Seanad debates

Tuesday, 21 June 2022

Electoral Reform Bill 2022: Second Stage

 

Question proposed: "That the Bill be now read a Second Time."

12:00 pm

Photo of Peter BurkePeter Burke (Longford-Westmeath, Fine Gael)
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The Electoral Reform Bill 2022 sets out wide-ranging reforms to modernise our electoral structures and processes.It fulfils many of the electoral reform commitments described in the Programme for Government: Our Shared Future. I will now set out the main provisions of the Bill.

Part 2 provides the legislative basis for the electoral commission. Chapter 3 of Part 2 sets out the governance arrangements. Chapters 4 to 8, inclusive, of Part 2 provide for the transfer of existing electoral functions to an coimisiún. It will take over the work formerly carried out by the Referendum Commission. It will be responsible for the register of political parties. It will conduct reviews of Dáil and European Parliament constituencies and also conduct reviews of local electoral area boundaries, with this role being transferred from the local electoral area boundary committees.

Chapter 9 of Part 2 provides for an coimisiún to take on a new policy research and advisory function. As part of this role, it will conduct research on electoral policy and procedure and provide advice and recommendations, as required, to the Minister and the Government on electoral issues. Annual research programmes will be prepared in consultation with the Oireachtas Joint Committee on Housing, Local Government and Heritage. An coimisiún will also promote public awareness of and work to increase public participation in the State’s electoral and democratic processes through education and information programmes. It is empowered to produce ex postreports on how electoral events were administered.

Chapter 10 provides that an coimisiún will have an oversight role regarding the register of electors, which will still be maintained and updated by registration authorities.

Part 3 provides for the new and modernised arrangements for the registration of electors and amends key earlier electoral Acts. Many amendments relate to technical updates arising from the move to a rolling register.

Section 83 provides a new process for people who have no fixed premises at which they are ordinarily registered to facilitate their inclusion on the electoral register.

Section 85 provides for the introduction of continuous registration by providing that the register in force at the time of commencement will remain in force to be updated.

Section 86 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. Each local authority will remain responsible for its own register.

Section 88 provides for the data-sharing framework that will provide for the sharing of information between local authorities to maintain and update the register and the legal basis for the identity data cross-check between registration authorities and the Minister for Social Protection and the potential periodic data-sharing exercise. Data protection tests for necessity and proportionality are included throughout this section.

Sections 89 and 93 make changes to postal voting provisions and special voting provisions and extend their availability to people with mental health difficulties that affect their ability to attend a polling station.

Section 91 provides for a new individual application process for entry to the register or for updating details and for the right of appeal.

Section 92 introduces anonymous registration for those whose safety might be at risk if their name and address or that of a member of their household were published. A postal vote is provided for in such cases.

Section 94 provides for the new and pending electoral list which will enable pre-registration by 16- and 17-year-olds.

Section 97 provides for reporting by each registration authority.

Section 99 sets out a new process for third-party claims in respect of possible inaccuracies with the register and provides for a right of appeal.

Section 105 makes a series of changes to the second Schedule to the 1992 Act. This includes specifying the information that authorities may require for their functions, including Eircodes, personal public service numbers, or PPSNs, and dates of birth. Together, these changes will result in a more modern and accessible registration process, giving rise to a more accurate and up-to-date register of electors.

Part 4 runs from sections 118 to 141 and provides for transparency in respect of online political advertisements that have been purchased to run during the period of an election or referendum campaign. Its key features are as follows. It requires the compulsory labelling of paid online political advertisements during electoral periods. In effect, each online political advertisement must be labelled as a political advertisement and must provide a link to specified information for voters on who is behind the advertisement, the total cost of the advertisement and why they are being targeted. It sets out the obligations on online platforms, the buyers of online political advertisements and the restrictions that apply when such advertisements are being purchased from outside the State. This Part empowers an coimisiún to appoint authorised officers to monitor compliance with the provisions of Part 4 and to investigate any suspected breaches by online platforms or buyers of online political advertising to determine if enforcement action is needed. Outside election periods, an coimisiún may issue compliance notices in response to any contraventions of the requirements of Part 4. Finally, this Part provides for a streamlined enforcement procedure, which will apply during the relatively narrow focus of an electoral period.

In addition to the provisions of Part 4, I flag as well that the Attorney General was requested to prepare proposals and options for inclusion in the Bill around the protection of the integrity of our electoral process. These draft proposals were published on 10 June 2022 and are available on www.gov.ie. Any necessary amendments to the Bill arising from this work will be brought forward as the legislation progresses.

Parts 3 and 5 include legislative amendments to facilitate the holding of polls if public health restrictions are in place during a pandemic. These elements include the provision of alternative voting arrangements for special voters, such as long-stay residents in nursing homes, and flexibility for returning officers to allow polling to take place at electoral events over more than one day to facilitate social distancing at polling stations.

Part 6 strengthens our regulations concerning political donations and accounts. The Bill provides the Standards in Public Office Commission, SIPO, with a wide range of investigatory and enforcement powers, which are modelled on similar powers that SIPO currently has under the Regulation of Lobbying Act 2015. Section 154 requires that the leaders of political parties provide a written statement and accompanying statutory declaration each year to SIPO stating that donations from outside the State greater than €100 in the preceding year have been declared in that statement. Sections 162 and 167 make several amendments to Part 9 of the Electoral Act 1997 to provide for the preparation of consolidated annual statements of accounts by registered political parties.

Part 7 provides for same-day island voting at electoral events, specifying that voting at electoral events will take place on islands on the same day as the rest of the country. It amends existing island voting provisions to remove early voting, with new powers being provided for the Minister, in consultation with returning officers, to shorten polling hours where required, having regard to local circumstances.

Part 8 clarifies that registered political parties may apply to the District Court for a licence to run periodical lotteries to support their fundraising activities. The value of a contribution made by a person in connection with such an event falls within the meaning of a political donation and so the donation thresholds set in the Electoral Act 1997 apply to such contributions.

As can be seen, the Bill represents significant reform of electoral legislation, processes and structures. It makes our system more accessible and inclusive and harnesses the opportunities presented by technology, while addressing the challenges arising from societal and technological change.

I thank the Joint Committee on Housing, Local Government and Heritage for its detailed pre-legislative scrutiny of the Bill. The perspectives of the committee and those of the wide range of expert witnesses it consulted were invaluable during the drafting of the Bill. I am glad to say that a significant majority of the recommendations set out in the joint committee’s report are reflected in the Bill. I look forward to this debate.

Photo of Eugene MurphyEugene Murphy (Fianna Fail)
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I thank the Minister of State. I extend my sympathy to him on the recent death of his father, Mr. Peter Burke. I had an opportunity to go to the ceremonies. We all express our deepest sympathies to the Minister of State. It is a tough time and these are tough circumstance for anybody. I call Senator Cummins.

Photo of John CumminsJohn Cummins (Fine Gael)
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I welcome the Minister of State back to the House for the Second Stage debate on this Bill. This is one of the most exciting and reforming Bills we have had before the House in some time. It is an extensive body of work.I thank the officials who have worked extensively on the legislation. I am a member of the Oireachtas Joint Committee on Housing, Local Government and Heritage which, as the Minister of State said, engaged in a significant body of pre-legislative scrutiny on the Bill. We had witnesses from academia, political scientists, political parties and social media platforms. Unfortunately, I have to say that not all political parties co-operated with the committee when we invited in their general secretaries.

Photo of Fintan WarfieldFintan Warfield (Sinn Fein)
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The Senator would want to look at the invite.

Photo of Eugene MurphyEugene Murphy (Fianna Fail)
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Without interruption.

Photo of John CumminsJohn Cummins (Fine Gael)
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That is a great shame because any political party that receives State funding should certainly have the general secretary-----

Photo of Fintan WarfieldFintan Warfield (Sinn Fein)
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The invite mentioned the general secretary or a nominated person.

Photo of Eugene MurphyEugene Murphy (Fianna Fail)
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Senator Warfield will have an opportunity very shortly.

Photo of Fintan WarfieldFintan Warfield (Sinn Fein)
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I have to correct the record.

Photo of Eugene MurphyEugene Murphy (Fianna Fail)
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To be honest it is not usually the Senator's form to do this.

Photo of Fintan WarfieldFintan Warfield (Sinn Fein)
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I just had to correct the record.

Photo of John CumminsJohn Cummins (Fine Gael)
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If I could continue.

