Seanad debates

Tuesday, 4 November 2014

Adjournment Matters

Register of Electors

7:05 pm

Photo of Paddy BurkePaddy Burke (Cathaoirleach of Seanad; Fine Gael)
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I welcome the Minister of State, Deputy Coffey, to the House for the third matter.

Photo of Katherine ZapponeKatherine Zappone (Independent)
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I welcome the Minister of State. I ask him to outline what the Government is doing to raise awareness and to encourage citizens to register to vote ahead of 25 November, which is the voter registration deadline for the marriage equality referendum in 2015. It is essential to encourage citizens to register to vote and to vote, especially in light of the alarmingly low voter turnout figures from recent by-elections, for example, with only 34% of the electorate voting in Dublin South-West. I especially hope to hear what the Government is doing to ensure that young people are fully aware that they must act now to secure their vote in the marriage equality referendum next year. One in three between the ages of 18 and 25 are not registered to vote and eight out of ten young people did not vote the last time we held a referendum.
This upcoming referendum is an opportunity to end the disconnect between politics and the younger generation caused by decades of failure to deliver real political reforms. Getting young people energised and involved in the democratic process is one of our greatest challenges and the only path towards a health vibrant society. The current citizen movement signals that people need and want to be included in public decision-making in a meaningful way so that they can use their voices to shape the type of Ireland they want to live in, and I applaud civil society for its powerful efforts to encourage people to register to vote in time.
The Gay and Lesbian Equality Network, the Irish Council for Civil Liberties and Marriage Equality Ireland have joined together to launch the Yes Equality campaign to encourage people to register to vote this November. The Union of Students in Ireland and SpunOut.ie have also launched their information campaigns.

The Government and political parties cannot shirk from their responsibilities so what I expect from the Government is at least to match this civil society effort. As the Minister of State is probably aware, the system to register to vote also needs to be reformed. We need to have a centralised system that is up to date, streamlined and easy to use. The procedures vary from one county council to another which leads to confusion and frustration among potential voters attempting to sign up to the electoral register. We also need to have a centralised online voter registration system. Some county councils have this but there are significant inconsistencies between councils. It is too late for this referendum but we should have this debate and I hope to hear an update from the Minister on this issue at some point. Time is running out and the Government should make every effort to get the message out to young people that there are only three weeks left in which to register to vote in the marriage equality referendum 2015. Particular emphasis should be placed on areas like Dublin South-West where, compared with the national average, a higher percentage of the population is under 25 years.

7:15 pm

Photo of Paudie CoffeyPaudie Coffey (Waterford, Fine Gael)
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I thank Senator Zappone for raising this important issue which I am taking on behalf of the Minister, Deputy Alan Kelly.
Voter registration is an important and fundamental part of our electoral processes and the annual register is prepared at this time of year. I welcome the effort of civil society, as outlined by the Senator. It is important that all sectors in society engage with the democratic process. I welcome the opportunity to outline to the House what measures my Department is taking in this respect.
By law, the preparation of the register of electors is a matter for each local registration authority. It is their duty to ensure, in so far as possible and with the co-operation of the public, the accuracy and comprehensiveness of the register. Local authorities have undertaken extensive voter registration campaigns over the years, with assistance from my Department, to ensure the electoral register is as up-to-date and as accurate as possible. Senators will be aware the draft register of electors is published annually on 1 November. Between that date and 25 November, the draft register is on display in local authority offices, post offices, Garda stations and the offices of county registrars. The public are encouraged to check the register during this time. Where new registrations or corrections to existing registrations need to be made, the public are encouraged to notify their registration authority. The process culminates in the publication of a new register on 1 February in the following year. That new register comes into force on 15 February and is used for all elections and referendums held during the following 12 months.
My Department supports an annual voter registration campaign during the period for displaying the draft register, which is between 1 and 25 November. The key message to members of the public each year is to value their vote and to take the necessary steps to ensure they are registered to vote and that their registration details are in order. People can do this by checking with their registration authority or online at the website, www.checktheregister.ie.
The following measures are being taken by my Department this year to promote voter registration. Ten thousand posters were printed and posted last month to registration authorities, Members of the Dáil, youth organisations, third level student bodies and multicultural groups. Registration authorities were asked to arrange to have these posters displayed in post offices, public libraries, Garda stations, courthouses, local authority offices and other suitable locations. Advertisements were placed last week in national daily newspapers and in other newspapers, including Seachtain. Online advertisements will be appearing on popular websites on a staggered basis during November. The home page of the Department's website will draw attention to the timelines for voter registration. The posters and the advertisements in each case encourage people to engage with the voter registration process by checking the draft register to ensure they are included it if they are over 18 years of age and that their details are correctly recorded.
I hope people will respond to the registration campaign during this time. It is important that all eligible voters are enabled to vote when elections or referendums occur. To do this they must be registered. Inevitably, some will not vote or will forget to vote. These voters will still have the opportunity to apply for inclusion in the supplement to the register for a period of time in advance of the holding of any elections or referendums.
I thank Senator Zappone for raising awareness of this matter. I agree it is essential and important that anyone entitled to vote is registered to vote. In my experience over many years, the local authority registers have contained inaccuracies and omissions. I repeat that anyone entitled to vote should register and exercise his or her vote if at all possible.

Photo of Katherine ZapponeKatherine Zappone (Independent)
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I thank the Minister of State for his response. I am somewhat heartened by it. I agree with him that it is good to identify these issues now. The draft registers are on display in local authority offices and people are encouraged to inspect them. The different measures identified by the Minister of State are helpful to know. I was with members of the Union of Students in Ireland last evening to promote the issue in Galway. I know that they will be happy to hear that the Minister of State is engaged in this process. We should encourage members of the local authorities to hold events, for example, or to reach out beyond the advertisements and other initiatives. I hope they will do so. We are all keen to have the citizens engaged in the referendum, whichever way they vote, but they cannot do so if they are not registered. I thank the Minister of State for outlining the measures in his response to the matter I have raised.

Photo of Paudie CoffeyPaudie Coffey (Waterford, Fine Gael)
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I thank the Senator. I reiterate that, by law, the local authorities are the responsible authorities for voter registration. I am sure the Senator's experience is the same as mine in that some local authorities are better than others in this regard. I call on local authorities to use the resources available to them to ensure in so far as possible there is awareness about voter registration in their respective areas. I accept the Senator's point about the importance of political parties, those in civil society, students' unions and anyone else with an active interest engaging proactively with our democracy. To do so they must be registered to vote. The issue raised by the Senator is timely. I support her in her efforts to raise awareness. It is important that everyone entitled to vote exercises their vote. Some may wish not to exercise their vote but that is their right also. I thank the Senator for raising this important issue. I hope some members of the media are listening to this debate because they have a role to play in raising awareness.