Weekend referendums and voting at 16 recommended by Citizens’ Assembly

Members vote in favour of retaining status quo in relation to public funding of referendums

Chair of the Citizens’ Assembly Ms Mary Laffoy and Sharon Finegan, secretary, in  Malahide. Photograph: Gareth Chaney Collins

Chair of the Citizens’ Assembly Ms Mary Laffoy and Sharon Finegan, secretary, in Malahide. Photograph: Gareth Chaney Collins

 

Referendums should be held on weekends and the voting age should be dropped to 16 to encourage higher turnout, the Citizens’ Assembly has recommended.

At the same time, there should be no change to the prohibition on governments spending public money on campaigning, it said.

At the end of a two-day meeting in Dublin, the assembly – whose 99 members comprise a representative sample of the public – called for a series of reforms, including the setting up of a permanent electoral commission to oversee future elections and referendums.

Currently referendum commissions are set up on an ad-hoc basis for each referendum but are stood down after the vote has concluded.

Political scientist Prof Michael Marsh told the assembly that the idea of a permanent electoral commission was a “no-brainer”.

Some 94 per cent of the members of the assembly voted in favour of an electoral commission with the same number stating it should be obliged to give its views on significant matters of factual or legal disputes that arise during referendum campaigns.

An overwhelming majority (87 per cent) of the assembly voted in favour of retaining the status quo in relation to the public funding of referendums. They agreed that governments should continue not being allowed to spend public money to advocate on one side or another of a referendum campaign.

Financing

A smaller but still significant majority (68 per cent) voted that governments should provide money to both sides equally in referendum campaigns.

The assembly members voted almost unanimously (98 per cent) for the Oireachtas to develop and effectively implement a system of spending limits in referendum campaigns for registered political parties, campaign groups and individuals.

A total of 72 per cent voted for the prohibition of anonymous donations to registered political parties and campaign groups.

They also voted by a similar percentage (76 per cent) to allow for more than two options on a ballot paper in a referendum – a so-called “preferendum”.

A small majority (52 per cent) voted in favour of the proposition that when there are more than two options on the ballot paper in a constitutional referendum, the outcome should be decided by proportional representation (PR) and standard transferable vote (STV).

They also voted in favour of measures which would boost turnout in elections. There was unanimous support for weekend voting and 80 per cent of those present were in favour of lowering the voting age to 16.

There was also support for early voting in the weeks before a poll (56 per cent), online voting (70 per cent), the wider availability of postal voting (83 per cent) and for the ability to vote at any polling station in the State (89 per cent).

There was also widespread support for the notion of citizens’ initiatives which exist in countries such as Switzerland and Australia whereby a constitutional referendum or new legislative Bill is triggered after public petitions get an agreed number of signatures.

Some 69 per cent of assembly members approved the idea of citizens’ initiatives that can lead to constitutional referendums and the same number voted in favour of putting a legislative change proposal to the people (including enacting, changing or repealing legislation).

The outcome of the ballot will now be sent to the Houses of the Oireachtas for consideration.

The fifth and last proposition that the Citizens’ Assembly will discuss will be the idea of fixed-term parliament. That issue will be discussed in May.