the Minister's reputation and legacy but to that of this House. That would be a very good day's work indeed. I look forward to working with the Minister and his officials on Committee Stage.
I welcome the opportunity to speak on this Bill. The establishment of a permanent electoral commission has been discussed in this Chamber for years. It comes up every time there is an election so I am glad we are finally getting around to putting something in place.
In this Bill, a number of new powers are set out for the commission as well as better oversight of our electoral process, which will bring us in line with best international practice. It is important that funding for the commission remains independent and there is flexibility within its budget. During pre-legislative scrutiny, it was recommended that subcommittees be established to represent the voices of marginalised communities in respect of engagement in elections. This is a very positive step. The role of the commission in promoting public awareness around the roles of different bodies and elected representatives is welcome. I hope it will lead to better engagement with our democratic process.
The modernisation of the electoral register is something for which everybody has been asking for years. I welcome this. It is about time. Before now, people had to go out of their way to get on the register so it is to be hoped a simpler process will result in more people turning out to vote on election day. We hope that the electoral commission will have an oversight role around the upkeep of registers. This is very important because it will ensure nobody will miss out on a vote due to a clerical error.
We might have missed an opportunity in not extending the postal or proxy voting arrangements in line with what is the norm across Europe. I hope this can be addressed on Committee Stage. The provision in the Bill that allows for pre-registration of 16- and 17-year-olds is a positive step, but the Government has been found wanting in this area and has walked away from extending voting rights to young people. My colleague, Senator Fintan Warfield, has been a strong advocate for granting the vote to 16- and 17-year-olds, but the Government has still to act on this call. Many 16- and 17-year-olds today are much more engaged in current affairs and politics than would have previously been the case.
The regulation of political advertising online is an issue that politicians worldwide have been trying to tackle. We have seen an increase in political advertising that seeks to mislead and misinform. There are very real concerns around the transparency and motivations of those taking out these advertisements. The Bill seems to fall short in that regard, with concerns being raised about the lack of clear definitions around what is classified as political advertising. I hope this Bill results in greater transparency and clarity for voters when it comes to online campaigning at election time.
All in all, this Bill is a step in the right direction in reforming our electoral process, but I still believe it needs some more improvement.
Like my colleagues, I welcome this Bill. Much work has been done at committee level - the Minister was present for it - because we truly believe this is a chance to create much fairer, more honest and accessible elections for the future and to have a register that is truly reflective of the electorate.
One of the key issues we need to address is opening voting up to younger people. In recent years, we have seen that more and more young people are much more engaged with politics and the political system than would have been the case in the past. This is welcome, as is the inclusion of politics as a subject up to leaving certificate level in schools. There is a need, however, for an electoral commission to look at making the process of voting much easier. I have to wonder about this because I remember a man said to me during the last general election that his son's child benefit was cut off when he reached the age of 18 but he was not automatically registered to vote. One arm of the State was able to recognise when a person reached 18 years and cut off a benefit, but that same individual could not vote in the election. We need to work on those kinds of things. We need more integrated thinking and more working together to prevent things like this from happening.
As I said, we see more young people engaged in politics and more determined to be so. I see it with my two daughters. They are much more engaged when it comes to the climate change movement, Black Lives Matter, the repeal the eighth campaign and marriage equality. Young people these days are educating themselves more. They are listening to and watching social media and what their friends are saying. They are having discussions and debates. Young people need to be respected; that is something we all agree on in this House. We should take them seriously and take real steps to include them. That is why we believe the voting age should be 16 in order to reach out to younger people and to listen to them. These young people are our future. Let us give them a say in decision-making.
Alongside making voting more accessible to young people, we need to look at expanding voting in areas that traditionally have low turnouts. We know that less affluent areas have a lower turnout and people in them are less likely to vote. We need to work on this because when people in those communities who need a voice do not vote, they lose that voice. In my constituency of Cork North-Central, there was a very good turnout in the last general election. I was delighted to top the poll. It was one of the proudest days of my life but it also sent out a clear message. I was the first person from Knocknaheeny to be elected to the Dáil. One of the things I think about all the time, when I am in St. Vincent's field or walking around the area, is that if I can get elected, anyone from Knocknaheeny, Farranree, Mayfield, The Glen or any working-class area can. Unfortunately, when we look at previous local elections, there were very poor turnouts. We lost many good councillors, not just Sinn Féin councillors but others, who were very strong voices for their communities. That is why we need to encourage more and more people to ensure they are registered to vote and ensure they come out to vote.
Some areas in my constituency have a voter turnout of 24%, 25% or 26%. That is what this Bill needs to address and that is what we need to work together on to ensure it addresses that. It is important people come out to vote so that they have a voice. While Deputies take on a role at national level, we also need politicians, such as councillors on the ground, at local level. You need a strong political team, whether it is councillors, Senators, Deputies or MEPs, to have people's voices heard. We are currently talking about climate and the consequences for Earth. That is why we need everyone to have their voices heard so that people have their say on big issues such as this.
This is a real opportunity to deliver real electoral reform. It is a once in a lifetime opportunity. That is why we want to make sure it works.
At the last general election, Cork Votes did voter registration. One place it did this was outside the Cork City Library on the Grand Parade. The queues down the Grand Parade, of mostly young people but not all, showed the interest that is there. It should be commended on that but we need more work on that. That is why the electoral commission is so vital to get so many more people lined up.
I very much welcome the Bill. As the Minister knows, it has been a very long time coming. Many of us in the Chamber are around politics a long number of years. I would be interested to see how many times the electoral commission has been mentioned in the Official Report. I remember in 2008 and also in 2012 my colleague and a fellow Cork man, former Deputy Ciarán Lynch, developed two Private Members Bills to establish an independent electoral commission but it has been part of the political folklore in this country for many years, just like the Kenny Report and many other mythical, almost legendary, proposals. I am pleased that finally we are getting around to legislating for an independent electoral commission.
A lot of work was done in this space by officials in the Department and Ministers in the 2011-2016 Government and I was very disappointed to see the Government from 2016-20 was effectively a reform-free zone. It decided not to proceed with the idea of an electoral commission. Nevertheless, we are here now. It is to the Minister's credit that we are now debating Second Stage of this very important legislation.