Photo of Eugene MurphyEugene Murphy (Fianna Fail)
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Before Senator Cummins recommences I want to tell Senator Warfield that he will have his opportunity in a few moments and I will allow him to make his contribution at that stage.

Photo of John CumminsJohn Cummins (Fine Gael)
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I thank the Acting Chairperson. The point I was trying to make is very important and valid. Political parties that receive State funding should certainly co-operate with an Oireachtas joint committee. It certainly was not just one party in the singular. A number of parties did not send their general secretaries to the committee for engagement on what I believe is significant legislation.

With regard to the substance of the Bill, it is a very important and a welcome move that we will introduce a statutory electoral commission. The new commission will educate the electorate. It will have a permanent statutory footing to look after the register, albeit that local authorities will still have a role. This is important and will bring a continuity that was not there in the past when we established an electoral commission just for the period of an election or referendum. We will now have continuity with a body in place that will be responsible for elections. It came through crystal clear in the pre-legislative scrutiny that this is needed, particularly as other countries have successfully put in place such electoral commissions.

The pre-registration of those aged 16 and 17 it is a welcome move, as is the move to allow to vote and participate in our democracy those people who for reasons of safety or for whatever reason are not comfortable with having their name on a register in a public forum.

I have a bone of contention with the identification of people on the electoral register. The electoral register we have is not fit for purpose. As Oireachtas Members we all know that if we were to send out a letter to people in a particular area a large number would be returned because those people are gone away, no longer living at the address or not known at the address. The turnout figures for our elections are not accurate. Having a unique identifier such as a PPS number to identify a person and to cross check the register is welcome.

I have some concerns about the existing electoral roll. I know we will try to match people using the existing State apparatus. During pre-legislative scrutiny it was suggested three attempts would be made to contact people before they would be removed from the electoral register. I suggested this should occur within a limited time window because we cannot continue to operate an inaccurate register alongside a register that will be accurate due to linking unique identifiers to it. If we are to carry out this exercise there is merit in doing so within a reasonable time period. It cannot be left to go on ad infinitumwhereby people sit on an electoral register forever just because they are on it at the point in time when the reform is being introduced. We all know how inaccurate our electoral roll is despite the best efforts of staff in local authorities.

The changes being introduced on who will pay for advertising at election time are very important. They will bring transparency to the process. It is certainly something I teased out with the social media companies. Content can be created outside of the State but the button can be clicked in Ireland. Therefore, it needs to meet the advertising guidelines even though people may be employed in another country to all of the work. Trying to capture this is very important. We have strong protections in this State on political donations but we need to strengthen them to make sure money from outside the State is not inadvertently used to influence our elections.

Overall, I welcome the significant Bill. I am sure there will be a number of amendments on Committee and Report Stages and I look forward to debating them in due course. I thank the Minister of State for bringing the Bill to the House.

Photo of Mary FitzpatrickMary Fitzpatrick (Fianna Fail)
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I thank the Minister of State for bringing forward the legislation. I also thank the officials. I also thank them for their engagement with the Oireachtas joint committee, which benefited from the evidence not only of the Department but of many stakeholders, political parties, political activists, people from non-governmental organisations and those involved in modern communications and social media platforms. We benefited from all of their inputs and they were very welcome.

The Bill is very important. It is designed to reinforce and protect our democracy. We have one of the oldest continuous democracies. The Bill goes to the core not only of trying to protect our democracy but to ensure that its architecture, structures and operations are sustainable and robust. I do not think at any other time our democracy has been under greater threat. The Bill is timely. It has been spoken about for a very long time, long before the Government came into office. I congratulate the Minister of State and the Government on bringing forward the Bill and for doing so in a very prompt and inclusive fashion. They have designed legislation that is intended to bring us into the next century of our democracy.

We saw how in the aftermath of the presidential election in the US there was a direct attempt to undermine democracy and deny the people the outcome of their election. Here, we had the aftermath of our most recent general election.We saw a party that did not receive anything near a majority of the vote hold mass rallies in an attempt to assert their dominance, despite the will of the people, despite the outcome of the votes and despite the fact that they were way off anything like a majority. It is, therefore, important not just for us here today, but for our children, our children's children and for our country's democracy into the future, that we get this legislation right. The Bill goes a long way to achieving that and I am very happy to support it.

I defy anybody to argue against the establishment of an independent statutory commission beyond the day-to-day of politics. That is robust and substantial, and will serve our State right into the future, regardless of who is in power or who is the flavour of the week. Its independence will be enshrined in the legislation. It will be resourced and structured to safeguard democracy and the delivery of democracy into the future.

It is important that we have a statutory authority for the research and education functions. There is also the issue of boundary reviews. In my constituency of Dublin Central in my lifetime, how many boundary reviews have there been? It is hard and it is undermining for voters. They complain about the ever-changing nature of the amendments to the boundaries. It is, therefore, important that the electoral commission will have responsibility for boundary reviews.

The register of electors has historically been administered by the local authorities. I commend everybody in the franchise section of the local authorities who have maintained our registers to date. However, those registers fall far short of what is required in a modern democracy. It is, therefore, correct that this legislation would seek to improve the registers by creating a shared, rolling register, one that will be a live, shared database. Some political organisations have attempted to do the State's job by creating and operating their own database outside the State. They have combined not just the register of electors but the marked register of electors. This is privileged information. I ask Members to think of this. When people go to vote, there is a privilege in having an opportunity to vote, but one of the things they expect is the privacy of their vote. They do not expect that information to be taken, combined, shared and hosted in another jurisdiction but that is what has been done. That is how our registers have been abused. Those are facts. It is welcome that this legislation will tackle that issue and will ensure that the State is responsible, not just for compiling but for the operation and the maintenance of our registers. They will do that on a continuous basis. The registers will also encourage pre-registration for younger voters. It will create for the first time the ability for homeless people to be registered.

I would like the Bill to also deal with personation, though, which is an important issue. It is a real weakness, and it is risk to our democracy. The commission should have the power to appoint independent personation officers in each polling station and they should be charged with ensuring that no personation is taking place. It should be a severe offence to attempt to undermine our democracy by personating another voter.

Political advertising and fundraising are also two important elements of the legislation and I look forward to further debates on them with the Minister of State. Political parties that operate solely within this State rely on fundraising that is accessible to people who take an interest in their communities, who want to make a contribution and who want to support the ideals and the values that they subscribe to and that those who represent them subscribe to. I welcome the fact that fundraising ability is at the figure of €10. This amount will make it accessible to almost every citizen in our society.

There is also the issue of regulation of online political advertising. The social media platforms themselves told us on the record of the House that truth does not matter. It is not their business. They do not care. They are not interested in the veracity of the information, the messages or the political propaganda that is posted, shared or promoted on their sites. It is important for our democracy that we ensure there is regulation of all social media platforms, all political messaging and all political advertising, so that there is at least some modicum of honesty in that.

Photo of Eugene MurphyEugene Murphy (Fianna Fail)
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Senator Boyhan, are you taking Senator McDowell’s place?

Photo of Victor BoyhanVictor Boyhan (Independent)
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Yes, I am taking it because he is not here.

Photo of Eugene MurphyEugene Murphy (Fianna Fail)
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Senator Pauline O’Reilly, I have to put you back one space because of the order of the list of speakers. I know that I had promised I would come to you next, but Senator Boyhan is representing Senator McDowell, so I will go to him first.

Photo of Victor BoyhanVictor Boyhan (Independent)
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I welcome the Minister of State and his officials to the House. I acknowledge, as previous speakers have done, that there was great collaborative work on the Bill by the joint committee. I thank all those who were actively involved and participated in it. I welcome this Bill on the whole. I look forward to the debate, because there are a number of issues to tease out. I will not repeat what other people have said.

On the maintenance of the electoral registers, I am a strong advocate for local democracy and for local authorities. However, on this occasion, it is right that the 31 local authorities should be duplicating or carrying out the monitoring of their own registers. I do not doubt the capacity, inability or the integrity of a local authority but we should have a shared service. One local authority should co-ordinate it. We need a vast improvement on and professionalisation of how we manage the registers. I would have thought that would have all been a matter for the electoral commission to decide on. Maybe in time it will. However, there are different sets of circumstances. In my own local authority of Dún Laoghaire-Rathdown, the local authority staff do not call door-to-door. That is a policy decision that was made. In other parts of the country, the council sends out field workers to knock on doors. How they operate the system is, therefore, discretionary. We know that from old registers and out-of-date registers that everything needs to be tidied up. We need to embrace technology. I would clearly like to see another way. This would be a central authority that would manage these registers in a focused and professional way. It is the right thing to do. I have spoken to a number of members of local authority management who say they see the merit in this idea. We can leave this issue to another time, but I want flag that. It is important to say that.

