Seanad debates

Tuesday, 17 November 2009

6:00 pm

Photo of Jerry ButtimerJerry Buttimer (Fine Gael)
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I thank the Leas-Chathaoirleach for the opportunity to raise this matter and I thank the Minister of State, Deputy Calleary, who is earning his keep this evening, for his attendance. The Minister of State will be aware from his involvement with Ógra Fianna Fáil of the importance of the involvement of young people in politics. It is also important for people across the political spectrum to vote and participate in elections. Those of us who study politics will be aware of the trends in turnout for elections and of the decline in turnout in various types of elections. Participation is most important and voting is the most democratic action any citizen can make.

It is time to allow the franchise to be extended and to make it more accessible for people. Let us consider the way in which we run concurrent elections, for example, the running of local and European elections. If they were held separately, the turnout would be low in each case. However, I believe the running of local elections has helped European elections. Let us consider the turnout in referenda, with the possible exception of the last Lisbon treaty referendum.

It is time for the way in which we organise elections and the way in which we allow people to vote to be changed. During the recently concluded election process in the USA, I observed the process in New Jersey in which the State extended the franchise to its citizens and allowed them to vote from home using a new website, I appreciate the difficulty we have had with electronic voting and the lack of accountability and transparency, and I have no wish for the Minister, Deputy Gormley, to return to the excesses of that matter. However, we could request citizens to vote from home by postal ballot. It would be easy to arrange, expand the franchise and allow citizens to vote from home.

I say as much because I noticed the number of people who live, work or study in Cork city but who had to go back to their homes in Munster or outside Munster to vote. On a given day of an election it may not suit a person to vote because of work or study commitments. Equally, there are people who may go on holidays or on pilgrimage. For example, during the last local elections, a considerable number of people from the diocese of Cork and Ross were on a pilgrimage to Lourdes and could not vote. They were predominately in the age category of 50 years and above and they were disenfranchised on that occasion.

We must consider a means of attracting people to vote and we must not be afraid of enticing participation. I note the state of Oregon and other states in the USA have absentee ballots. I believe we should consider an absentee ballot, whether for Irish people who have emigrated, who work abroad or who are on holiday. We should allow people the opportunity to vote. I note the state of Oregon has had no verifiable evidence of voter fraud. Checks and balances were in place. It should be possible to put in place a franchise that allows people to vote from home, whether by postal vote or electronically by computer.

Another bugbear of mine is the timing of elections. I have become a firm advocate of using Sunday as the day to hold an election. It would ensure the majority of students would be available to vote and casting a vote on that day would be more accessible than other days. I appreciate some people would be on shift work but, generally, fewer people work on Sunday. It could create more of an opportunity for people to vote.

I recognise the Minister, Deputy Gormley, referred to the possibility of 16 and 17 year old people voting in local elections for a trial period. However, we must increase the interaction between young people and politicians in the body politic, perhaps through their appointment to strategic policy committees, SPCs, in local authorities. I note the Minister of State is looking at me quizzically. As he is well aware, some people do not bother to turn up to SPC meetings and there is nothing wrong with giving young people an opportunity to attend such meetings.

The basic thrust of my argument is that we must think outside the box about election participation. I hope the Minister of State will give some thought to extending the franchise to allow people to vote from home. The Minister of State should also consider extending the postal vote. It is currently restricted to the elderly, the disabled and members of the Garda Síochána, the Defence Forces and the Naval Service. It is restricted but it should be opened to allow more people to participate. We have gone beyond the impersonation stage and beyond being afraid of who will vote. We should open the franchise and consider how best we can get people to participate in democracy. Opening the franchise to allow people to vote from home would help to accomplish this.

Photo of Dara CallearyDara Calleary (Mayo, Fianna Fail)
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I thank Senator Buttimer for raising this issue and for giving me the opportunity to brief the House on the issue of postal voting. Under electoral law, in order to be able to vote at elections and referendums in this jurisdiction, a person's name must be entered on the register of electors for a constituency in the State in which the person ordinarily resides. Each city and county council is statutorily responsible for maintaining the electoral register in its functional area, which comes into force on 15 February each year. The person's citizenship determines the polls at which he or she is entitled to vote.

Postal voting is provided for in electoral law, as enacted by the Oireachtas, in respect of certain categories of persons who are entered in the register of electors. The Electoral Act 1992 provides for postal voting by wholetime members of the Defence Forces, members of the Garda Síochána and Irish diplomats serving abroad and their spouses. Subsequent legislation enacted by the Oireachtas has extended postal voting to other categories. The Electoral (Amendment) Act 1996 covers electors living at home who are unable to vote because of a physical illness or a physical disability. The Electoral Act 1997 addresses electors whose occupation, service or employment makes it likely that they will be unable to vote in person at their local polling station on polling day. In these cases, the law provides for completion of the necessary voting documentation at a Garda station. The same Act also gives postal votes to fulltime students registered at their home who are living elsewhere while attending an educational institution in the State. The Electoral (Amendment) Act 2001 covers certain election staff employed at the poll outside the constituency where they reside. The Electoral (Amendment) Act 2006 includes in the postal voting arrangements electors who are likely to be unable to go in person on polling day to vote because of the circumstances of their detention in prison pursuant to an order of a court. As in other electoral matters, in considering the possible extension of postal voting, there is a need to strike a balance between facilitating participation in the democratic process by the greatest possible number, to which Senator Buttimer refers and to which we all subscribe, and the need to avoid putting in place arrangements that are open to abuse and that would be difficult to enforce, thereby undermining the validity of the whole process.

The programme for Government, agreed in 2007, contains a commitment to establish an independent Electoral Commission that will, amongst other things, take responsibility for electoral administration and oversight and implement modern and efficient electoral practices. The renewed programme for Government reaffirms this commitment and states the commission will propose reforms to the electoral system across a wide range of areas within 12 months. I have no doubt that postal voting will be one aspect of the electoral system that will arise for consideration in this context. This is the best way to take forward consideration of the important issues that have been raised this evening.

I agree with Senator Buttimer on the question of Sunday voting. Regarding the interaction of young people and this House, we should pay tribute to the education programme of the Oireachtas and to the outreach officers doing such a fine job. I am not sure if we should inflict young people on SPCs.