There are several parts to the lengthy Bill with four overarching themes, the first of which is the establishment of the electoral commission itself. It also covers changes to the way the electoral register is to be compiled and managed and the crucial area of the regulation of online political advertising, something which interests us all, will finally be addressed in some way. The protection of the integrity of elections, which is critically important, is also covered by the Bill.
The creation of the independent electoral commission is a long time coming. It will be an independent body and will subsume all the functions of the Referendum Commission and the Constituency Commission. That is a very good thing indeed. I am also pleased that the commission will have a research and, dare I say it, an advocacy function. It is important that a commission of this nature has that kind of function. It can only be a good thing for the health or our democracy and to provide an evidential basis for ongoing debate and informed policy development on elections in this country.
I know that time limits are being placed on membership of the commission. That is important but there must also be a balanced approach and the Minister is providing for a degree of overlap allowed for members. An important commission like this must retain experience and consistency of membership as far as it can, particularly in the early years when it is bedding down.
I would be interested to hear from the Minister how the electoral commission and the Standards in Public Office Commission, SIPO, will overlap. These are key institutional arrangements which, taken together, form a very important bulwark and a framework in the regulation and oversight of politics and the conduct of politics and public life more generally in this country. However, it is strange that the commission is not being given any function in the actual running of elections and referendums. That is not best practice and requires explanation. It is a little bizarre that the function for the actual running of the elections will still remain with the Minister and the Department. It is odd that the new commission is being set up yet a candidate in the elections, that is the Minister himself, still gets to manage the overall process. I am not suggesting for one minute that there would be any interference in the process - no one would ever say that - but it is unusual that we are setting up a commission but the franchise section of the Department of Housing, Local Government and Heritage will ultimately have responsibility for aspects of the election. Why not give all that function to the electoral commission? It is not either being given SIPO's functions around regulating political funding or electoral expenditure except for a new function around online political advertising. Apart from creating an administrative overlap between the new commission and SIPO, it means that an opportunity to really overhaul and reform the rules on political funding and expenditure is being lost.
That said, much of what is in the Bill is very welcome. It represents a combination of some of the positions taken by many, if not all, of the parties in this House over the last couple of decades. Overall, however, it is a cautious, toe-in-the-water proposal that seems to be designed to have as little impact as possible on many of the existing structures and badly needed reform such as that of SIPO and the franchise section of the Minister's Department. The problem there probably arises from the fact that SIPO is seen to be a creature of the Department of Public Expenditure and Reform and not of the Department of Housing, Local Government and Heritage. A more radical and efficient proposal would be to strip the Minister of election management functions, merge all the new functions with those of SIPO, perhaps with a stripped down membership, and then staff the body with civil servants transferred out of the franchise section. The opportunity could be taken to update and reform the ethics and standards side of SIPO's remit at the same time. All that work has been done and was presented in the Public Sector Standards Bill 2015 by Deputy Howlin when he was Minister for Public Expenditure and Reform. That Bill was brought to Second Stage but was allowed to lapse by the 2016-20 Government. Its ambitions are still relevant now, if not more so. Many of the features of that Bill can be read in the recommendations made every year in SIPO's annual reports. Labour also believes the commission should be given the power to regulate or at least provide a framework for election debates. The composition of TV debates at election time always gives rise to concern. If you are excluded, as Sinn Féin was at the early stages of the last general election, it can be used to a party's advantage and create some momentum behind its campaign. That is understandable. Every party in that position would do the same. We have seen that in the recent past.
Debates are regulated in the US by the debates commission. If we are now regulating paid-for online material it would be no extra burden to take on the part function, at least, of managing the TV party leaders debates with, for example, the input of the Broadcasting Authority of Ireland. The electoral commission should examine this area. I ask the Minister to consider an enabling provision for the regulation of electoral debates where the commission could make recommendations or at least that national broadcasters' plans be submitted to the commission for review on the grounds of fairness and equity.
The commission might also be well minded to look at the thorny question of the impact of opinion polling during an election period on the outcome of an election and whether they should be regulated. Opinion polls are a very important feature of election coverage in Ireland and inform our public debate to a degree. Arguably they should be subject to some form of regulation. Many polling companies are public about their methodology and carry out their work to European Society for Opinion and Marketing Research, ESOMAR, and Association of Irish Market Research Organisation, AIMRO, guidelines but there is no statutory regulation of any description in this country. At a minimum they should be obliged to employ a trained statistician on staff. The reality is that the publication of national and individual constituency polls can influence the outcome of elections. Polls are also used to influence policy and they help to shape political narratives. I am not for one minute advocating a ban on publication of polls during an election period, but there should be some level of regulation as misleading polls can shift public opinion in the very same way that unregulated online material can. We are trying to achieve that objective and I ask that the commission look at the prospect of developing a framework for the regulation and management of opinion polling during an election period. We have all seen in our constituencies where constituency polls say one candidate is safe and another is not and to vote for that candidate.
Old research by the Oireachtas Library and Research Service from 2009 indicated 16 of the 27 EU countries ban reporting of polls, though timeframes range from a full month to just 24 hours before election day. Only three countries, namely, Italy, Slovakia and Luxembourg, have bans of more than seven days. The commission should give this matter some thought when it is up and running and at least carry out some research, as part of its new research function, to inform the debate.
It is self-evident we need to reform how we compile and manage the register. It has been unsatisfactory, to say the least, for a long time. We are finally entering the modern world when we allow people to register online and I am pleased to see a preregistration opportunity will be provided to 16- and 17-year-olds. We also have to make it much easier to enable all of those who want to vote to do so. Increasing opportunities to vote by post by proxy are important and that has been referenced by Deputies who have spoken previously. Of course, we do not want to see the postal or proxy voting system open to abuse in any way but we all know situations, and the Minister will know himself from his own constituency and day-to-day work, that some people may be out of the State for short periods and are then not able to vote. They may be out for work or for a caring reason. They may be out for a whole host of reasons across the whole gamut of the human experience and this is really frustrating for them and is very frustrating for all of us as candidates. Will some more changes be considered here to enable more circumstances to be covered by postal voting? If we are in the business of maximising participation, we should give this greater consideration. The opportunity to register anonymously, with certain controls, is enlightened. It genuinely is. Some lessons have been learned from what happens in other jurisdictions. In our work, I would say we have all encountered situations where there are risks to someone’s safety and security in terms of public knowledge in respect of where they live and so on and this is a really welcome measure, as are the arrangements for those of no fixed address.
