Fine Gael TD blames legal jargon for spoiled ballots

‘Reform’, ‘No but reform’ and ‘A plague on both your Houses’ all ruled invalid

A call has been made for those responsible for the ballot papers in the Seanad and court of appeal referendums to appear before the Oireachtas oversight committee because of a significant rise in the number of spoiled votes.

A total of 20,080 voters, 1.16 per cent of the electorate, spoiled their Court of Appeal ballot paper, more than four times the level of spoiled votes in the Children’s referendum, which was 0.4 per cent.

In the Seanad referendum 14,355 people – 1.17 per cent of the electorate – spoiled their vote.

A majority of the spoiled votes in both referendums appear to have been spoiled by virtue of the ballot papers being left blank. Other voters rendered their vote invalid by marking an X in both boxes or a tick in one and an X in the other.


Other voters had written on the ballot paper either “reform” or variants of it such as “No but Reform” or “remember this is not reform”.

A smaller group wrote swear words on their voting paper or sought abolition of the Dáil or “a plague on both your Houses”. One widely-tweeted photo of a ballot paper bore the message: “Weapon Of Mass Distraction”.

Fine Gael parliamentary party chairman Charlie Flanagan said he would be calling for Department of Environment and Referendum Commission officials to attend the Oireachtas oversight committee.

The Laois-Offaly TD said: “I am not making excuses, or saying the result would be different. And I’m not insulting the intelligence of the electorate, but I have never received as many complaints from the public as I have about these two referendums.”

Legal jargon
He said the Seanad referendum was a "simple question couched in legal jargon, causing confusing for a significant number of people", and he believed there was added confusion because people were "saying Yes to a negative".

And he believed “Seanad” should have been emblazoned across one and “Court of Appeal” across the other in enlarged and emphasised print.

However, a Department the Environment spokesman said the size of ballot paper, type of writing and print was set out in legislation and the same text and layout was used as in previous referendums.

He said the Referendum Commission had been put in place earlier this time, and polling cards had provided additional information.

The wording on the ballot paper is not a matter for the Department of Environment but for the sponsoring department, the Department of the Taoiseach.

Newspaper columnists
Some politicians criticised columnists who called for No voters to write "reform" on the Seanad ballot paper.

Fianna Fáil Senator Averil Power tweeted a picture of a rejected ballot paper, saying: “Just one of the clear NO votes that had to be rejected in Dublin NC because ‘reform’ was written on it.”

Dublin deputy returning officer Pat Brett said that in Dublin city and county constituencies "any writing at all other than the voter's preference renders the ballot invalid".

The decision is up to individual returning officers. In Meath one voter’s letter paper was accepted because a letter was attached but still separate.

Mr Brett said the capital’s returning officers operated on the basis of a Department of Environment handbook which lists rules for voting.

Votes are rejected if there is a lack of clarity, no mark or preference or if there is writing on the paper.

The regulations state: “There is no legitimate reason why anything other than the elector’s indication of acceptance or rejection of the proposal should be marked on the ballot paper.”

Marie O'Halloran

Marie O'Halloran

Marie O'Halloran is Parliamentary Correspondent of The Irish Times