Five ways to increase voter turnout

Opinion: Voter apathy at election-time must be tackled

‘People should be automatically registered for voting at 18.’ Photograph: Getty Images

‘People should be automatically registered for voting at 18.’ Photograph: Getty Images


With the local and European elections just around the corner, we will be given an opportunity to choose who is going to run the institutions that govern our lives on a daily basis. Unfortunately many of us will choose not to exercise this right, and we cannot blame the apathy of the current generation. This is a problem that has persisted for many years in Ireland.

A striking statistic for the Seanad Abolition Referendum last year is that only 39 per cent of people voted on how their country should be governed. Even more worrying, this was not the lowest turnout in an Irish referendum; that distinction can be given to the 1979 referendum on the power of the Adoptions Board, when only 28 per cent of people cast a ballot. Whatever one feels about politics or the political establishment, surely it cannot be argued that adoption – the future of a child – is not of importance.

Martin Luther King march
That same day in 1979 another ballot was cast on extending the franchise for Seanad elections beyond those who hold NUI degrees, again with only 28 per cent of people voting. This was held only 16 years after Dr Martin Luther King marched on Washington

with 300,000 people demanding the enfranchisement of all American citizens, regardless of colour. Yet we in Ireland did not cast a ballot to allow others to have a greater say in how the State was run, regardless of their education.

The problem doesn’t stop with referendums. Seventy per cent of people went out on February 25th, 2011, to decide who would run the country after economic sovereignty was lost. While it showed a 2 per cent increase in turnout when compared to the 2007 general election, it still showed that three in 10 people didn’t think the bank bailout, loss of economic sovereignty, cuts to public services and tax increases were of sufficient importance to cast their vote.This apathy must be tackled. An increase in turnout can be achieved through a variety of ways:
1. Education: A dedicated civics class is needed for children of all ages. This subject needs to focus on the importance of government, voting and what could happen, with examples, if we got it wrong. It is through these examples that younger generations will realise the importance of their right to vote and if it is ingrained in them at a young age they are unlikely to forget it;

2. Automatic registration: People should be automatically registered for voting at 18. We have a system in place to ensure everyone upon reaching 16 is issued a PPS number. There is no reason why this system cannot be used for the electoral roll, instead of having to register three weeks before the poll;

3. Weekend Voting: When a Bill was introduced for San Francisco to make Saturday voting mandatory for local elections it was acknowledged that it was important to ensure citizens get an electoral schedule “based on current housing and workplace patterns”. Weekend voting would help increase turnout. To take a European example, a statute is in place in France that dictates polling days must be on a Sunday.

4. Postal vote: This system needs to improve. As it stands, a person needs to know whether they will be away from their constituency two days after the dissolution of the Dáil, which could be up to four weeks before the poll takes place. A centralised electronic system that would allow people to input which constituency they would be in on polling day and allow a ballot to be there for them and then returned to their constituency of origin in time for the count should be put in place.

5. Compulsory voting: Although voting is a fundamental right it is also an obligation. Mandatory voting operates in 31 countries, including Brazil and Australia which have registered a turnout of 91.3 per cent respectively in their last elections. Structures need to be put in place to ensure the framework of the country has the greatest legitimacy along with those who govern it.

Colm Bergin was campaign co-ordinator for Alan Kelly
TD (Labour) in the last
general election

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