We cannot have this debate without looking at whether we should and how we ought to extend the franchise. Should we look at lowering the voting age to 16 years? It is a very live debate. There is a lack of ambition, quite frankly, in this Chamber and within the Government about the idea of lowering the voting age to 16 years. The Bill solely provides for preregistration for 16- and 17-year-olds. We should be looking at reducing the voting age and this is a great opportunity to do something and maybe it is a missed opportunity in the context of this Bill. We are looking at modernising how we register and enroll 16- and 17-year-olds when they get to 18 years but we are not talking at all about extending the franchise to them. I think 16- and 17-year-olds are in a much better position to assess political candidates, political parties and make decisions than I may have been at that age, quite frankly. They should be given the opportunity to do that or at least we need to have a serious informed debate on that proposition. Perhaps the electoral commission can help to facilitate that debate in an informed way.
On online advertising, it has been abundantly clear for many years that the electoral process and campaigning and decision-making more generally is vulnerable to the completely unregulated wild west that is the online world. Online platforms simply have no conscience whatsoever. They have no morality and no ethics; they are there to make profit and the truth comes all too often in last place. We have seen how nefarious influences have thrown money at targeted social media campaigns to deliver earth-shattering, disruptive epoch-making events such as Brexit and the election of far-right nationalists across the world. We have all seen the impact of misinformation, disinformation and targeted, paid-for campaigns that set out to not just tackle ideas and policies, which one might argue is fair enough, but often to discredit public figures, political parties and candidates themselves. We did a good thing many years ago by restricting political advertising in the broadcast media. It ensures a somewhat level playing pitch for parties, candidates and other actors in civil society. While this Bill has decided not to place an all-out ban on political advertising online for the election periods, it proposes to at least regulate and insist on transparency from both the platforms and the candidates, political parties, third parties and others. At least in the future we will know who is paying for a campaign, what it costs and who is being targeted with the message. The relevant provisions of the Bill set out in detail how this will work, who is responsible and the responsibilities of candidates, parties and the platforms themselves.
Key to the success of this new system will be a credible enforcement and compliance system. The Minister might elaborate on how he envisages the commission taking a proactive oversight role rather than it being merely reactive to complaints of non-compliance during an election period. In other words, does he see the commission being in position to initiate actions itself or is it restricted to doing so only when a formal complaint is made to it? Speed and taking initial action is also the essence, especially during an election period. Will the Minister reassure us that if a party, candidate or platform is non-compliant, it will not take a months-long investigation to take down online ads? This has to happen quickly, as we all know the dynamic of an election or referendum campaign and how that could take on life of its own and how disruptive something like this can be to transparency and fairness in the electoral process.
In addition, is the Minister satisfied the forms of fines and sanctions available to him in this Bill will be enough to ensure the Facebooks and the Twitters of this world will fear the sanctions if they are found to be non-compliant with the legislation? There has also been a general discussion on the fact these measures will only be in place for the duration of a formal election period. That concerns me, quite frankly. These measures will not apply at any time outside of an election period. We all use social media platforms to engage and keep our constituents informed. Most of us in this House and elsewhere, if not all, do this honestly and with integrity. We do it transparently and we all use platforms occasionally for paid targeted campaigns to get the message to those who may need to understand that message and see that message. We do that to assist our constituents. To be fair to the platforms, some of them have made some improvements and additions to their processes to make them more transparent but more can be done. It would be a good idea that a general obligation be placed on all those taking out paid campaigns that all political advertising be required to comply with conditions that this Bill will attach only to election communication. This is something the system should not rule out and I ask the Minister to signal his intention in this regard.
Strong legal frameworks governing standards and ethics in public life, transparency in lobbying and decision-making, freedom of information laws, anti-corruption measures and taking money out of politics are all measures delivered by my own party over the decades and integrity and clean politics is absolutely everything, but there were still gaps that need to be closed. We are only too aware gaps can be exploited and this has happened in the case, for example, of Sinn Féin’s acceptance of a bequest worth €4 million from the late William Hampton. The Minister will remember that bequest was explicitly meant for Sinn Féin in this jurisdiction. It could not be accepted here under our strict donation laws where a limit of €2,500 is placed on a corporate donation. Instead, this donation was funnelled to other side of the Border where there are no such limits on donations once the person in question is on the UK register. Nothing unlawful was done in that regard. I want to make that clear. It certainly was not within the spirit of the legislation that governs the conduct of politics and political financing in this jurisdiction and it took advantage of the lax laws in the UK. My party examined this. We took it very seriously and corresponded with the Standards in Public Office Commission and indeed with the UK regulator. Any party registered in both jurisdictions on this island could handle that donation totalling €4 million in the same way Sinn Féin did. As I said, there was nothing unlawful about that and I am not claiming it is unlawful. Fianna Fáil is also registered in the North, to the best of my recollection, so the Minister’s party could do this too if it were to decide it wanted to accept a donation up there rather than down here to circumvent the laws we have in place. I ask the Minister if this is an issue he examined in this Bill. Is it something he is considering tackling with, for example, the Department of Public Expenditure and Reform? The Minister’s remarks mentioned flagging further amendments on electoral funding to protect our State from malicious interference in our democratic system. It would be useful if he could elaborate on that when he has the opportunity to respond because these are the kinds of issues we need to take very seriously in this jurisdiction if we are to be true to the principles and philosophy of ethics in public life and the fair financing of politics in this country.
The Labour Party will work with the Minister to strengthen this Bill. I also agree with the remarks made by Deputy Ó Broin earlier that it would be useful to have an engagement with departmental officials before Committee Stage when we could possibly address some of the concerns we have in order that the legislative process can be completed swiftly. We are all anxious to get this long-awaited legislation over the line.
I congratulate the Minister on this legislation, notwithstanding the concerns we have about it in some respects. I especially want to congratulate the officials on producing this very important body of work which can be revolutionary in terms of how elections are conducted in this country.
