Election turnout figures ‘work of fiction’, academic claims

Figures based on inaccurate and unreliable register of voters, elections expert says

 

Election turnout figures are a “work of fiction” based on an inaccurate and unreliable register of electors, a leading academic has claimed.

Figures for this year’s local and European elections show a drop of two percentage points in turnout, from 51.7 per cent in 2014 to 49.7 per cent.

However, Trinity College emeritus professor of political science Michael Marsh has claimed “there is a big health warning” on those statistics.

“Turnout figures are a work of fiction,” he insisted.

Criticising the repeated failure of governments to deal with the issue, he said “endless Oireachtas committees” have discussed a permanent electoral commission whose work would include maintenance of an accurate register. “But nothing happens.”

A series of issues has arisen in the wake of the European and local elections that would be part of a commission’s work including the electoral register and the drop in turnout, he said.

The register is maintained by individual local authorities, Prof Marsh said, acknowledging that some authorities “put a lot of effort and resources into their electoral register”.

He said they send officials out to check if voters are still living at listed addresses and invest in the system despite having other major demands on their resources.

However, others “don’t spend any money at all” unless a report is made that there are more people at an address than are on the register.

Priorities

“People’s priorities are elsewhere. Nobody seems to be worried about it other than a few academics, civil servants and local authority officials,” he said.

Politicians take notice only when a voter goes to their polling station to discover they have been taken off the register, he said.

In the Dáil last week, Fianna Fáil Waterford TD Mary Butler highlighted the case of a 73-year-old man from west Waterford who had never missed a vote, but discovered he was no longer on the register when he went to his polling station.

In response, Minister of State for Local Government John Paul Phelan said a public consultation on updating the register had been completed before the election. This, he said, “focused on the desirability of using people’s PPS numbers to ensure those who have passed away are removed and also that those who have changed address are registered at the right location”.

He said the Government aimed to introduce a new process of online registration as well as a “hard-copy” process in the autumn.

In a Seanad debate last month Mr Phelan said the Government was “committed” to establishing a committee to “broadly bring together under one umbrella the functions and responsibilities of the electoral system”.

But they would work on scoping potential improvements to the electoral registration process first, rather than “waiting for an electoral commission”.

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