Election monitors recommend expanding Irish voting rights

Canadian NGO which observed Eighth Amendment vote visited 121 polling stations

 Taoiseach Leo Varadkar TD casting his vote in the Eighth Amendment referendum at Scoil Thomas, Castleknock, Dublin. Photograph: Bryan O’Brien

Taoiseach Leo Varadkar TD casting his vote in the Eighth Amendment referendum at Scoil Thomas, Castleknock, Dublin. Photograph: Bryan O’Brien

 

The State should consider removing the 18-month limit on Irish emigrants returning home to vote and should also consider allowing expanded postal voting or polling stations set up in embassies abroad, an independent election monitoring group has said.

Sustainable Development Assistance International (SDAI), a Canadian-based non-profit NGO, sent a team of 15 international election observers to monitor voting in the May 25th referendum on the Eighth Amendment to the constitution.

Working in teams of two, the observers visited 121 polling stations in 11 of the 40 Dáil constituencies and observed the conduct of the ballot, including how the ballot boxes were secured at the close of the poll.

In its final report on the mission published on Wednesday, the organisation said, overall, the voting-day activities it observed took place “in a professional and transparent manner”, generally meeting international standards and commitments.

The electorate voted to repeal the Eighth Amendment, which gave effect to the State’s almost-total ban on abortion. Some 66.4 per cent of those who voted were in favour of repeal, while 33.6 per cent voted against.

‘Helpful’

“Where observed, polling staff were courteous and helpful to the voters. Most voters appeared to understand the process and could vote without hindrance. Polling stations were generally set up to facilitate voting, although there were minor issues with signage, disabled access, and secrecy of the vote,” the observer group said.

It said there were no figures on the number of Irish citizens who had returned home specifically to vote in this referendum, but that it had been widely reported as a significant number.

“For those who did return, our observers felt that it represented a disruption in people’s lives, and a large expense for a few minutes of the voter’s time, even when taking into consideration that many probably used the opportunity to visit family and friends while in Ireland, ” it said.

It added that legislative consideration should be given to alternate methods of voting, such as early voting, expanded postal voting, or polling stations set up in embassies.

The organisation said it had “serious concerns” about the fact that its observers were not given access to 18 of the 40 Dáil constituencies during their mission and that this limitation had resulted in a “major disadvantage for observation efforts”.

International commitments

It agreed with previous reports by the Organisation for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE) that full rights to observers, be they domestic or international, should be included in legislation “in line with Ireland’s international commitments”.

The organisation said the establishment of an electoral commission, also previously recommended by the OSCE, would add value to future observation missions by standardising some aspects of voting procedures. This would include issues such as training, signage and ballot-box sealing.

The observer group is led by Karen Reinhardt, who has been participating in international election observation and assistance missions for 13 years, including in Liberia with the UN and in Russia last year with the Organisation for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE).

Ahead of the mission, Ms Reinhardt told The Irish Times neither the organisation, nor any of the observers, had any preference as to the outcome of the vote.

“We are concerned with the process, not the outcome, which is solely a matter for the Irish people,” she said.

The observer group held meetings with Minister of State for Local Government and Electoral Reform John Paul Phelan, as well as the referendum returning officer Barry Ryan, the Dublin city returning officer, and officials from the department.