I will pick up where Deputy Nash left off and congratulate the Minister on this Bill, which is a significant and overdue piece of work. I want to dwell briefly on something we take for granted, which is just how lucky we are to live in a parliamentary democracy. If one reckons across the whole of human history or even geographically, statistically one is very unlikely to have lived within a democracy of any kind and certainly not within a democracy as strong and as flourishing as this one. It is worth mentioning that democracy comes from the Greek terms demos, meaning people and cratia,meaning power. It literally means power to the people but even within accepted forms of democracy, there has often been a distinction made around which people are allowed to exercise the franchise. Even if one thinks back to Athens, which is considered the cradle of democracy, it was only adult male Athenian citizens who had completed military training who had the right to vote. The vote was limited to between 10% and 20% of the total number of inhabitants.
One of the strengths of this Bill is that not only does it preserve and strengthen the form of democracy that we have, the powerful form which is proportional representation through the single, transferable vote, but seeks to extend it. Here in Ireland women only gained a partial vote in 1918. They had to be 30 years of age and university qualified to vote at that time. It was only with the foundation of the State in 1922 that women gained equal voting rights to men. Many of the provisions in this Bill are aimed at extending the franchise to more women, to make it more possible for women to vote and for minority women and for young people, in particular, to vote, which is extremely welcome.
Tá a fhios agam go bhfuil an tAire tiomanta don Ghaeilge agus go bhfuil suim faoi leith aige inti. Táim buartha nach bhfuil tagairt ar bith don Ghaeilge sa Bhille mar a sheasann sé, agus ba chóir go mbeadh. Ba chóir go mbeadh na soláthairtí atá san Acht teanga, go háirithe ó thaobh earcaíochta de, curtha san áireamh agus curtha i bhfeidhm sa Bhille. While there are several important provisions mentioned in the Acht teanga, the 20% recruitment target is of particular interest. I know the Leas-Cheann Comhairle spent a lot of time in committee discussing this as well and we need to see it brought through into other Bills. I may put forward some amendments on Committee Stage, particularly relating to sections 8 to 10, when we set out the commission's membership. There should be specific reference to language competencies within the commission. Also, section 16 which deals with issues of staffing should be amended to reflect the targets set out in the Acht teanga. There should be a 20% target for the recruitment of staff who are competent in the use of Irish. What competence in the use of Irish might be has been discussed in some detail previously. There are a number of other possible amendments but I know that the Minister has good relations with the Irish-language community and I encourage him to engage with them before the Bill reaches Committee Stage and to consider bringing forward amendments in his own right.
I want to draw attention to some of the provisions laid out in Chapter 7, which deal with Dáil and European Parliament constituencies. One interesting area that the electoral commission might consider is new proposals recently considered by the European Parliament as part of its contribution to the Conference on the Future of Europe, specifically those relating to the creation of transnational, EU-wide electoral lists for use in the next elections to the European Parliament in 2024, which would have clear implications for this Bill. The proposals as outlined at the moment would see 28 seats to the Parliament elected on EU-wide basis by all 450 million Europeans as one polity, for the first time. It would be a true European election and those elected would be European representatives, as opposed to Members of the European Parliament, MEPs, from any given country. These proposals are supported by all of the main groups in the Parliament, from Greens to Liberals, Social Democrats to Christian Democrats but implementing such a system poses a particular challenge here in Ireland because we do not use list systems. How our electoral system would integrate and interface with this should be considered in the context of this Bill.
One of my Green Party predecessors in the Oireachtas, then Senator and now MEP, Ms Grace O'Sullivan, started this debate previously in the Upper House with a proposal for a single Irish constituency in future European elections, which is an interesting proposal. I am not sure I fully agree with it but it is certainly something that should be considered. We would all acknowledge that the current European Parliament constituencies do not naturally align. I do not know that I necessarily identify with what Ireland South means as an electoral constituency but whatever system we are using, it is likely that it will have to integrate a transnational element of some sort into it. A well resourced electoral commission could have an integral role to play in such efforts.
I want to spend a little bit of time looking at specific provisions in the Bill that I very much welcome. Sections 88 through 92 deal with disability and are very much about extending the franchise and in cases where it is needed, bringing the vote to the people. That is really important and reflects the character of this democracy and how seriously we view the franchise and how we want to see it extended. I take slight exception to what Deputy Nash said about this Government having no ambition to extend the franchise to younger people. The preregistration of 16- to 17-year-olds is a really important and proactive step that will help people of that age to really engage with the democracy and take seriously the franchise that others have fought and died for. I really welcome the provisions around the anonymous voter and people who may not, for various reasons including domestic violence and domestic abuse, be safely identified on the electoral register.
My time is almost up but I want to refer to the regulation of online political advertising, which is extremely important. Also, in section 52, the obligation on parties to give information regarding the register is important. We know that there are people who fundraise outside of the State and spend money outside of the State to try to influence electoral results within the State. That information is important and people deserve to know it. Also, the transparency in terms of micro-targeting is important. Of course, we should all speak to people where they are, in a language they understand, about the issues that they care about but they also should have the right to know why they were selected for that particular message in order that they are fully informed.
I welcome the opportunity to speak on this Bill, as such reform is long overdue. We have been talking about electoral reform in these Houses for decades and I welcome the progress made here, however belated it may be. Anybody who has run or taken part in an election will know the frustration caused by an inaccurate register, the chase to get on the register, to get those who are not registered to register, and the conversations with constituents who do not vote in their local area because they never updated their address information.
I will focus my comments on the electoral register. The Bill is welcome, as the electoral register can be pretty shambolic in some constituencies. There are people on electoral register who are long dead and others who have emigrated. As it stands, it is an inaccurate and incomplete register, which leads to inaccurate turnout figures. We are all in this Chamber because the people of the State voted for us to be here. It is the greatest privilege to be trusted in such a way by our peers but not everybody votes and not all members of the public are as interested in electoral processes as we are. People do not vote for lots of reasons and I welcome any steps taken to ensure that more people can engage more easily in the electoral process. While appreciating that there are questions around privacy and data protection, we need to ensure that a person's personal public service, PPS, number is linked to any reform of the electoral register. This is the best way to make sure the register is accurate going forward.
The simplification of the registration process and the inclusion of a preregistration facility for those under the age of 18 are very good proposals, and we support them. Research from the United States suggests that the availability of a preregistration process can lead to an 80% increase in voter turnout. When canvassing and visiting local areas, we hear from some people that they are put off voting because the registration process is time-consuming and complex. We need to demonstrate that it is not complex. A simple process of filling in one's name, date of birth, address and personal public service, PPS, number without the need for a Garda signature, if promoted correctly by the new electoral commission, should lead to increased registration. The removal of the draft register and supplementary register should free up vital time and resources within local authorities. This should hopefully allow for a greater focus on the maintenance of the register in general. We need a proper rolling register, provided we get the original register correct. We need to get this right as changes in this area are decades delayed.