I turn to the issue of lotteries and funding for parties. I fully support the right to raise funds. That is democracy. We live in a democracy. If people want to commit their money to their church, to an organisation, to a sports club or to a political party that is compliant with the law and this is within the parameters of the guidelines set down under legislation, I fully support that. People work hard. They are entitled to make a conscious choice to make a reasonable donation based on their means. That is a matter for themselves and I support that.

I have mentioned the issue of pre-legislative scrutiny. I am not sure that this is addressed enough in the legislation. It is becoming practice for candidates in elections to send out mock ballot papers a day or two before an election. I have been subject to one of those. When I was running as a local authority candidate, a colleague of mine rang me and said that she had picked up a mock ballot paper from one of the parties. I did not appear to have a picture on it, but I was a silhouette in black, although some were not. I was also described loosely as “an activist”. It did not say I was a community activist; it just said I was an activist. It incorrectly gave my address as a different electoral ward from the one I in which I lived. My neighbour stopped the individual candidate, who has since gone on to greater things in these Houses, and asked, “What is going on?” He said, “Oh, it is just politics.” The neighbour said, “I want you to stop doing it or I will not be voting for you.” He undertook to do so but an hour later his wife went down and met the same politician who was doing the same thing. One might say that this was only a local election, and I won the election comfortably, as did the other four candidates. The point I am trying to make is that we must look at that.A mocked-up official ballot paper could perhaps remove candidates who are alphabetically ahead of the candidate who produces it. A mock ballot paper can present very false information and set out a professional person as someone else. I so happened to have been a long-standing elected member. The official ballot paper, which I checked the next day, described me as an elected member, a sitting councillor. This is something that is coming up only today; I have not really given a lot of thought to it. However, what I describe is potentially very damaging. We need to keep an eye on it. It is not right that anyone should purport to have and circulate an official ballot paper. Once it has a sense of officialdom, people believe it must be the final race card. There is potential for abuse in this regard.

On the issue of the marked registers, I hear what is being said but it is important to be honest in this debate. The public at large do not know there is such a thing as a marked register. We might rightly talk about the right of privacy at the ballot box but there is such a thing as a marked register for which one can apply for a given number of weeks after an election, either from the local authority or, in the case of a general election, the Oireachtas. Many members of the public would be horrified at the thought that the law allows for marked registers. If we are going to talk about people capturing, using or manipulating data, we must be honest with the public that, at this very time, it is permissible in law to have marked registers that show who presented for a ballot. It does not necessarily mean one voted but that one presented at a polling station for a ballot paper. One might not have exercised one's vote and might have taken the ballot paper home. We need to reconsider this matter. While I am aware of the political advantages of having the information, I am saying that if we are to talk about the issues of data, where registers end up and how they are used, we need to talk about this subject. I am going to revisit it through an amendment.

This is great work. There is cross-party collaboration. Mindful of all that is in this legislation, we must encourage more people to vote. I do not want to stymie political activity. It is great that people are active and engaged and participating in elections. We must be mindful that everything we do in this legislation is about encouraging people to participate in the political process and to vote.

I would love it if we could revisit at some stage the debate on giving 16-year-olds the right to participate in the election process. The Minister of State’s party drove the idea more than any other. The debate may be for another day but I do not want to lose the opportunity to consider giving the franchise to 16-year-olds, certainly in local elections, if it is practical and possible.

Photo of Pauline O'ReillyPauline O'Reilly (Green Party)
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I welcome the Minister of State. He is very welcome to the House. This is important legislation. It will help to take anonymous money out of politics, to take online misinformation and bots out of politics and to bring more voters into the system. It will regulate online political advertising, standardise and simplify the electoral register and protect the integrity of our elections.

Democracy is not something we can take for granted. We have seen it eroded in many other countries in recent years. This Bill is a major achievement because it defends our democracy. Over the past couple of years, we have seen an eroding, even within Ireland, because of the massive amounts of money some political parties have by comparison with others and the influence that some have online that others just do not have. There are loopholes in the law and some are using them, which is actually damaging to our democracy. That is why a cornerstone of the programme for Government was the setting up of an electoral commission. That is why it is a cornerstone of Green Party politics. In fact, our manifesto called for a commission to be set up. We cannot answer everything in legislation. That is what an independent commission is for. An independent commission considers everything in a way that is fair and it is not just about the current Government or Opposition.

The aspects of the Bill I am going to focus on are ones that are really important to me. One is the exceedingly important update allowing the pre-registration of 16- and 17-year-olds on a pending electors list. I have encountered at doorsteps people who had turned 18 and who had no idea what the closing date was and that they could have registered in advance of an election and voted. A huge job of politicians when they go to doors is to try to educate people in that regard. However, it should not be up to an individual politician at a doorstep. After all, who is that politician? Is he or she promising something in order to put somebody on the register? We just do not know.

I agree with almost everything said before me. It is time to consider extending the franchise to 16- and 17-year-olds. The education system, including civic, social and political education, has changed. We have a lot more in our education system to inform young people about voting. That means they need to feel they have a vote in order to exercise their right to participate in a democracy. I would argue that an adult from 40 to 90 has no more of a clue about politics than somebody who is 17 or 18. We have to show respect for younger people, particularly when it comes to matters associated with social and environmental justice. These people are the ones who are left the legacy of the decisions made today in politics, and that is why they need the vote. In fact, those who are towards the end of their lives have less motivation to vote with a long-term view in mind.

I would like to bring up the issue of the independence of the commission. I have been sent some suggested amendments, some of which are very good. We have to make sure we have a mix of expertise in the commission. That should probably be laid down very specifically in the Bill, although I realise it is to an extent. However, while it may be desirable to have some experience or expertise of former members of the Houses of the Oireachtas or local authorities in the commission, I am not sure the commission should be balanced in favour of those who have served previously. One of the key things in politics, particularly during elections, is that incumbents often have an advantage over those who are new. That means there is a need for a commission that is independent and does not have a vested interest in bringing back incumbents when it comes to making decisions.

A suggested amendment goes some way towards really taking on board the concern of Senator Boyhan over the giving out of false information. There needs to be something to stop the circulation of false information. I have seen people take legal cases over defamation. In the last few weeks in the lead-up to an election, one should not have to take a criminal case to have disinformation challenged.

I am going to speak again about my Bill on election posters and their restriction. On the floor of the Seanad, Members had varying views on it. Sinn Féin favours continuing with election posters, in the belief that any number is fine, but most of us do not have the funding or party members to do the electioneering, which includes putting up and taking down posters. I have argued that it does nothing to enhance an election when, on pole after pole and poster after poster, there are just people’s faces. Voters need information on what candidates stand for. That cannot be read on a pole. That is why I favour having elections like those across Europe in which election posters are put on a centrally displayed board. Everybody gets the same amount of space, regardless of his or her funding. It is actually stated what candidates stand for, and they are accountable. It is transparent. I will hark back to the words of the Minister of State, Deputy Noonan, who is responsible for this area and who has done a huge amount of work on electoral reform.It was significant that the Minister of State said he would suggest the commission consider my Bill when it comes to examining the issue of election posters. I thank the Minister of State for giving of his time. I look forward to debating the Bill further on Committee Stage.

Photo of Eugene MurphyEugene Murphy (Fianna Fail)
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The next speaker is Senator Warfield. I will try not to interrupt him this time.

Photo of Fintan WarfieldFintan Warfield (Sinn Fein)
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I have forgotten what I was talking about at this stage.

Photo of John CumminsJohn Cummins (Fine Gael)
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I will not interrupt the Senator either. He need not worry.

