Seanad debates

Friday, 19 July 2013

Electoral, Local Government and Planning and Development Bill 2013: Committee and Remaining Stages

 

Sections 1 to 19, inclusive, agreed to.

SECTION 20

1:30 pm

Photo of Michael MullinsMichael Mullins (Fine Gael)
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Amendments Nos. 1 and 2 are related and will be discussed together.

Photo of Fiach MacConghailFiach MacConghail (Independent)
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I move amendment No. 1:

In page 15, lines 1 to 7, to delete all words from and including “on” in line 1 down to and including “referendum,” in line 7 and substitute the following:

“before—

(a) fourteen days before polling day of a general election of the Dáil,

(b) fourteen days before polling day at a Dáil bye-election,

(c) fourteen days before polling day at a presidential, European, or local election, or a referendum,”.

It must have been tough to group the two amendments together and I commend the use of algorithms in arriving at the decision. I acknowledge the role of my colleagues, Senators Mary Ann O'Brien, Marie-Louise O'Donnell, Jillian van Turnhout and Katherine Zappone, in supporting and tabling the amendments. I also acknowledge the support, assistance and input of the Oireachtas Library and Research Service whose staff have been excellent in providing background information. I thank, in particular, Ms Catherine Lynch, a researcher in the service who provided me with great material, despite the tight schedule.

While I acknowledge the Minister has moved on the issue of postal voting, I propose to cite a number of examples to provide an international context to the issue. The amendments relate to the deadlines for supplemental postal voting. I propose that, in the case of general elections, Dáil by-elections, presidential, European and local elections and referendums, this deadline be changed to 14 days.

People who do not vote can generally be categorised as circumstantial or voluntary non-voters. When examining policies designed to increase turnout political scientists distinguish between voter facilitation and mobilisation measures. The theory behind voter facilitation measures is that a good proportion of non-voters are circumstantial non-voters, that is, they choose not to vote because it is inconvenient for them to do so. I expect this appeals to an Irish trait alluded to by the Minister of leaving things to the last minute. This is not, however, a reason to punish people or have measures in place than deter them from voting. We should offer enabling measures, in other words, voter facilitation measures which are primarily aimed at this group. Voter facilitation rules include holding elections on more convenient days of the week, for example, at the weekend, and making available postal, absentee and advance voting. Other measures include holding a poll over two days, although this is not one I would necessarily advocate.

There is evidence to suggest that other voter facilitation measures have a positive effect on voter turnout.

Franklin's 1996 study found that turnout was higher where a postal vote was available. In 2003, Blais et al found that the availability of postal, advance and proxy voting has a strong positive association with high turnout. Blais also concluded that it made sense to presume that people are more likely to vote if it is convenient to do so, but the question is which voting facilities matter most in making voting convenient. This depends on many factors, including, how easy it is to use a voter facility, such as postal or advance voting, whether the voting facility measures are well targeted and country specific factors.

For example, we can now pay our bills in any post office. Technology and efficiency allow us to conflate the time, from the time we register to vote. I see no reason the way the property tax was paid cannot be used. It was quite an efficient process and a certain amount of time was allowed. People entered their PPS number and other details and paid their tax. We should try to provide for voting in a similar way. I would like the Minister to make my day and accept the amendment.

In the UK, any eligible voter may apply to be on the postal register by filling out a form and returning it to the local electoral register office. There it is possible to apply for a postal vote for just one election, for a specific period of time or to become a permanent postal voter. The UK uses a system of electoral registration referred to as an annual canvass. This means that all people on the electoral register receive an annual canvass form between August and October each year, which they must fill out to confirm their name on the register. This aims to keep the electoral register up to date.

The Minister spoke about the experience of political parties. I have training as a political scientist. My first training in that area occurred when I was 14 in the constituency of Dublin Rathmines West when, as part of my civic education, my parents took me out of school and took me canvassing for three weeks for former Senator Mary Robinson from the local Labour Party. As a little scut of 14, I had to go around with the electoral register and mark off who was dead or had moved away and distinguish between the different Pat O'Connors.

1:40 pm

Photo of Phil HoganPhil Hogan (Minister, Department of Environment, Community and Local Government; Carlow-Kilkenny, Fine Gael)
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Did she get elected?