People get disgruntled with the political process, some to the point where they opt not to vote. For numerous reasons and over many years voter turnout in several estates in Limerick was traditionally extremely low. These areas were neglected for many years because politicians focused their efforts on areas where there was greater voter turnout. Turnout in the areas to which I refer has greatly improved in recent years, but more needs to be done to encourage all sections of society to engage in the electoral process. In the past, there has not been any proper attempt to get working class communities registered to vote. I know from experience that local authority efforts to get people registered to vote have been mostly confined to more affluent areas.
The establishment of an electoral commission, albeit with limited powers, is long overdue. The establishment of a body with an oversight and policy role is an important positive step for our electoral process. I am particularly keen to see how this body goes about the education aspects of its remit. We need to ensure that any proposed changes to the electoral register make it easier for people to register to vote and, if they wish, to check they are registered to vote.
Any electoral reform is welcome. This reform is long overdue. We are all aware of issues around voter registration, the inaccuracies of the register of electors and poor voter education. Our republic is founded on the sovereignty of the Irish people, but this can be only realised through an electoral system that proactively enables participation, fostering understanding of elections and facilitating as many people as possible to vote.
It is disappointing that such a long-awaited Bill is lacking the necessary ambition to reform our electoral system. It reinforces the status quo, with a few entirely necessary changes in establishing a commission. There are three areas I want to highlight as needing particular attention. First, in establishing the electoral commission, there is an opportunity to facilitate disabled people to vote and stand for election. The Joint Committee on Disability Matters recent report, Ensuring Independent Living and the United Nations Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities, noted that the voice of people with disabilities in Ireland is often excluded from decision-making, through low representation of disabled people in the Dáil and the Seanad and low uptake in voting as a result of the inaccessibility of voting procedures. Currently, there are a range of systematic barriers, from inaccessible polling stations and election materials not being available in easy-to-read format to poor infrastructure which limits disabled candidates and politicians from canvassing and building up their profiles.
The Bill mainly refers to disability as a limitation, with one reference to improving communications on referendums for people with visual and hearing impairments. Article 29 of the United Nations Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities requires that all appropriate measures be adopted to ensure that people with disabilities have the right to vote and to be elected. These rights are not being realised currently and this Bill does very little to change that.
In essence, this Bill was developed without any consideration for the Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities. Departments still have worrying ignorance of the State's obligations and how they are manifest in practice. The Irish Human Rights and Equality Commission and the National Disability Authority made very clear recommendations during pre-legislative scrutiny of the Bill. These need to be incorporated into the Bill. The electoral commission must be mandated to promote more equal political participation for groups, including people with disabilities and to set and monitor accessibility standards for the use of polling stations. Voter registration and election and referendum materials and forms all need to be accessible. Most significantly, all of these need to be developed in conjunction with disabled people and Disabled Persons Organisations. The Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities obliges the State to closely consult with and actively involve persons with disabilities, and their representative organisations, in matters affecting them.This has not happened in the context of this Bill.
The pre-legislative scrutiny report makes reference to the Department engaging with the National Disability Authority. This needs to happen, but the Department must also work directly with disabled people's organisations, DPOs. This is a key point the Joint Committee on Disability Matters has emphasised to other Oireachtas committees. On this point, the Bill should also require the commission to engage with disabled people and DPOs on matters impacting their capacity to participate in voting and standing for election.
Second, the commission should be empowered and directed to address other structural inequalities. The housing committee made a clear recommendation on this matter, which is not reflected in the Bill. There needs to be a strong legal commitment for the commission to engage with communities historically under-represented in electoral matters. We need systematic and cultural changes if we are to ensure greater diversity in decision-making. Submissions on the Bill highlight this. The Irish Council for Civil Liberties recommends that the commission have a role in candidacy support, while the National Women’s Council of Ireland urges that the commission develop standards in political discourse that are free from discriminatory rhetoric and hate speech.This is an area in respect of which the Bill could have considerable transformative potential. Unfortunately, the ambition is lacking. To provide that the commission could or might do something is very different from it being mandated to act on these issues. Discrimination, sexism, racism and ableist thinking all need be actively confronted. The commission, as envisaged by the Government, will not confront any of these issues.
Third, the commission must be empowered to work on extending the franchise to as many residents as possible. Ensuring that more people are eligible to vote enhances our representative democracy and strengthens integration. The commission should work towards extending general election voting rights to non-citizen residents. Currently, all residents can vote in local elections. This principle should be extended to general elections. There is considerable support in political theory and academic research to show that permitting resident non-citizens to vote strengthens democracy. There are people living in Ireland for decades, paying taxes and contributing to their communities who cannot vote in general elections.
As was noted in the pre-legislative scrutiny, we have a needlessly complex and expensive naturalisation process, which is a barrier to accessing citizenship, leaving people without a right to vote. This is an obvious area the commission could address. Related to this is voting for 16- and 17-year-olds. In 2013, the Constitutional Convention recommended that the voting age be lowered to 16. No action has been taken on this in almost a decade. The only thing this Bill has to offer is preregistration for voting at 18. Scotland, Norway and other countries have demonstrated the positive impact of extending the franchise to 16- and 17-year-olds. While this Government and those which preceded it have ignored the convention’s recommendations, along with many other issues, I must acknowledge Senator Fintan Warfield’s work in progressing the Electoral (Amendment) (Voting at 16) Bill 2016. I encourage the Government to support this Bill and empower the commission to help young people realise this right.
This Bill is necessary but to label it a reform Bill when it largely reinforces the status quois wrong. It needs to have greater direction and ambition in creating a more proactively inclusive system to enable all eligible people to vote and stand for election. It is also an opportunity to extend the franchise and strengthen our democracy. I hope these sentiments are ones the Minister of State, Deputy Hildegarde Naughton, agrees with. I encourage the Minister to improve the Bill to make it truly reforming legislation.