Photo of Fintan WarfieldFintan Warfield (Sinn Fein)
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I welcome the Minister of State to the House. We can only achieve a thriving democracy when all of society has a stake in the process. I want to focus on widening the franchise. This House has done considerable work on seeking to lower the voting age to 16. We have retabled the Electoral (Amendment) (Voting at 16) Bill in this term. We were joined in that campaign by Senator Malcolm Byrne from the Fianna Fáil Party who also tabled a Bill to lower the voting age to 16 in local and European elections. We have the ability and right, as Senators, to do that through legislation. It would not require a constitutional amendment, as proposed by citizens in the constitutional convention in March 2013. This House has the power to lower the voting age to 16, thankfully, and I welcome the fact Senator Pauline O’Reilly also supports that idea. It has long been a commitment of green politics and the Green Party to support lowering the voting age to 16. There are people in all parties and none who support lowering the voting age. Let us do that and use this Bill to lower the voting age to 16. We will not be here forever and, as such, we will not have the ability and privilege to legislate forever. Let us do that and let Seanad Éireann be the Chamber that lowers the voting age to 16. While it is welcome that we allow people to register to vote before they reach the age of 18, it is a bit of a nod to the issue of reducing the voting age to 16. I will not go as far as to say it is a bit of cop-out because it is a very important amendment. I know people who did not get a chance to vote until they were 24 years of age because they may not have registered in time before their 18th birthday. Sinn Féin will bring forward an amendment to lower the voting age to 16. I appeal to Members, with respect and with dignity, to support that amendment because it comes from a genuine place.

People are allowed to join a political party at the age of 16, as I did. The activism and involvement of young people in recent referendum campaigns on civil marriage equality and the eighth amendment is evidence that when they are engaged, young people demonstrate an interest in mobilising and participating in the political process, despite the obstacles that we know they face. Hopefully, the electoral commission will solve those issues, in addition to dealing with the nuts and bolts of running elections. Those obstacles include a lack of formal education, the promotion of the idea of registering to vote and the difficulties with registering to vote. As they have been mentioned, I will not go over those obstacles again. However, they must be overcome to ensure young people feel empowered in their democracy and are included as voters at 16 and 17 years of age.

For years, we have called for registration processes to make it easier for people to have their say. The Union of Students in Ireland, USI, has been running registration campaigns for a long time. We often encounter different processes in local authorities. Some will not accept bulk registration forms, while others will.

My colleague, Deputy Ó Donnghaile, will speak about votes in presidential elections and votes for citizens in the North. While Seanad reform requires a separate Bill, we cannot fail to mention today the need to open up Seanad elections to everyone in this State, across the island and overseas if they have a university degree. In addition, people who have been resident in Ireland but may not yet be citizens should be allowed a right to vote, regardless of their nationality or citizenship status if they have been here for a certain amount of time.

An issue raised at a recent meeting of the Joint Committee on Gender Equality was that civic, social and political education, CSPE, is being downgraded from an examination subject. We have brought the Electoral (Amendment) (Voting at 16) Bill back to this House three times. Every time, we have been told our young people need education and this, that and the other, yet CSPE has been removed as an examination subject. Where does that leave young people’s formal education in terms of voter participation and our politics? Too often, these issues have been obstructed in this House. We will have a chance to discuss the issue again on Committee Stage. I put the House on notice in that respect and appeal to Senators for their support.

The establishment of an electoral commission was first raised in the Oireachtas in 2004. It has been agreed in consecutive programmes for Government since 2007. The last time I checked, there were 66 state-run electoral commissions operating worldwide, 28 of which are in Europe. In most cases, their remit is to promote and encourage participation and voting, oversee voter registration processes and collate electoral data. Currently, these responsibilities lie with the local authorities and the Department of Housing, Local Government and Heritage.

I, too, join Senator Boyhan in expressing some concern that we do not have a standardised registration process across local authorities. While I hate to see power removed from local authorities, we need a standardised system.

I raise the disquiet expressed by NGOs regarding political advocacy. They are concerned that the definition of "political purposes" is too restrictive. While we should have robust rules to ensure there are no external influences, we cannot limit the ability of NGOs. We need to find a balance on that issue. I hope my comrade will talk about proxy votes in the North, as I may not have time to do so.

On a day that we should all be on the same page, I am saddened and disappointed that Fianna Fáil felt it was necessary to bring forward an amendment to allow it to do legally what it could not do last year. That is all I will say on that issue. It has been spoken about at length in the other House. I am disappointed, however, that we cannot all be on the same page today.

Sinn Féin supports the Bill, which is long overdue. We have called for years for the establishment of an electoral commission, as have many Members of this House.

Photo of Eugene MurphyEugene Murphy (Fianna Fail)
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Before I call Senator Moynihan, I welcome Natalia and Declan Gallagher and family who are in the Gallery. They have come all the way from San Francisco and are in the good hands of Deputy Joe Flaherty from Longford-Westmeath. We always like to see visitors coming into the House. As they can see, we are discussing the Electoral Reform Bill, for which we have no speakers. That was supposed to be a joke. Céad míle fáilte and enjoy your stay around the Houses.

Photo of Rebecca MoynihanRebecca Moynihan (Labour)
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I thank the Minister of State for coming to the Chamber. This legislation, the intention of which is to modernise our democracy, is very welcome. For this reason, it is vitally important that we get the legislation right and get it done on a non-partisan basis. What I do not want to see happen is what happened at the pre-legislative scrutiny stage when members took political positions on the Bill to get at other political parties. When I speak about lottery fundraising, I will not do so from the perspective of another political party. It is important we examine this legislation as a template, as opposed to a means of getting one over on our opponents.An independent electoral commission is a development that should be welcomed by all. I credit the Minister for bringing this Bill to both Houses and thank everyone who has worked on this complex legislation which will bring about both social and political change. A number of the academics who appeared before the Joint Committee on Housing, Local Government and Heritage to discuss the Bill argued that the remit of the electoral commission should be broadened. What we want to see at election time is that the electoral commission is responsible for making or changing the rules.

Ultimately, this Bill is about protecting the integrity and independence of the political and democratic process, which we in Ireland have not always done in the past. As we have seen time and time again internationally in the past few years, this is not something we can take for granted. Political results are used and weaponised by people after elections. I agree with Senator Fitzpatrick in that respect. We saw that happen in the US and that is why we need to a have a robust, independent electoral commission so that parties cannot create fake news around their own perspectives on an election. We often see comments to the effect that certain individuals were "only" elected on the sixth or seventh count, as if their election does not have legitimacy. That is ridiculous and it is why we need to have a robust system in place.

The Labour Party very much welcomes the regulation of online political advertising, which is provided for in the Bill. The Internet and social media have a huge influence on politics and are often used to misrepresent what is happening in the political system. Nefarious forces are trying to misrepresent on their own behalf. Social media in particular are already dominating much political discussion and development. Anything that engages people in politics is welcome but we must make sure it does not undermine the integrity of elections or referendums, as we saw happen with the Brexit referendum in the UK in 2016, for example. Preserving the independence and integrity of our political and civic process should always be at the heart of what we are trying to achieve here. It is also what the electoral commission will be tasked with and hopefully it will be properly resourced to achieve that goal.

The Labour Party also believes that electoral debates should be properly regulated by the independent electoral commission which could make recommendations on their conduct. During the most recent election, there was enormous controversy around a particular decision by RTÉ. We believe this is an area that the electoral commission could oversee and regulate. This also applies to the regulation of opinion polls which have been shown to significantly change the course of elections, particularly if people are led to believe that one party or candidate is going to win.

Modernisation of the electoral register is also very welcome but I agree with my colleagues that we need to have a centralised system. The way that we currently maintain the register is not working. Having 31 local authorities each holding its own register is not efficient, particularly in an age of information technology. While it may not be included in this Bill, I want to see an electoral commission extending the franchise to Irish people living abroad who have the intention of coming back within a certain timeframe. We saw a massive number of people come home to vote in the marriage equality referendum and we know that young Irish people are engaged. We also know that for reasons such as the financial crash, the current housing crisis and the way they see our cities developing, many of our young people are moving abroad. They should have the right to have a say on the political future of the country in which they want to live. Just because they live in London, Paris or New York for a couple of years does not mean they should lose out on that chance.

I also want to see the vote extended to people at 16. I understand that this might require a constitutional amendment but a referendum should not be a barrier to making changes that are right and promote democratic participation. We also need to have a look at our citizenship fees which are among the highest in Europe. Indeed, the cost is so prohibitive that many EU citizens do not apply for citizenship. While they enjoy many entitlements as EU citizens, they cannot vote in Dáil elections. I know people from Madrid and France who have lived in Ireland for over 20 years and still cannot vote in constitutional referendums. That is wrong.

