Reformed Seanad poll would have ‘low turnout’

Report explores how to widen franchise for elections to Upper House

The Seanad chamber at Leinster House. The electorate is currently confined to TDs, Senators, councillors and graduates of Trinity College, Dublin, and the National University of Ireland

The Seanad chamber at Leinster House. The electorate is currently confined to TDs, Senators, councillors and graduates of Trinity College, Dublin, and the National University of Ireland

 

Turnout in elections to a reformed Seanad – which will give the vote to every citizen, as well as Irish passport-holders abroad and in Northern Ireland – will be “far lower” than in Dáil contests, a report for Taoiseach Leo Varadkar has said.

The report examines how to widen the franchise for Seanad elections, as well as reforming how the Upper House is elected.

The electorate is currently confined to TDs, Senators, councillors and graduates of Trinity College, Dublin, and the National University of Ireland.

The reforms are aimed at making the Seanad more relevant for normal voters, but the report from a group of TDs and Senators says turnout will be low.

Some of those on the reform committee have questioned the value of the changes if voter participation will be poor.

“It is anticipated that the number of Irish resident voters which will both apply to be registered and vote at a Seanad general election will be far lower than the number of persons who tend to participate in Dáil elections,” it says.

It said the 52 per cent vote in favour of retaining the Seanad in 2013 “has been accepted that implicit in the will of the people to retain the Seanad has been the desire to see the Seanad reformed”.

The report from the implementation group on Seanad reform is expected to be sent to Mr Varadkar in the coming weeks. All the changes proposed could be done through legislation and would not require constitutional change.

It follows on from recommendations from a previous report carried out by Dr Maurice Manning, the chancellor of the National University of Ireland, that 36 of the total 60 Seanad seats should be directly elected from five vocational panels and from a university constituency, and that 13 be elected from an electoral college comprised of TDs, Senators and councillors.

Electoral college

These would be in addition to the 11 members of the Seanad who are directly appointed by the Taoiseach of the day. While the draft report seen by The Irish Times proposes an “alternative” composition of the Upper House to Dr Manning, it leaves blank how it would split the directly-elected seats between the vocational and university panels and an electoral college.

People will have to proactively register for Seanad elections and choose which Seanad panel they wish to vote on. It is also proposed that the university panels be widened to take in other third-level institutions.

It is not proposed that the new measures apply for the next Seanad election, but will take effect from whichever comes later: the election of the Seanad after next or within three years of the passing of the reform Bill through the Oireachtas. It also says a new electoral register, as well as an electoral commission, should be maintained for Seanad elections.

The report from the implementation group, chaired by Independent Senator and former attorney general Michael McDowell, says that “expanding the franchise to people in Northern Ireland will give voice to people who have a genuine affinity towards social and political affairs in Ireland”.

Franchise

“Importantly, the expansion of the franchise to Irish citizens abroad will give those abroad a say in the affairs of the country to which many of them aspire to return one day.”

It further argues that, instead of an initial “rush for inclusion in the Seanad electoral register, the growth of the Seanad electoral register will take place gradually and over time”.

“The implementation group believes that contrary to concerns that the votes of Irish citizens abroad could ‘swamp’ a Seanad election, that in fact it may prove challenging to foster a strong degree of participation from this cohort of voters.”

It is also acknowledged that the reforms will lead to extra costs.