With no disrespect to the Minister of State, I am disappointed not only that the Minister has left the Chamber but also that we do not have present a Minister of State from the Department that is handling this legislation. I question how, at a political level, the comments I propose to make will feed into the process. I very much welcome the Bill and the establishment of a permanent electoral commission, which was a long time coming. I acknowledge the very hard work done on this Bill, but I want to focus on a few key areas that I believe need to be strengthened. There are a number of missed opportunities in this Bill, in respect of which I propose to bring forward amendments to strengthen it. At this stage, I will not be joining in the almost chorus of welcome for the Bill by different groups and parties because there are key and important gaps in it that need to be addressed.
I will start with voter education.
I will talk in a moment about why it is important. In the 132 pages of the Bill, voter education is only mentioned twice and the substantive section to deal with the issue, section 66, which deals with the educational functions of the commission, could not be weaker. There are only three lines in that section dealing with the issue in the 132-page Bill. That does not mean that good work on voter education will not be done. I accept that. However, it does mean that there is nothing in the legislation to give me, as a legislator, confidence that great work will be done on voter education. It could be done and the Bill will not stop it happening but there is certainly not enough detail in the legislation to give us any assurance that it will be done.
A considerable amount of work needs to be done in the area of voter education. The provisions of the Bill should be fleshed out to ensure that voter education is a core and central function of the electoral commission. I want the electoral commission to roll-out ongoing and thorough voter education initiatives aimed at mobilising citizens, increasing participation and educating voters on how the system works so they can maximise their electoral choices. That is important. We cannot tolerate a situation in a democracy where some voters understand how to maximise the use of their votes and others do not. That is exactly the situation we have at the moment. Some voters understand the proportional representation, single transferable vote system and how to use their votes to their maximum influence while others do not. The commission should be running outreach events and producing materials in multiple languages. It should be proactively engaging with communities that feel excluded from politics and political discussions.
In New Zealand, for example, the electoral commission has youth advocates who drive up voter registration levels among young people. They reach out specifically to people who are homeless. They have an accessible social media page and easy-to-follow videos. They have put in measures to enable deaf people and people who are hard of hearing to use sign language when voting. They have also facilitated people with visual impairments to vote, including through the use of telephone dictation voting services. That has all been done in New Zealand. Early voting has also been allowed to increase voter turnout. There is nothing in this Bill to suggest that serious work is going to be done in any of these areas. The electoral commission should be empowered to do that work. Perhaps that will happen but we simply do not know that on the basis of this Bill.
Why is voter education important in terms of our democracy? Almost every Deputy in the Dáil is aware of this issue because we have all spent time at election counts and have seen what happens when ballot boxes are opened. We are all aware that areas with more economic deprivation have lower voter turnouts. In areas with more economic deprivation and reduced literacy levels, there are a higher number of spoiled votes and more people who do not necessarily know that the best way for them to maximise their influence through the electoral system is to vote down the ballot paper. Voters do not need to vote all the way down the paper if they do want to but they should use their preferences. We know the situation. We know there is not an equal level of participation or an equal understanding of our electoral system. To ensure we avoid a situation whereby all voters are equal but some are more equal than other, we should be driving home voter education. That alone will not address all these issues but it is important, if we believe in our democracy, which we do, that we address this inequality through strong voter education. That does not come across as a strong intention of this Bill. It does not give us the sense that the political system is going to do everything it can to increase participation and voter education through this Bill. That is important.
I appreciate that some people may fear the consequences of voter education and might ask will outcomes be affected if more marginalised communities are more activated. However, the consequences of not doing this will be more costly for the political establishment in the long run. The view is cynical and self-defeating. We should all be very supportive of a much more engaged and participative electorate because it is better for everyone.
We should not only be looking at how the Bill addresses voter education but we should also be considering how it addresses increasing voter participation. My colleague, Deputy Cairns, has already addressed some of those points, including improving participation from under-represented groups, such as young people, migrants, Travellers, marginalised communities, people who are homeless and people who are fleeing domestic violence. We should also be looking at how this Bill treats civil society organisations.
This Bill is a missed opportunity for political reform. The first citizens' assembly in 2013 and 2014, the Convention on the Constitution, made a number of recommendations for political reform, many of which have been overlooked or largely ignored in this Bill. The convention recommended that the voting age be reduced to 16. It is important to make the point that if the voting age is reduced to 16, that does not mean that every 16-year-old will get to vote. It means that in general elections, which happen every five years, one fifth of people, as they turn 16, will be eligible to vote. Some people will cast their first vote when they are 17. One fifth will cast their first vote when they are 18, another one fifth when they are 19 and another one fifth when they are 20. Even if the voting age were reduced to 16, some people would not be able to vote in a general election for the first time until they are 20. Under the current system, some people's first opportunity to vote in a general election is at the age of 22. That is far too late in terms of giving younger people full participation in the electoral process.
Another recommendation of the Convention on the Constitution was for all constituencies to comprise five seats or more. That is ignored in the Bill. It is an important stipulation if we are serious about improving diversity and making sure this Dáil is more diverse and representative of the population as a whole. This Dáil does not look like, and is not properly representative of, the Irish population. That is not the fault of anyone who has been elected to the Dáil but we need to make sure the structures enable more diversity and allow people from under-represented backgrounds to come through.
The Convention on the Constitution also recommended removing the alphabetical order of candidates on the ballot paper. There is no reason why people who are higher up the alphabet should have been over-represented in the Dáil historically. That does not make sense. The convention also recommended increasing polling hours and extending elections so they happen over a number of days. Those extensions should not be introduced only to allow for public health measures but should happen to increase participation. We must recognise that some people in shift work and lower paid jobs have much less flexibility to get out and vote. More people in lower paid and minimum wage jobs work on Saturdays, which is an issue if an election happens on a Saturday. Spreading an election over a few days would make it easier for shift workers and people in those kinds of jobs to vote. This Bill copperfastens the status quoand misses an opportunity in the areas I have outlined.
I will turn to voter registration. Section 82(e), which deals with the facilitation of homeless people with no fixed address, is a welcome measure but the criteria concerned are too tight. The section states that "an elector registered in a registration area in accordance with this subsection shall renew his or her registration annually". That is putting an obligation on a homeless person without a fixed address that is not being put on other members of the electorate. It is discriminatory to do that to people who are without a fixed address but it also puts a particular additional burden on people who often have a multitude of challenges. They may well have some mental health or addiction challenges. They also face the challenge of wondering where they will sleep or how secure their accommodation will be, and everything that goes with homelessness. Putting an additional burden on them and requiring that they renew their registration annually is unfair. In practical terms, it will not be doable for people who have so much going on in their lives. I ask for that section to be looked at.
