Seanad debates

Tuesday, 5 March 2024

Nithe i dtosach suíonna - Commencement Matters

Electoral Process

1:00 pm

Photo of Malcolm ByrneMalcolm Byrne (Fianna Fail)
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Cuirim fáilte roimh an Aire Stáit. As the Minister of State knows, we will have a referendum on Friday. We do not know what the results will be but it is certain that we will see the closure of thousands of primary schools all around the country to facilitate the vote. While I appreciate this may bring some joy to some of the students and indeed the staff, it causes childcare difficulties for many parents as a result. I am not in any way suggesting that primary schools are childcare providers but it causes a number of problems for parents who planned their week and suddenly have to take a day off because of a vote. In addition, it is a day out of the formal education system for children.

I appreciate that if we move to Saturday or indeed Sunday voting, which would be in line with many of our fellow EU member states, that may resolve some of those issues, although the evidence is not yet clear from the last general election or indeed the children's referendum that Saturday voting increases turnout. That said, we need to look at broadening the range of venues that can be used as polling places, particularly because of the impact on education and the disruption that it can cause to some families. I appreciate, because these are public buildings, that there is a cost saving to the State because it is using public buildings, but there are other public buildings that may possibly be used. I am thinking about libraries, local authority offices or indeed Garda stations.

In the UK, local authorities have a mandate that every five years, they have a responsibility to conduct a compulsory review of all polling places. This would make sense here, not just for that reason but also because, as the Minister of State knows, there have been issues with the accessibility of certain polling places. I think we should move to a situation where all polling places are particularly accessible.

It is interesting that, in Australia, electors can vote in any polling place in their constituency. This makes a lot of sense. Your polling place may be close to where you are living but because of what you are doing during the course of the day, your place of work may not be close. The polling clerks are able to check online, with somebody's identity, and are able to cross them off online when they come in to vote. Australia has quite a number of pre-poll voting centres where people can come prior to the election and cast their vote. These, interestingly, do not just include supermarkets but airports. If people are on their way out of the country, they can still cast a vote at an airport.

We need to facilitate people to vote in accessible places. We do not need to continuously rely, as we have since the vote was granted, primarily on primary schools. As the Minister of State is aware, there have been pilots using supermarkets and other polling venues in other countries. The evidence about whether it increases turnout in them is inconclusive. It is important that we try to ensure that we facilitate people, particularly families which, as the Minister of State knows, come in all forms, which I hope will be reflected in the referendum on Friday. For those families, there can often be a difficulty if their local primary school is closed. I ask the Department to indicate that there will be a review of polling places or at least that it might request the Electoral Commission to carry out such a review

Photo of Malcolm NoonanMalcolm Noonan (Carlow-Kilkenny, Green Party)
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I thank Senator Malcolm Byrne for raising this issue. I have to declare an interest in that my children lobbied me this week to try to have their school included. Unfortunately, it is not, but they would certainly like to have their school included as one of the polling centres.

I know the issue of how our elections and referendums are run is prominent as we prepare for the holding of two referendums this Friday, 8 March, that on the Thirty-ninth Amendment of the Constitution (The Family) Bill 2023, and that on the Fortieth Amendment of the Constitution (Care) Bill 2023. The primary role of the Department in electoral matters is to provide an appropriate policy and legislative framework for a modern and efficient electoral system. Within that framework, local returning officers are responsible for all matters in connection with the actual conduct of elections and referendums. In accordance with section 94 of the Electoral Act 1992, this includes the provision of a sufficient number of polling stations, conveniently distributed for the accommodation of the electors entitled to vote there.

Electoral law provides that a returning officer may, for the purposes of taking a poll and counting the votes, use a school or any room in a school free of charge. Guidance issued to returning officers by the Department in advance of electoral events advises that when schools are used as polling stations, every step should be taken to ensure that schools are not closed unnecessarily and that disruption of school work should be kept to a minimum. The guidance advises that, where possible, school halls should be used instead of classrooms and that voting compartments and other equipment should be fitted up and dismantled after school hours. The guidance also advises that it is open to returning officers to hire a hall or other premises if they consider it to be appropriate, so there is flexibility. It is important to note that the wide distribution of schools around the country helps to fulfil the requirement under electoral law to provide polling stations conveniently distributed for the accommodation of electors.

Given the week that is in it, I would like to use this opportunity to thank returning officers and their staff throughout the country for their hard work and dedication in ensuring that polling happens in every polling district and constituency. The logistical work in ensuring the taking of a poll for an electorate of some 3.4 million people should not be underestimated. I also acknowledge the flexibility and facilitation shown by school principals, teachers, staff and parents in facilitating the use of schools for polling. This facilitation can come at an inconvenience for schools and I thank all involved for their co-operation.

I will come back in again with a supplementary response. The Senator has made some valid points, specifically in regard to Saturday and Sunday voting, to which the Electoral Commission will refer when it publishes its research programme following the public consultation that took place earlier this year. The Senator himself asked whether it would increase turnout. It may not and different jurisdictions have had different experiences with it. There is a regular review of polling places following electoral events. I have met disability and access groups with regard to accessibility and ensuring that polling stations are fully accessible. We want to ensure that we can have maximum participation in all of our electoral events, which is the premise of this Commencement matter.

Photo of Malcolm ByrneMalcolm Byrne (Fianna Fail)
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I join the Minister of State in thanking all of those involved in the electoral process because, without them, we would not have the democracy that we have. While this causes inconvenience to schools, the Minister of State will be aware that one of the primary reasons that I raise this as a concern is the effect on parents. If a school closes and they have existing childcare arrangements, they may need to make different arrangements as a result of the school closing.

I believe the Electoral Commission's review of this needs to be considered. I welcome the fact there is a review but we have been using primary schools forever and it is unfortunate that a number of them remain inaccessible, particularly for those with disabilities. If we are going to continue to require people to go to a specific polling station, then every polling station should be accessible to everybody. We need to look at more flexible ways of allowing people to cast their vote, including the possibility of voting in advance.

Photo of Malcolm NoonanMalcolm Noonan (Carlow-Kilkenny, Green Party)
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I agree with the Senator. Certainly, in terms of accessibility, the view from the meetings I have had with our franchise section and with access groups is that significant improvements have been made regarding public accessibility and ensuring premises are fully accessible for people with visual impairments and physical disabilities.That is critical. As I said, the objective is to maximise the participation of everybody who is eligible to vote in our electoral system. We have the referendums this weekend and the local and European elections in June, and it is will be very important to try to get a high voter turnout in both those electoral events.

I take on board the points the Senator is making about the use of schools and the inconvenience for parents. It is something we will take back to the commission and ask it to look at. It is going to publish its research programme shortly relating to the use of Saturday and Sunday voting, whether that would increase turnout and what the experience has been in other jurisdictions. Nevertheless, the flexibility is there to segregate parts of school premises and seek out halls or other suitable premises in constituencies.

Photo of Martin ConwayMartin Conway (Fine Gael)
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I thank the Minister of State. Before I call Senator Cummins, I welcome to the Gallery Isobel Danaher from County Clare and her father, Dan. Isobel is an award-winning student journalist in post-primary school. She has interviewed me over the years and had several articles published in the regional press. I have no doubt this will be her first of many visits to Leinster House. I also welcome her father, Dan, who has been a journalist for decades with The Clare Champion. I hope Isobel will have an informative day and that Leinster House will not put her off politics.