To the surprise of many Taoiseach Leo Varadkar declared February 8th as polling day, claiming it would be easier for families and younger voters working or studying away from home to cast their ballots.
The decision took Opposition parties and political observers by surprise. It also raised suspicions that Fine Gael scented electoral gains through a shift in the type of voters turning out on the day.
However, one of the world’s leading experts on voter behaviour, Canadian-based prof André Blais of the University of Montreal, has cast doubt on Varadkar’s hopes and expectations that switching to weekend voting increases turnout.
“I think the evidence on this is pretty ambiguous,” he said. “My own view, at this point of time, is that there isn’t much impact. Different studies have come up with different results and my own position is that it has very little effect.”
He added: “The main reason people decide to vote is really how interested they are in the election, whether they have a feeling of duty or not to vote. I think it is mostly about motivation.
“Also, when it is on a weekend, it has advantages and disadvantages. Advantages are people have more time. But disadvantages may include people planning other activities.”
However, Blais said it is possible that different polling days would affect the type of voter that turns out. “I haven’t seen hard evidence about this, but it might,” he said.
But Fianna Fáil smells a rat. Director of elections Dara Calleary suggested as much: “This Taoiseach doesn’t do anything unless there is an opinion poll and research carried out before he does it.”
However, a Varadkar spokesman insisted that no such research was conducted ahead of moving away from weekday voting for the first time in the history of the State – though the 1918 election also took place on a Saturday.
One effect of this could be a bigger vote for parties who tap into the growing politicisation of younger people
Varadkar “consulted widely on this matter with colleagues, advisers, and others”, he said.
Regardless of who or what informed the decision, the burning question is what, if anything, is the likely impact.
Deputy director of the National Youth Council of Ireland James Doorley has long campaigned for weekend voting and expects a spike in younger voters, particularly outside the main cities.
“A lot of young people who are studying in a university, training or doing an apprenticeship in another part of the country are more likely to be back home – particularly 18 to 25-year-olds who wouldn’t have changed their registration and whose vote is where they were brought up,” he said.
One effect of this could be a bigger vote for parties who tap into the growing politicisation of younger people over climate action, in particular, but also mental health, housing and homelessness, he added.
“Young people are very exercised by issues, not parties and labels and some of the stuff that happens in the Dáil,” he said. “Climate action is not the sole issue, but it is one where young people are impatient and frustrated that more isn’t being done.”
President of the Union of Students in Ireland Lorna Fitzpatrick agrees, but noted “a lot of students work over the weekend to try and pay their way through college, with the cost of living and second-highest fees in Europe and so on. Students are usually working where they are studying and not where they are registered to vote.”
Concerns have also been raised that thousands who believe they are registered to vote may not be on the electoral register.
Dr Adrian Kavanagh, a political geographer at Maynooth University, said the register is “always in a mess” and was an unknown quantity when it comes to predicting any shifts in voter behaviour with weekend voting.
“I think that confusion is going to mess things up,” he said.
Another big unknown will be the impact of the weather on the day.
“We are in the middle of winter. We don’t know what weather will be like at the start of February,” said Kavanagh. “We could find that turnout will be lower than 2016.”
I think you'd have to be cautious about saying it will lead to a big youth vote
Dr Theresa Reidy, a political scientist at University College Cork, said while Fine Gael “probably has the edge” over Fianna Fáil in attracting younger voters, it would be the likes of Green Party, in particular, who could reap the rewards of a surge in the youth vote.
Reidy also cautioned that a high turnout of younger voters in the marriage referendum wasn’t replicated in the general election nine months later, when turnout of the same age group “fell off fairly sharply”.
“While it is positive to hold the election at the weekend in the expectation or hope of engaging younger people, I think you’d have to be cautious about saying it will lead to a big youth vote,” said Reidy.
Another unknown factor is how parties will get their vote out during the day.
Calleary said without the traditional rhythms of weekday voting habits, no one really knows at what time of the day people will want to cast their ballot.
“And then there is the fact that the Ireland vs Wales rugby match is on. Will people try to vote before the match? There are also a lot of national league matches on around the country, so will travelling fans vote before they go? Like anything done for the first time, we won’t know until after it is done.”
But Jennifer Carroll-MacNeil, Fine Gael’s replacement candidate for Maria Bailey in Dún Laoghaire and who is married to former Irish rugby international Hugo MacNeil, isn’t worried about the big game getting in the way.
“People who want to vote will find time on their day to vote,” she said.