Section 91, which deals with anonymous electors, is very welcome, especially for the provision it offers to people fleeing domestic violence or other threats to their personal safety. It needs to be considered further because I would have some concern that the bar of eligibility in that regard may be too high. We will bring amendments to deal with that on Committee Stage.
It is very important in any healthy democracy to have strong NGOs and civil society organisations. They can act as a counterbalance to strong corporate and business interests. In housing, for example, there is constant lobbying from the property industry and an insufficiently resourced counterbalance from civil society organisations. The concerns those organisations and NGOs have raised about the definition of political purpose and the impact it is having on their work must be addressed. It is a pity that the recommendation on this issue from the committee's pre-legislative report was not taken up. I ask that this be looked at.
Comments have been made about the wider matter of democracy. We should be very proud that we are one of very few countries in the world that have had 100 years of continuous universal suffrage. There are very few countries in the world which can say that. However, we should be in no way complacent about it. Democracy takes effort and work and that is why this Bill is very important, because it seeks to strengthen our democracy and the processes around it. That means we need to do everything we can to ensure maximum participation and voter education and so everybody in this country can participate as much as possible in the democratic process. Currently, not everybody understands how it works. Some people understand it better than others and some communities participate more or are represented more. That is a fundamental challenge we need to address because we want to strengthen and improve democracy and make sure everybody is participating equally. Democracies can go forward or backwards. When they are going forward, people take the view that they will never go backwards. It can happen, however. That is why it is important that we strengthen this Bill and get it right.
I join others in welcoming the Bill. This is fundamental. It is the basis on which we are here as Members of this House. The same can be said of those in the Upper House and local authority members across the country. Like so many things in Ireland, aspects of our public life that work well often go unremarked upon. I remember my first visit to the franchise section during my time in the Custom House, and discovering that our entire democratic process was dependent on ten or 12 people in a cramped office. Those people do a remarkably good job. Because they do their job so well, their work often goes unnoticed. It is an unusual balancing act and position they hold within the Civil Service in the sense that once an electoral event is called, they have to step outside the Department to be the oversight body for that electoral process. I want to place on record my regard for what they do and the importance of the job they do, as well as their work in bringing forward this legislation. It looks very familiar and contains many things I would have dealt with during my time in charge of the franchise section.
I agree with some of the points the previous speaker made about the possibilities an electoral commission presents, particularly in the area of research and education. My experience of studying legislation over the years is that the number of lines contained in a section of a Bill or dealing with a particular matter does not necessarily relate to the significance of that section or that matter. Most of this Bill, like much of the legislation that comes before the Houses, deals in its text with amendments to existing legislation but it also opens up a new understanding - I will not say a new direction - and potential for how we view our own democratic system and process of elections.
I acknowledge that the legislation, like so much else over the past few years, has been delayed owing to the crisis the country has been through. I welcome that it has been introduced today. This is not a criticism of the Minister of State, Deputy Hildegarde Naughton, but there are three Ministers in the Department of Housing, Local Government and Heritage and it would have been better if one of them was present for this debate.
On section 68 and the issue of voter registration, the previous speaker touched on voter turnout in some areas of the country versus others. He referred to them as deprived areas. Voter turnout is a product of how well our local authorities keep the register. Some local authorities and some specific areas are very good at keeping the register up to date. I ask the Minister of State to give some examples and explain whether a carrot or a stick will be used in respect of registration authorities with regard to how well they keep their registers in the future. The Bill proposes a rolling registration process and having the facility for online registration. The situation that exists at present is ridiculous. There are about 18 different forms, or that was the figure given to me at the time, allowing for either initial registration or a change in a voter's status to a special voter or some other category under the current system. I ask the Minister of State to give us more information on the process of online registration and how she and the Department view that operating in reality.
I also raise the process of switching our registration system to one based on the use of an identifier. A Government decision was made a number of years ago on the use of PPS numbers. Obviously, those PPS numbers would never be published on electoral registers because that would be a breach of several rules and laws. However, the use of PPS numbers will ensure that we will not continue to have the situation that currently exists right across the country whereby people have multiple registrations. Just because they change their address, it does not mean they are not removed from the register in one area. That gives a completely skewed view of voter turnout at election time, particularly in urban areas. There may be people who are renting and who change their address or seven or eight people registered at an address where only two voters actually live.
Notwithstanding my earlier praise, the Minister of State might also outline the future direction for the franchise section within the Department post the establishment of the electoral commission. In recent years, we have rightly looked at what has happened in other jurisdictions. Principally, in an Irish context, that usually means the UK or the US, and influences of an external nature on elections and referendums, which are online for the most part. I will not beat around the bush. We are talking about Brexit and the US presidential election and influences that were brought to bear from outside jurisdictions. There is much more public awareness in Ireland as to whether those influences are happening here.
One issue this legislation does not deal with is the influence of money that is not given directly to political parties on electoral campaigns. I refer to money given to NGOs and lobby groups and the registration and declaration of that money. It does not matter whether the money exists. We should know and the voting public should know. Democracy should not be a battle of bank accounts.
It should be a battle about ideas. I welcome the legislation and I hope the Minister of State can provide some of those clarifications.
Beimid ag tacú leis an mBille seo. An independent electoral commission is incredibly important. It is important that it is properly resourced and that its membership is reflective of a diverse population from all backgrounds. I hope the Government will take on board the recommendations from pre-legislative scrutiny and mandate that the electoral commission ensures those voices are heard. Either the commission itself or a subcommittee should hear the voices of the various minority groups in our society. It is also vitally important that young people are involved in the electoral process. I welcome that this Bill allows for pre-registration onto the electoral register for 16 and 17 year-olds but it is disappointing that yet again the Government did not see fit to use this Bill as an opportunity finally to lower the voting age in the State. The Taoiseach said on a number of occasions that he supports it and many Government Members have said they support it but we do not see any movement on it. Votes at 16 is the change that young people deserve. It is supported by youth organisations across Ireland and it is only by lowering the voting age that we can guarantee that the rights of young people stay firmly on the political agenda. Young people will live with the aftermath of the Covid-19 pandemic and with the climate crisis and it is only right that we can give them the opportunity to participate fully in the political process. I urge them to act quickly so their voices can be heard in time for the local and European elections.