That the Bill solely provides for pre-registration for those aged 16 and 17 shows a lack of ambition. We should be looking at reducing the voting age. This is a great opportunity to engage young people in politics. It is time to empower all young people and allow them the opportunity to participate in a political process that will fundamentally affect them for years to come. That is made clear by the housing and cost-of-living crises, as well as the crisis in education.

I want to speak about a recent Government amendment to the Bill relating to fundraising lotteries. I believe in transparency, which is why an electoral commission is so important in terms of taking things out of political parties' narrow self-interest. Every single political party, for its own reasons, can decide to insert provisions in this Electoral Reform Bill but it is unfair that this last-minute amendment was inserted. It will benefit one political party. This is particularly concerning because we have seen other measures inserted in the Bill to get at another political party. This Bill will serve us for years to come, long after all of us have passed through this House. We need to protect the independence and integrity of the electoral commission but the Government's last-minute amendment does not do that. We all know how money can affect democracy. We must make sure that all political parties and independent politicians have a relatively level playing pitch when it comes to fundraising and competing in elections. This is vital to a free and fair democracy. I support the registration of properties by political parties so that such ownership is transparent and people know about it. That is why I believe the last-minute change is so sly, for want of a better word.

The Labour Party will work with the Minister of State to bring the best possible legislation into effect, to ensure a fair and independent democracy and electoral system and to produce ambitious legislation which will benefit this country and its political system for many years to come.

I echo Senator Warfield's comments on Senator Ruane's Bill. I understand this measure was promised as part of the Electoral Reform Bill. The Electoral Act is to be reviewed and I ask the Minister to commit to working with Senator Ruane and other members of the Civil Engagement Group when they submit amendments on Committee Stage.

Photo of Malcolm ByrneMalcolm Byrne (Fianna Fail)
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Cuirim fáilte roimh an Aire Stáit. I welcome this Bill which will establish a much-needed electoral commission. I also support the lowering of the voting age to 16 and we can do that as part of this legislation for the local and European elections in 2024. The leadership shown by young people, particularly in the Irish Second-Level Students Union, on the leaving certificate and the question of climate change shows that they can have meaningful impact on our civic life. The evidence from other countries, particularly Austria where this voting age has been in place for over 15 years, shows that young people do not tend to vote differently to older people but the fact that they can vote forces political parties to concentrate more on the issues of concern to them. I support such a change. Given that we can implement it by legislative means for the local and European elections in 2024, it would be appropriate to do so in this legislation.

I also agree that voter education provisions are important. Reducing the voting age is not the be-all and end-all. There must be an educational process around our electoral systems and around digital and media literacy so that fake news can be recognised and so on. This is an important aspect of this legislation. Related to that, I suggest that under section 14, which gives the commission the power to establish committees, one specific committee be established to examine the issue of engaging young people in politics and the electoral process. This would involve youth organisations and youth representatives looking at ways in which we can get young people more involved.On another point that is tied into increasing levels of electoral literacy, in the appointment of members of the commission, section 9 sets out a number of areas of expertise. One of the areas that may also be appropriate to consider in that regard is expertise in communication and education. There are clear requirements about knowledge of electoral systems but we should also look at those with an understanding about how to educate and engage people in processes. That would be welcome.

At every election all of us know people who are away, who may have booked holidays far in advance or get caught at a wedding on the far side of the country and are unable to vote. Quite frequently these are people who in all other circumstances would vote. I have serious concerns about proxy voting but we need to look at some way in which we can extend a postal voting system to those who can show they are going to be away from the polling station on the day for legitimate reasons. Some people can do that for work purposes. There would have to be the necessary safeguards whereby a person would go to a Garda station, produce the necessary identification and vote in front of a garda. The ballot would then be protected. We all know the people of whom we speak and we should try to facilitate that category of voter insofar as possible while at the same time guarding against any threat of personation.

Another piece of legislation we are dealing with is the Online Safety and Media Regulation Bill 2022. It will be important that the electoral commission will work closely with the new media commission, particularly as the new media commission will have responsibility for online advertising. There will be a thin line in some cases between what might be classified as political advertising and more general advertising. Colleagues have also referred to the question of reform of the Seanad electoral processes. When I introduced a Bill to enact the seventh amendment a commitment was given that this would be considered as part of this legislation.

In regard to the constituency review reports, section 56 states that each constituency should have three, four or five members. Historically there were six and seven. I sometimes wonder about the idea of not breaching county boundaries partly because of specific towns. For example, both the Cathaoirleach and the Minister of State, Deputy Burke, will know towns such as Athlone which are served effectively by two constituencies. It might make sense to look at a breach there. I know where I am going with this. Other places such as Carlow and Drogheda have significant parts of the towns outside the location. I am aware that some colleagues in the south east had a bit of a row where some of that had been done. I will finish on this point. The obsession with county boundaries, which is driven by the GAA, is somewhat bizarre. County boundaries are not natural designs in Irish history. They started with King John who does not have the best reputation in this country. He drew the county boundaries in Dublin.

Photo of Eugene MurphyEugene Murphy (Fianna Fail)
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Quickly please, Senator.

Photo of Malcolm ByrneMalcolm Byrne (Fianna Fail)
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The last county to become a county in Ireland was Wicklow in 1606. The reason was that the British were trying to design it as a shire but three families, the O'Tooles, the O'Kavanaghs and the O'Byrnes all rebelled to delay the process. Therefore, if we are to design it around the original county boundaries it should perhaps be around the O’Byrne lands which stretched from Wicklow into Wexford and part of Carlow.

Photo of Rónán MullenRónán Mullen (Independent)
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Does the Senator fancy his chances?

Photo of Malcolm ByrneMalcolm Byrne (Fianna Fail)
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In a modern context we need to look at what makes sense from a geographical point of view and that may not necessarily be around the county boundaries.

Photo of Eugene MurphyEugene Murphy (Fianna Fail)
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Everyone will agree that we love Senator Malcolm Byrne's history lessons but I think they will have to be for the audiovisual room.

Photo of John CumminsJohn Cummins (Fine Gael)
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The Senator will not be on the electoral commission, do not worry.

Photo of Seán KyneSeán Kyne (Fine Gael)
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I will try not to be as controversial as the last speaker in terms of county boundaries and breaches. I can see a lively discussion at the next Fianna Fáil Parliamentary Party meeting about issues like this in relation to Athlone and other places but I take the point the Senator is making. In fairness, we have a small but important part of south Mayo in the constituency of Galway West. To be fair when I say this at district meetings within our own party they do not like it. They want to be back in Mayo and that goes for other areas as well. That is a natural affinity. They vote on the council elections in that county and they want the Dáil representation to be congruent with that. That is just part of it. I am sure there will be many submissions from south Mayo to the next constituency commission, as there was in the past in Carlow and when Leitrim was split. People have an affinity with their own county.

I welcome the Bill and the engagement by the committee in regard to this important body of work. Some issues have not been taken up, such as proof of identity when voting. When presenting to vote, a person has a polling card. Other things are required also but are they looked for? One hears stories of polling cards being bought for a pint of Guinness or for a fiver, or polling cards being handed around the place. There are elements of truth in those stories because people can go in and not be questioned about their identification. To believe folklore, this has happened for years.

On fundraising, do we really want to go down the path of other countries? In particular in the US a big part of the local representative's job is fundraising for the next election. That is unhealthy. In our party we run a fundraiser. It is an important part of the democratic process to ensure that we can finance this without resorting to seeking thousands or millions of dollars as they do in the US to run their elections.

Senator Moynihan and others talked about polling. This is a bugbear of mine since the 2011 election when I had two opinion polls published. One was published in The Sunday Independent which had me on a grandiose 15% for my would-be vote, which was wonderful if probably inflated. A week before the election I was brought down to earth quickly when one of the local newspapers published an opinion poll that put me on less than 2%, I think it was 1.4%. I ended up just getting the average of both of those polls, 7%. I was elected by 17 votes. Clearly an opinion poll can be published in that fashion a few days before an election whereby one is told one does not have a hope. What is the point? Fine Gael had four candidates running and this lad was last in the poll, and if he had not a hope why would anyone vote for him? That is very difficult. Everyone likes an underdog, or in that case the fourth underdog. That has happened in various countries where it could be argued that opinion polls have impacted on election outcomes. Perhaps a national opinion poll is fine but I have concerns about local polls. That is perhaps something we might consider.