Photo of Fiach MacConghailFiach MacConghail (Independent)
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She did not get elected.

Photo of Phil HoganPhil Hogan (Minister, Department of Environment, Community and Local Government; Carlow-Kilkenny, Fine Gael)
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The Senator must not have done a good job of canvassing.

Photo of Fiach MacConghailFiach MacConghail (Independent)
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I got to know who my neighbours were, who was alive and how many votes there were in each house. Is the Minister suggesting I, perhaps, was the cause of her not getting elected?

Photo of Phil HoganPhil Hogan (Minister, Department of Environment, Community and Local Government; Carlow-Kilkenny, Fine Gael)
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Not at all, not at the age of 14.

Photo of Fiach MacConghailFiach MacConghail (Independent)
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The point I am making is that the Minister is right about the register. Time has moved on and we have better technology. However it is smart to go around and knock on doors, ask for a vote and have the voter register so as to mark on it which way people are going to vote so that one can go back to them again. I learned how important this was when I canvassed for Minister Ruairí Quinn, before I became disillusioned and left the Labour Party.

In the UK, postal ballot papers are sent out first to the local electoral office. The earliest they can be sent out is after 5 p.m. some 11 working days before polling day. This is because 5 p.m., 11 working days before polling day is the deadline for new applications to vote by post. The electoral office then posts ballot papers out to those on the postal register. It is also possible to avail of proxy voting. British citizens living abroad can use this facility in UK parliamentary and European parliamentary elections. However, they cannot use it in local elections or in elections to the Northern Ireland Assembly.

In the UK, the Representation of the People Act made provision for postal voting on demand. My daughter, for example, might be away on an Erasmus year and might just miss being here for an election. I will not bore the Minister with the various reasons people might miss an election, because he understands them. The issue is about how we can enable more people to vote. Just as people are now watching television on their laptops and are engaging online, postal and electronic voting would be more convenient. Traditional engagement with the State has gone online. Therefore, accepting this amendment would be a small, but important, opportunity for the Minister to show an understanding that the world has changed in terms of communication. A review of 38 pilot projects by the local government association in the UK found that postal voting was the only electoral arrangement to have significant potential to increase turnout.

In Australia, particular categories of people, including eligible voters who will not be in the country on election day, can apply to vote by post. These are both circumstantial postal voters and general postal voters. According to the Australian electoral commission, eligible voters can vote early or can apply for a postal vote if they will be more than 8 km from a polling place on election day, if they are travelling, unable to leave work, seriously ill, infirm or approaching childbirth. These are unplanned events preventing voters from getting to the polls. I believe this Bill should have more of a voter facilitation theme.

In Australia also, a patient who is in hospital, a prisoner or person whose address is suppressed on the public register - a silent elector - can also vote by post. Other people who can apply to become general postal voters are voters with a disability, voters in remote areas and people with religious objections to attending a polling station on election day. This means that ballot papers for all federal elections will be sent to them, without the need to apply each time. For federal elections, eligible voters must apply to vote by post before 6 p.m. on the Thursday before an election. However, the electoral commission warns that if they have to vote by post, they must allow enough time for the ballot paper to reach them and for them to return it by post.

In debating the electoral and referendum amendment Bill in Australia, Andrew Lee, MP, said that while the majority of voters still cast their vote in person at a polling booth, more and more were choosing to cast a postal vote. He went on to say that they needed to make it easier to apply for and process postal votes. In the 2010 election, there were over 800,000 postal votes cast, in comparison with approximately 700,00 in 2007, 600,000 in 2004 and approximately 100,000 in 2001. The same trend could be seen in his electoral area of Fraser. The number of postal votes increased by almost 60% between 2001 and 2010. This demonstrates how enabling a voter facilitation process can be.

Photo of Phil HoganPhil Hogan (Minister, Department of Environment, Community and Local Government; Carlow-Kilkenny, Fine Gael)
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I thank Senators for submitting the amendments that give us the opportunity to tease out this issue. I agree with the intent of the amendment, which is why I have put my own to the Bill, which will improve the situation significantly from what it is currently. I share the views of the Senators that an improvement should be made to the narrow, two-day, window of opportunity that exists currently. However, I am conscious there are practical matters we must be aware of and I consulted returning officers in regard to those.

