Minister says reduced voting hours saved the State more than €600,000

Fine Gael TD calls for polling stations to be open 15 hours to improve commuter turnout

Fine Gael TD  Andrew Doyle: introduced legislation to set voting hours at 7am to 10pm.

Fine Gael TD Andrew Doyle: introduced legislation to set voting hours at 7am to 10pm.

Sat, Jul 5, 2014, 01:02

Voters living in commuter counties are most affected when polling station opening hours are reduced and this has a negative impact on turnout, Fine Gael TD Andrew Doyle has claimed.

However, a two-hour cut in voting time saved the State €640,000 in wage costs during a referendum and a similar cut in the Meath East byelection saved the exchequer €14,000, Minister of State Fergus O’Dowd responded.

Mr Doyle introduced legislation to set voting hours at 7am to 10pm. Under current legislation, he said, polling stations were open for a minimum of 12 hours between 7am and 10.30pm.

The Wicklow TD said people were “very surprised” and confused when, in the children’s rights referendum in 2012, stations were open from 9am to 10pm, while during the 2013 Meath East byelection, voting hours were between 8am and 9pm. Wicklow, Kildare, Meath and Louth had very high commuter populations and were most affected by reduced hours, he said. “People who commute are generally the ones to lose out,” he added, noting that turnout in recent elections had hit lows where hours of polling were cut.

“In Donegal South West during the children’s referendum, turnout barely reached 24 per cent, while in Galway East it reached 28 per cent,” he said. He accepted other factors may have been responsible for the low turnout, but the election result “was more marginal than expected”. In the 2013 Meath East byelection, turnout did not even reach 40 per cent, he said. “Given the considerable focus on the byelection, the turnout was surprising.”

Mr Doyle also called for consolidation of electoral legislation into one Act, because there were currently 31 Acts and 77 related statutory instruments.

Mr O’Dowd said the Government would not oppose the Electoral (Amendment) Hours of Polling Bill. However a review of recent turnouts showed “no discernible positive correlation between polling hours and turnout”.

He said the children’s referendum vote was on a Saturday with a later 9am start because most people were not at work. In the 2013 Meath East byelection, an estimated €14,000 was saved in staff costs.

Earlier, the Government said it would not oppose “at this stage” legislation from Fianna Fáil environment spokesman Barry Cowen aimed at cutting commercial rates for sports clubs, which were being charged for their dressing rooms and sports halls as well as their bars.

Mr Cowen said the commercial rates system hit GAA, soccer, rugby and other sports clubs with “deeply unfair bills”, and his Valuation Bill aimed to reduce the rates to cover the bar alone and not on the actual sports facility. “Clubs should not be penalised for developing top-class facilities just because they have a bar.”

Government backbenchers supported the move, with Fine Gael TD Helen McEntee highlighting one Meath club’s annual commercial rates charge of €20,000 and 10 other clubs in arrears for thousands of euros. Minister of State Paul Kehoe said he would not oppose the Bill “at this stage”, but highlighted technical difficulties. The Bill should be referred to committee for discussion and licensed vintners should also have their say, he told the Dáil.