I welcome the changes regarding the islands. I am trying to follow this exactly. They are not in the explanatory memorandum but I am trying to follow the ins and outs of them. Certainly many islanders feel very strongly about island voting on the same day as the rest of the country. There was a concern about undue delays with the ballot papers being transported to the mainland. There are attempts to change that as well.

The electoral review will be taking place based on the census figures. This is based on the population of the country and those resident on the day but not the population of electors which in my view favours certain parts of the country. It would certainly favour Dublin viz-à-vizthe west of Ireland. I have no doubt that the Minister will look at that for the forthcoming census. It is an issue that I have concerns about.

Photo of Eugene MurphyEugene Murphy (Fianna Fail)
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I welcome the Minister, Deputy Darragh O'Brien, to the Chamber, and thank the Minister of State, Deputy Burke, for being here with us prior to that.

Photo of Rónán MullenRónán Mullen (Independent)
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I want to kind of cut to a particular issue in relation to this Bill, which is the question of donations made for political purposes. The Bill proposes to make no change in terms of definition. As the Minister knows, a campaign is under way by some NGOs for the definition of “political purposes” to be loosened to ensure that their huge sources of private funding – particularly foreign funding – are not captured by donation rules. This arose from the case in 2018 where the Standards in Public Office Commission, SIPO, tried to compel Amnesty International to return a large donation from the United States, which was given to it to fund a campaign for the introduction of abortion. SIPO believed at the time that this was a political purpose within the relevant legislation. As a result of the outworking of that case, where SIPO effectively pulled in its horns, the Irish Council for Civil Liberties, ICCL, Amnesty and other groups believe that, as the law stands, a political purpose is one that solely involves campaigning in elections, but it does not involve or include their campaigns to Irish laws on everything from abortion to transgender related issues and so on. They seek to copper-fasten, if you like, that loophole by an amendment to the legislation that they are proposing.

However, in all of this, they seem to be confusing a political purpose with an electoral purpose. There is, in fact, a big difference between the two. “Political” is a word, as far as I know, that comes from Aristotle from the Greek work politiká, which means the affairs of the city. By an ordinary dictionary meaning, political means relating to the Government or public affairs of a country.

Therefore, how could campaigns to change Irish laws not be deemed as political? They are surely the very essence of the conduct of Government and public affairs. As I said, in the wake of the Amnesty case, it seems that NGO money is not deemed to be used for a political purpose, even if it is used to campaign to change our laws or the Constitution, provided it is outside of the electoral period. The Irish Council for Civil Liberties, which relies heavily on foreign funding at the moment, has been lobbying intensely, as I said, for this position to be loosened even further. There is a campaign to protect foreign donations being funded by foreign donations, which strikes me as very strange indeed.

Also strange was the fact that some backbench Members of the Minister's own party seemed to support that view, or did at least during the Dáil debate on the Bill. They seem not to grasp the implications of the present position, which is this: if you have an unaccountable lobby group with no mandate that can accept unlimited donations from abroad to fund campaigns to change our laws or Constitution, but if political parties and independent politicians with democratic mandates do not have the same rights, you could have a lobby group or a think tank established here tomorrow funded entirely with money from abroad, aiming to lobby for an Irish exit from the European Union, for example. They could literally accept unlimited money – hundreds of millions – if they wanted to, from the UK, the US, Russia or wherever, and spend that unlimited money over many years, lobbying Irish politicians, mounting publicity campaigns, newspaper advertisements – the works. All of that would be entirely legal under ICCL’s and Amnesty’s interpretation of the law as it stands, of which they seek to copper-fasten. At the same time, if a political party, let us say Fianna Fáil for argument’s sake, wanted to mount an identical campaign to keep us in the European Union. To fund their campaign, they would not be able to accept a penny of foreign donations and would have to rely on donations here in Ireland up to a maximum of €2,500 and so on. The Minister knows the rules.

There is the contrast between the law as it stands, where a tiny unrepresentative lobby group with no membership or public support that we can prove have free rein to mount campaigns to change the law while those with an elected mandated are being hamstrung. That is a situation the Minister needs to address. It is not a case of copper-fastening this loophole, as ICCL and others want. He needs to close that loophole and re-establish the fact that political purposes include campaigning outside of the electoral period. I am amazed that the Minister has not thought to close that loophole in this legislation. The definition of “political purposes” needs to be changed to prevent what is a distortion of democracy.

Viktor Orbán and the Hungarian Government have been criticised for many things, no doubt some things justly and some not, but they were right when they criticised George Soros and the Open Society Foundations. They criticised the phenomenon of massive foreign groups putting money into changing society, basically bypassing the democratic process. We now know how the Open Society Foundations has compromised the independence of the European Court of Human Rights, with many of its kind of alumni now sitting on the benches. We know that Open Society and other foundations are compromising the independence of UN special rapporteurs. We need to have a debate about what happens when money comes in in large amounts from abroad to bankroll campaigns that may not actually have a mandate at all.

I ask the Minister to consider closing the loophole that now appears to exist because of the development of law, in this case, to make sure that we do not have the massive interference of foreign funds in Irish elections, political referendums and other campaigns-----

(Interruptions).

Photo of Rónán MullenRónán Mullen (Independent)
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-----at any stage. Close the loophole.

Photo of Eugene MurphyEugene Murphy (Fianna Fail)
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Excuse me.

Photo of Niall BlaneyNiall Blaney (Fianna Fail)
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When the commotion settles-----

Photo of Eugene MurphyEugene Murphy (Fianna Fail)
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If Members want to talk, they should talk outside.

Photo of Niall BlaneyNiall Blaney (Fianna Fail)
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I want to welcome the Minster to the House-----

Photo of Eugene MurphyEugene Murphy (Fianna Fail)
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Another person is starting to speak and Members are continuing to argue back and forth. That is not okay. I call Senator Blaney, without any interruptions.

Photo of Niall BlaneyNiall Blaney (Fianna Fail)
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I commend the Bill and the work that has gone into it heretofore. The establishment of an electoral commission under the Bill is monumental and overdue. Any democratic Government must aim to include as many people as possible in the electoral process and remove barriers to voting. There are also welcome changes to incentivise electoral boundary decision-making processes that will hopefully avoid cutting off people from voting for representatives in their own counties. I am particularly referring to my own county, among others. We have seen people cut off from voting for Donegal representatives in the southern part of the county. My hope is that whichever way the Donegal constituency is defined, whether it be a five or six-seater, or two or three-seater again, the boundaries must include all of Donegal in the electoral process and allow the people to vote for Donegal representatives. I ask the Minister to bear that in mind from today.

Since the Local Government Reform Act 2014, there has been a slow erosion of local representation through the abolition of town councils and the removal of powers from county councils and county councillors. Councils have since had to pick up the work left over from town councils and have fewer resources to work with. Councils have since been stretched thin and need support to enable them to support their communities to the highest standards. We have a good example of that in my home county. Letterkenny lost its town council and there was marriage with the Milford electoral division as well. The money is being sucked from the rural parts of the now-joined two electoral areas to keep Letterkenny town going. It is not right. It is not for today, but there is an issue there. Resources have to be looked at from that perspective.

Towns that previously had local councils have suffered the most from this decision, which has strained the electoral system to provide adequate representation. Unfortunately, the level of local representation that has been removed has not been replaced. This must be addressed in the future. I hope that having a centralised authority to tackle electoral issues will help bridge this representation gap and create space to discuss local representation going forward. Having an electoral boundary committee that will make the right choice for the people will go a long way in addressing this democratic deficit.

I also want to strongly commend this Bill on its aim to tackle interference in our elections. We are seeing foreign interference in elections and referendums in Ireland and across Europe taking place through political campaign financing and advertising on social media platforms. This Bill has a very welcome set of provisions to tackle the existing issues that we have already identified. The Bill also addresses the wider problems that have been seen in other European countries before they take root here. Foreign money has been supporting certain political campaigns in our country and this Bill goes a long way in putting a stop to that. We have seen great financial effort in social media advertising campaigns that aim to target people and influence their voting decisions. I support the idea that all political advertisers must be open about their goals, audience targeting and amount spent. The provisions here will add much needed transparency to a space that has so far been regulated by each platform according to its own standards. We must put public trust and security first, and I believe this Bill will do just that.