I welcome the commitment from the Government that a referendum on extending presidential voting rights to those outside the State will take place before 2024 but we need to see a definitive timeline for this because it has been talked about for some time. Citizens outside the State, including our neighbours in the North, should not be left behind when it comes to electing our President and the Government must hold a referendum on this as soon as possible.
Some of the most far-reaching electoral reforms are some of the most basic ones. It is too difficult to register to vote. The window is open too infrequently and there are unnecessary obstacles that people can find intimidating, including presenting to a Garda station for a stamp for the supplementary register and so on. We need to transform radically how we deal with that issue and Deputy Phelan has already raised the issues around multiple registrations and the difficulty in transferring. It should be much more dynamic and it should be relatively easy for the vote to follow the person who is voting, which is essential. That would make a huge difference.
On electoral reform and governmental reform more generally, I will raise an issue I have raised previously, namely devolving more powers to local government. We have an incredibly centralised system and there are many functions that local authorities could do far better than can be done at a central Government level. Even within the local government system a lot more could be done by councillors rather than being done by the executive. I was sceptical of the municipal district model but it is a good model. There should be scope to look at a similar model within city councils so that local areas could have a budget they could spend themselves and have certain powers in that regard. That needs to be considered.
Last week I went on a walkabout around my home city of Limerick in the South Circular Road area, a beautiful part of Limerick city. I spoke with a diverse group of people, including students, retired people, renters, homeowners, parents, grandparents, toddlers and teenagers. Many of these people can vote in elections and many of them are not able to do so but would like to if they knew how to register. I was explaining the long process of registering to vote to a worker from Lebanon and to a student from Japan. There were looks of confusion when I tried to explain that process of registration. As we were talking, two things became clear. First, a large number of people are not aware that they can vote in some elections in Ireland. Second, they do not know how to exercise that right.
This is not a new challenge. Many groups in Ireland are disenfranchised and under-represented in the political system because of our archaic electoral register and that point has been made clearly by most of the speakers during this debate so far. Many groups are not included on the register, in no small part due to the challenging registration process, which can prevent some people from voting. Young people and minority groups are especially affected by this and in 2018 an estimated 150,000 young people aged 18 to 29 years-of-age were not registered to vote. Conversely, a study in 2016 suggested that there could be as many as 500,000 names on the register that should not be there.
Election experts from an independent academic body, the Electoral Integrity Project, evaluated electoral processes in 164 individual countries against international standards and global norms for the appropriate conduct of elections. The 2018 report shows that Ireland rates well for its electoral laws and procedures, its party registration candidate access and the dissemination of results. The counting of votes under the single transferable vote system is recognised as fair and impartial, as are our electoral boundaries and the process of districting. However, Ireland is ranked 137th in the world for its voter registration processes. We are grouped with Tanzania, Honduras, Ethiopia and Kenya and we are way down towards the bottom of the class in the accuracy of our electoral register. We are the worst performing country in the OECD in this regard. The good news is that the core of Irish elections is strong but more can be done to bring the process into the digital age.
I welcome the work that has been done on modernising the registration system. We need a system that will both make it easier for voters to register and improve the accuracy and reliability of the information contained in it. We need a single and continually updated register, to which electors can be added at any point. It must be simplified online with paper registrations and there should be a central national electoral registered database with the use of PPS numbers for data verification processes and provision for anonymous registrations for people whose safety may be at risk if their name and address were to be published. We also need pre-registration for 16 and 17 year-olds. These will all make the process of registering to vote more accessible and efficient and the information contained on the register will be more accurate as a result.
I would like to acknowledge the establishment of the statutory and independent electoral commission for Ireland. There have been several attempts in the past to establish an electoral commission and this is the first time we have moved past a report or a consultation, which is welcome. Many groups in Ireland are under-represented in all levels of governance. It is important that both local and national government chambers are more representative of the people who live in this country. The electoral commission will play a central role in strengthening administrative processes and in addressing the issue of under-representation and low turnouts through its advisory, research and voter education function. There is room for further reform and I understand this will be the task of the commission. I would like to see work done on automatic registration, lowering the voting age and postal voting among other issues.
I welcome this Bill and commend the hard work undertaken by the Minister and Ministers of State involved and by the Department officials to get it this far. The provisions in this Bill, namely the establishment of the electoral commission, the modernisation of the electoral register, the regulation of online political advertising and a provision for pandemic elections will contribute greatly to improving transparency, participation and representation of the diverse groups living in Ireland. They are much needed reforms that will allow more citizens to have their say, improve public trust in our elections and strengthen Irish elections and democracy.
For too many years the electoral register has been based on an outdated method of being compiled while also falling short in inclusivity for sectors of society that are traditionally under-represented in electoral matters.
This Bill seeks to address some of those concerns, which is welcome, but there are areas in which it could be improved further. The modernisation of the register is welcome. We are all aware of the issue of the names of deceased persons being on the register, while at the same time, names that have been added in the recent past seem to fall off for some reason. I hope that the establishment of the new commission, along with the introduction of rolling registration, the use of PPS numbers as part of the data verification process and the pre-registration of 16 and 17-year-olds will assist in resolving that matter, which has been problematic for many voters in the past. I hope, in promoting this legislation, to increase voter participation. This legislation and the commission will attend to that.
One of the key failures of this Bill is to ignore the possibility that it could lower the voting age to 16 for local and European elections, as Sinn Féin proposed. The time will come where the process has to catch up with the advances in modern Ireland. News is now available at a touch on a screen, meaning the ability of younger people to become politically involved is much better. The current global situation is something about which there is much more awareness. Our role at European level has consequences for current and future generations. I believe this is also the case when we look at measures being taken to address climate change, which future generations will inherit, and should therefore be able to make a contribution to.
On the same theme as voter participation, I refer to those who I said are under-represented in electoral matters, such as members of the Traveller and Roma communities, as well as migrants. This Bill falls short in addressing this. There was a recommendation from the committee following pre-legislative scrutiny that the electoral commission would have to engage with representatives from under-represented communities or establish a sub-committee which would include those representatives.
I believe the postal voting arrangements could have been expanded further, as is the case in many other European countries. If we are talking about increasing voter participation, then we need to have realistic and practical measures to give rise to this.