Electoral commission needed to fix ‘out-of-date’ laws

Current Act ‘lacks teeth’ in dealing with online political campaigning and donations

 John Paul Phelan, Minister of State for Local Government and Electoral Reform: only received a handful of submissions from the public on the shape of the electoral commission. Photograph: Dara Mac Dónaill/The Irish Times

John Paul Phelan, Minister of State for Local Government and Electoral Reform: only received a handful of submissions from the public on the shape of the electoral commission. Photograph: Dara Mac Dónaill/The Irish Times

 

Current electoral laws are out-of-date, incoherent and have a serious lack of teeth when it comes to enforcement, the State’s ethics and electoral watchdog has said.

The Standards in Public Office Commission (Sipo) made a detailed critique of the Electoral Act in a submission to the Government on a proposed electoral commission.

Sipo highlighted a large number of what it describes as “gaps and challenges” in the current laws. It argued that if the long-promised electoral commission is to be established, it should first involve a “comprehensive review of the Electoral Acts”.

The submission argued that provisions of the law have essentially been overtaken by changes in technology, and in new ways of pursing political activities and fundraising.

It contended, for example, that the current definition of a “third party”, in political terms, “leaves out a significant number of groups engaging in campaigns that are self-funded”.

Set threshold

As it is, a third party is defined as a person or body which accepts a donation above a set threshold given for political purposes.

“It also leaves open the possibility of dispute or difference as to whether a donation received was for political purpose, or for charitable or other purposes,” it states.

This issue came up when Sipo and Amnesty International differed as to whether or not a donation from the foundation funded by George Soros, challenging Ireland’s then abortion laws, was for political purposes.

The commission also points to anomalies in relation to funding and donations. While most election campaigns have upper expenditure limits, there are no such limits for referendums or for Seanad elections.

In terms of donations, only those above a “certain high threshold” require disclosure to Sipo.

The commission has also pointed out that party expenditure for elections is “often significantly front-loaded”. In other words, parties spend huge amounts of money before the election is called, at which time they become subject to strict limits. It is impossible to gauge the extent of that spending.

‘Election spending’

The submission has asserted that this issue could be addressed if the timeframe for “election spending” was extended back for three months from the date the election was called.

Sipo has also said that the current requirement that political parties are only entitled to Exchequer funding – coupled with the low donation thresholds – has led to a situation where the establishment of a political party might be inhibited.

In terms of enforcement, the commission has it has “little power”. At the moment, the commission can form an opinion there was a breach of the Acts, but must then refer the matter to the DPP or to the Garda Síochána.

“Despite a number of such referrals, prosecutions are rarely pursued. The commission cannot speculate why that may be.”

It is of the view that the new regulatory body should have its own powers of investigation and prosecution.

It also points to the Act predating much of the rise in internet activity and not having the capability or powers to address the issues of online political advertising or campaigning.

Minister of State for Local Government John Paul Phelan had invited public submissions on the shape of the electoral commission. Only a handful of submissions were received by the closing date of last Friday.

Sipo was one of a number of bodies which recommended the new electoral commission be set up on a statutory basis with limited powers initially. It argued the new commission should incorporate all the responsibilities Sipo has at present.