All in all, this legislation is far-reaching and will update our voting system from top to bottom. The Bill strives to modernise our democratic process and future-proof our elections. Removing barriers to voting has been long awaited.It is also crucial that social media campaigning is addressed before any irreversible damage is done to our electoral process as we have seen happen in other countries.

I strongly support this Bill and I hope the conversation will continue about local representation and the importance of having local and effective representation. Local democracy is very clean and has always been a very important part of our democracy down through the years. The role played by county councils and councillors is a very important one.

While the removal of the dual mandate probably needed to be done, there has been a deficit across all councils since that has happened that has never been properly looked into and dealt with. That is where that experience at Oireachtas level has been lost at council level and in council chambers. There needs to be something greater than just the few meetings a year with Oireachtas colleagues. There needs to be something there to make up that relationship because it is counties, particularly rural counties, that are losing infrastructurally as a result of that.

Photo of Niall Ó DonnghaileNiall Ó Donnghaile (Sinn Fein)
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I dtús báire, ba mhaith liom fáilte a chur roimh an Aire agus táim ag súil go mór leis an bplé agus le ráiteas agus freagraí an Aire anocht. The Minister is very welcome.

I want to begin by speaking briefly about my personal experience in campaigning and fighting elections in the North and the issue of proxy voting. I understand anything new or different may present people with some concerns by definition of its newness. I always find anything that strengthens and furthers people's ability to take part in the democratic process is positive and is welcome. Certainly, over many years of being able to engage in proxy voting in the North, I am not aware of any real standard case or cause for concern within the electoral process. This is not to pit one against the other because I believe both are positive, welcome and good.

In terms of postal votes, for example, if a person incapable of reaching a polling station, he or she is equally incapable of reaching a post office or a postbox to post his or her vote. The ability for people to have someone they know and trust to vote on their behalf, thereby ensuring they still have democratic expression, is a good and welcome thing.

I also commend Senator Warfield’s remarks, for which the Minister was not present, in respect of his long-standing campaign for votes to be extended to 16-year-olds in local government and European elections. He has tabled legislation in this House on a number of occasions and we have been told it needed to be looked at and needed more time. I hope people have had the opportunity to look at it and reflect on it, and to take the time that has passed to do this. I certainly alert the Minister to the fact Senator Warfield and the rest of us in Sinn Féin will table amendments to this legislation that will seek to give 16-year-olds the vote in those elections.

The following falls slightly outside the remit of this legislation, so I hope the Minister will indulge me very briefly. It is on the issue of extending presidential voting rights to citizens outside the State. I know it is a programme for Government commitment and is a long-standing commitment of political parties across the spectrum in this State and beyond. We only have a limited amount of time to do this and, as I am sure the Minister will agree, a limited amount of time to win this, to make the arguments, to outline the rationale, to engage with our diaspora networks around the world, to ensure we are engaged with citizens in the North at this most crucial time, and to ensure people understand the importance of this and the reasons we need to ensure the referendum is won in order that citizens outside of the State are enfranchised with that vote.

I would hope we could move the referendum Bill in this House, if that is required. As I understand this from the Minister’s predecessor, a substantial amount of work and research was carried out by departmental officials in looking at the options for this. The legislation is there and it is time it was moved. Perhaps the Minister might give us an initial outline of when he, as Minister with ultimate responsibility for this, would be bringing it forward.

I raise the issue that was raised by colleagues in the Dáil pertaining to amendment No. 2 that was passed on Report Stage in that House, which is the amendment on lotteries. I am not suggesting we have, nor do I want to engage in, a heated exchange across the Seanad floor on this issue, but a number of questions were posed. I need to understand the rationale for amendment No. 2 on Report Stage, where it came from, the thinking behind it, what it is for, what it is seeking to do, and who it is seeking to benefit. I found it astonishing that a Minister of State would respond on the floor of Parliament with no comment. I hope the Minister will not respond here with no comment as opposed to giving us a full and comprehensive outline and rationale for that amendment, given that the questions did pertain to very legitimate and serious concerns around illegality by the Fianna Fáil Party on the lottery. I would like to hear the Minister’s rationale. I am sure he equally agrees it is not good enough for Ministers anywhere, never mind within his own Department, to be responding to questions from the floor with simply no comment.

Photo of Jerry ButtimerJerry Buttimer (Fine Gael)
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The Minister is very welcome to the House. I thank him and the Minister of State, Deputy Burke, for the work they have done and I pay tribute to Senator Cummins for his outstanding work on the committee. I also pay tribute to the Minister of State, Deputy Noonan, for his stewardship of the Bill. To be fair to all of the Ministers and the Department, there has been accessibility and a willingness to debate. I also thank the departmental officials.

This is significant legislation that will change our electoral system forever. It is one that many of us welcome, whether it is to register to vote, the register of electors, the maintenance of the political register, or the now very apt online regulation of political advertising.

All of us who are practitioners of politics will welcome an electoral commission. It will be impartial, independent and will have oversight of our electoral system, but I have a difficulty. I do not mean this to be offensive but we need to put politicians who are either retired or local or non-general election candidates on the electoral commission. We have judges and civil servants, and I will not name names, who are presiding and will be part of this commission. While I am not questioning their competence, they have never run for election. In the main, they may not be involved in the political system at all, and the book and the theory, as the Minister knows quite well, are different from the reality. The proof of it is the electoral boundary review. Time after time we are told after every census we will have an independent electoral boundary review committee. We pick the Clerk of the Seanad, the Clerk of the Dáil, a judge here and whoever else to be on it. Time and again they have decimated communities by drawing an arbitrary line, taking road A and road B, putting them in two different constituencies and disempowering people. That cannot continue. I appreciate we have come a long way from the gerrymander, and I am old enough to remember the last infamous one, which backfired badly on the then Minister, whom I will not name in the House, but the Minister here knows who I mean and what year it was. I very much hope the electoral commission will work in respect of the political boundary review and will not disempower and disenfranchise communities.

I also very much welcome the independence of the electoral commission. Looking at what is happening in America, and the Cathaoirleach is very familiar with this, it is extraordinary that the secretary of state in the state of Georgia or Arizona, for example, can receive a phone call from the President of America looking to find 11,000 votes allegedly to change the outcome of the state's election.That is bad and unhealthy for democracy and bordering on corruption. Therefore, I welcome integrity and independence.

Democracy costs money. To have our democracy free and fair, I believe, requires State funding and State involvement in the funding of political parties. I am unapologetic about that. It sickens me to see people in America running for election raising millions of dollars at state, local and national levels to run a political campaign. I hope that we can always have that transparency in our electoral system because if we lose that it will be back to the bad old days where none of us wants to go. I hope that the electoral commission will be able to keep that at its core because we must fund democracy. We must not be worried about what the commentariat will say about the funding of democracy.

Senator Kyne made a good point about opinion polls. My time is nearly up but I will come back to it on Committee Stage, as I will to other issues.

I sincerely thank the Minister, Deputy Darragh O'Brien, and his team in the Department for this Bill, which is long overdue. It is an important piece of legislation that I hope we will all support. I look forward to having further discussion on Committee and Report Stages.

Photo of Eugene MurphyEugene Murphy (Fianna Fail)
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I welcome the Minister, Deputy Darragh O'Brien. I thank Senator Fitzpatrick and others in the party and, indeed, Senator Cummins, the Ministers of State, Deputy Peter Burke and Noonan, for their work on this.

It is important that we deal with the electoral process like this and the setting up of An Coimisiún Toghcháin will be a major step forward in the protection of the democracy in the State. We heard much talk here about outside influences and money. I would like the younger generation to realise how hard people fought for our democracy and how easily it now could be influenced by influences outside, which have no great desire to help the State but to use it in a way that would not do us any good.

We must move with the times and we must acknowledge and realise that many democracies are now under attack. Here we must be transparent in what we do. There is no doubt about what is proposed in this Bill. It will be transparent. It will be good. Once people start to focus on this, they will be quite appreciative of what we politicians are trying to do.

I welcome that we will be looking at the extension of postal voter categories. I also would say - it is something that was brought up here by somebody and might be only a smaller point in the overall discussion - that sometimes when people are caught abroad on holiday and suddenly an election is called and they cannot vote, they get extremely annoyed and upset. There are people who go abroad for work or whatever reasons who can be covered for a vote, but there are categories that are not covered. It is something I would like looked at because many people will come to me stating that they had holidays planned, they like to vote every time and they cannot vote because they will be gone out of the country for the election.