Photo of Fiach MacConghailFiach MacConghail (Independent)
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I thought the Minister was going to say the Attorney General. We would not hear that argument.

Photo of Phil HoganPhil Hogan (Minister, Department of Environment, Community and Local Government; Carlow-Kilkenny, Fine Gael)
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I consulted the Attorney General also. The returning officers are people both the Senator and I respect. We must ensure we have integrity in the process and that when somebody signs up for a postal vote that person exists. The timescales suggested by the Senator would not allow that happen.

Photo of Fiach MacConghailFiach MacConghail (Independent)
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I disagree. I think they would, as evidenced by what happens in other countries.

Photo of Phil HoganPhil Hogan (Minister, Department of Environment, Community and Local Government; Carlow-Kilkenny, Fine Gael)
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I am talking in regard to the people implementing this on the ground currently. We can have all the theory we like, but I must talk to people on the ground in regard to the practical implementation of the process. That is what I did. Arrangements need to be put in place very soon after the close of nominations in an election and returning officers need more time to attend to the tasks relating to postal and special voting than is the case in regard to voting at polling stations. Take for example the case of our military serving abroad. Ballot papers must be printed and distributed as soon as possible and must then be returned safely and on time to returning officers around the country. All of this takes time, more time than would be available if the amendments proposed were accepted.

The main criticism levelled at the postal and special voter supplement that I set out to address in this Bill is that, where there is a long gap between the date on which the polling day order is made and polling day itself, the existing law is unnecessarily restrictive. For example, under current arrangements, a polling day order for next year's local elections will be made no later than 50 to 60 days before polling day, requiring applications for inclusion in the supplement to the postal and special voters' list to be made no later than 48 to 58 days before polling day. Under the proposed new arrangements, such applications would be made in advance of 21 days before polling day, excluding Sundays and public holidays, giving people an additional 24 to 34 days to apply to the registration authority for inclusion in the supplementary register. I think that is a major improvement. This does not apply to by-elections or general elections, but the tight time that could arise between the moving of the writ or the making of the polling day order on polling day would make this unworkable.

It is open to people to apply for inclusion on the supplementary register and postal lists at any time. People often leave it until the last minute, including those who sometimes criticise us for the fact that they are not on the registration list. We are all engaged in trying to make it as easy as possible for people who, for one reason or another, wait until an election or referendum is called. We should make improvements. We are making improvements in this Bill, but we want to make sure they are workable. I understand where Senator Mac Conghail and the Independent Senators are coming from. We have made a major improvement and I am prepared to look at this again and look at other ways in which we can improve registration in the context of the electoral commission, which we will be discussing in 2014.

1:50 pm

Photo of Fiach MacConghailFiach MacConghail (Independent)
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I accept that the Minister has made a significant shift by relating the period to the date of polling, especially for local elections. However, for things like snap elections, the Minister has not addressed the issue of technological advances, as things can go more quickly now, as returning officers tell us. In a snap by-election, given the ICT available to the Government, we should be enabling electors to participate who may not currently be able to do so because they are abroad or whatever. I look forward to a future debate on the electoral commission.

Question put: "That the words proposed to be deleted stand."

The Committee divided: Tá, 24; Níl, 6.

Tellers: Tá, Senators Susan O'Keeffe and Pat O'Neill; Níl, Senators Fiach Mac Conghail and Jillian van Turnhout.

Question declared carried.

Amendment declared lost.

1:55 pm

Photo of Paddy BurkePaddy Burke (Cathaoirleach of Seanad; Fine Gael)
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Is amendment No. 2, which was discussed with amendment No. 1, being pressed?

Photo of Fiach MacConghailFiach MacConghail (Independent)
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I would like to press amendment No. 2.

I move amendment No. 2:

In page 15, to delete lines 12 to 18 and substitute the following:

“(a) fourteen days before polling day of a general election of the Dáil,

(b) fourteen days before polling day at a Dáil bye-election,

(c) fourteen days before polling day at a presidential, European, or local election, or a referendum,”.

Question, "That the words proposed to be deleted stand", put and declared carried.

Amendment declared lost.

Section 20 agreed to.

Sections 21 to 29, inclusive, agreed to.

Title agreed to.

Bill reported without amendments, received for final consideration and passed.