On the electoral register, I do not know if I would agree with one particular local authority having the overall say. There is much to be benefited from each local authority doing the registers but people move around a great deal nowadays and it is difficult to keep a check on people. We must reform it but rather than having one local authority overseeing the whole lot, it should be done through each local authority.

The boundary commission is not exactly what we are discussing here today but one would wonder at times how it makes decisions. For my constituency of Roscommon-Galway, on the last occasion they decided to move 7,500 votes out of north Roscommon into Sligo-Leitrim-South Donegal. They had done it with Cavan previously - they put them in with Sligo-Leitrim-South Donegal - and the Cavan people were not long saying that they had to get that changed. Certainly, in a Roscommon context, we want our county intact. It is something that we will be looking at in the future. I suppose the commission has decisions to make but one would wonder sometimes how it works it out that way. They will see us as population numbers and so many people per TD. They work out from an existing system but this is something we should further reform as well.

Photo of Darragh O'BrienDarragh O'Brien (Dublin Fingal, Fianna Fail)
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Gabhaim buíochas leis an gCathaoirleach agus le gach Seanadóir a ghlac páirt sa díospóireacht thábhachtach seo ar Bille an-tábhachtach, agus go háirithe na Seanadóirí Fitzpatrick agus Cummins, mar bhaill den choiste, as ucht a gcuid oibre. I thank the Senators for their contribution to the debates. I was not here for the first part. My colleague, the Minister of State, Deputy Peter Burke, was here but I was watching contributions on the screen in the office.

This Bill represents a fundamental reform of our electoral legislation and how we operate the electoral process within our system. It is a once-in-a-generation piece of legislation and a fundamental change that has been long overdue. The Bill will provide the upgrading of the apparatus of how we run our election system but also provide much needed accessibility, greater integrity and much greater transparency within our electoral process in a changing.

I thank all Senators for their supportive and contributions to the debate. There have been many contributions made here, with sensible suggestions and points of view brought forward that we will be able to tease out further on Committee Stage. I would like to return to the core elements of the legislation. Importantly, it will provide for an independent electoral commission which will bring together a range of electoral functions under one roof. It will be positioned in a regulatory space. It will take a high-level view of our electoral system and steer its evolution.

The Bill, as I mentioned, will provide a much greater level of accessibility, greater integrity for our electoral processes, and much greater transparency about those who stand for elections, parties that run for election and the process of it. This modernisation process will take better account of modern realities such as access to technology, a more mobile population and greater understanding of issues that different people face in exercising their rights. I, as Minister, and the Government want to ensure that people are not hindered from exercising their electoral rights and we want more people involved in our electoral process.

We have tried, through this process, to take on board a great deal of work that has been done by many groups and, indeed, by many politicians, many of whom are in this House, to look at how we can move this forward and realise a firm commitment within the programme for Government to modernise and protect our democracy. That has been a comment that has been used loosely in the past about protecting democracy, and maybe used in a glib way too, but look at what has happened to our nearest neighbour. Look at the interference that happened during the Brexit referendum. Look at what we know happened in the US election. These things happen. There has been interference in other democracies by outside actors. We do not have the luxury of assuming that will not happen here or, indeed, that it does not happen here. That is why the area of online advertising and how online interacts with our electoral process is important.

The Bill provides for the compulsory labelling of paid online political advertisements during electoral periods. This will help to ensure transparency in the run up to elections and referendums and ensure that our elections remain free from hidden influences on how we vote. All of us would want that.

It strengthens our political donations and accounts regulation, giving SIPO more regulatory and new enforcement powers.

The Bill makes prudent provisions to assist with holding electoral events during a pandemic, which we hope never to see again.

The Bill will bring about, as Senator Kyne mentioned, same-day island voting, recognising that in the modern era we have the facilities to allow that all polling stations open on the same day.

It brings clarity to fund-raising. It brings clarity to the use of draws and lotteries by political parties as a legitimate part of their fund-raising activities. I would like to restate that all contributions received in these are classified as political donations, and are subject to existing regulations.Senator Buttimer raised a number of issues regarding the membership of the commission that I want to address. Section 9 set sout the recommendations for appointment of ordinary members of the commission. Section 9(4) states:

Where making recommendations of persons who are suitable for appointment as ordinary members of the Commission under this section, the Service shall have regard to the desirability of the members of the Commission possessing knowledge of, and experience in, matters connected with the following: (a) electoral matters, including any experience or expertise gained as a former member of the Houses of the Oireachtas or a local authority;

There are many instances in which boards and agencies have been set up and for some reason those who were elected and who served the State as a public representative have been precluded from being members. That will not happen in this instance. The process will be open. People will apply to serve on the commission and specific criteria will apply. No former public representative, either at local government or national level, will be excluded.

I am not going to get into a back and forth argument on political fundraising. We all have our own views on that but I want to be very clear on the lottery piece. The amendment was introduced on Report Stage in the Dáil. It is intended to provide that registered political parties may apply to the District Court for a licence to run periodic lotteries to support their legitimate fundraising activities. There is no secret in that. For the avoidance of doubt, these provisions are intended to provide that any lotteries operated by any political party, whether referred to as draws, raffles, sweepstakes or otherwise, can continue to be run subject to the requirements under the new Part 8. As was mentioned earlier, political parties engage in legitimate fundraising to run elections. The alternative is that the taxpayer provides such funds, which I do not support. I would not support a situation where the Exchequer would support every political party and cover all of their expenses at election time. What is being done here is very clear. It is a transparent and open process, brought forward in legislation in the Dáil and brought into the Seanad to be debated. I assume Members will accept that amendment.

We could go into a lot of other matters around political fundraising but I am not going to do so now. That was done last week in the Dáil and people can make up their own minds on the transparency of political parties, their fundraising activities and where they source their funds. I want to look forward on this. I want to put a permanent electoral commission in place that will manage our elections and referenda and that will ensure misinformation is called out and that our elections are protected as much as possible from outside actors who wish to damage our democracy and who wish to be able to influence the outcome of elections here in a certain way, by force of funds from abroad, for certain political reasons. We know very well that states do this, including Russia, which has been engaged in a brutal invasion of Ukraine that we all condemn. We all know of the Russian influence on elections on our doorstep and that is not something we should countenance. We must being forward every possible measure to protect our electoral system.

In fairness, when this legislation passes, and I thank all Members for their support for it, we will be an exemplar in Europe with our electoral commission, particularly in the context of the online space. The Bill attempts to make sure that the information our people get is correct and where it is not correct or is being used for another campaign in the background, that is called out. This is about protecting our democracy and our electoral system and is a very important step forward.

I acknowledge Senator Byrne's contribution on the educational function of the commission and the different subgroups that the commission can set up. I hope we can explore that more on Committee Stage. The commission needs to be resourced appropriately to carry out the functions it is given. Once we pass the legislation before the summer recess, we will move very quickly to the full establishment of the commission. It will then be responsible for the next Dáil boundary reviews. The census data will be available and there is a constitutional imperative to review the boundaries in the light of that data. I wish to confirm again that there will be no changes to the local electoral boundaries between now and the next local elections. Changes will be made to boundaries for Dáil and European elections once the census results are published.

We have taken a number of points that Senators raised about the register and about pre-registration on board, including those raised by Senator Warfield. He has worked on extending the franchise to those aged between 16 and 18. I am bringing forward a pre-registration process so that 16- to 18-year-olds are registered in advance of the election, which is a significant step forward but I would expect the commission to look in more detail at that. On votes for the diaspora in presidential elections, the relevant Bill has been returned to the Dáil Order Paper. It is under the remit of the Department of Foreign Affairs.

I thank Senators for their contributions and look forward to working with them on Committee Stage and moving this legislation, which is crucially important for our democracy here in the Republic, through the Houses.

Question put and agreed to.

Photo of Mark DalyMark Daly (Fianna Fail)
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When is it proposed to take Committee Stage?

Photo of Mary FitzpatrickMary Fitzpatrick (Fianna Fail)
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Next Tuesday.

Photo of Mark DalyMark Daly (Fianna Fail)
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Is that agreed? Agreed.

Committee Stage ordered for Tuesday, 28 June 2022.

Cuireadh an Seanad ar athló ar 6.56 p.m. go dtí 10 a.m., Dé Céadaoin, an 22 Meitheamh 2022.

The Seanad adjourned at 6.56 p.m. until 10 a.m. on Wednesday, 22 June 2022.