There has been a lot of emphasis in recent days on the low voter turnout levels in last Friday's referendums and the likely impact that had on the result of the Seanad referendum. But does the low turnout warrant further attention and action, or is it just symptomatic of the normal functioning of Irish democracy?
Given how the final result on Saturday varied so radically from the opinion polls, it is probably fair to say that a lower turnout propensity among a “softer” Yes support base played a significant role. People in urban Ireland, on average, were more likely to turn out to vote but also more likely to oppose the referendum proposal – while rural Ireland saw higher support levels for the referendum proposal but a notably lower level of turnout.
Constituencies with the highest turnout levels, including Dublin North Central, Dún Laoghaire and Dublin South, were won comfortably by the No side.
There are obvious parallels here with earlier referendum contests, including the 1995 divorce, 2001 Nice Treaty and 2002 abortion referendums, given the narrow margins
by which these were decided and the markedly striking geographical differences in turnout propensity.
On average, there was a turnout level of 40.4 per cent in the Seanad referendum across the different urban constituencies (constituencies located in Dublin, its immediate commuter belt – ie, Louth, Meath, Kildare and Wicklow – and the other cities). Only two out of these 23 constituencies supported the referendum proposal, with an average support level of just 45.9 per cent being recorded for the Yes side.
By contrast, a significant majority (13) of the 20 more rural constituencies voted in favour for the proposal, with an average support level of 51.0 per cent recorded for the Yes side. However, the average turnout levels across these constituencies was just 37.9 per cent.
There was a high level of support for the No side in the "breakfast-roll man" Dublin commuter belt constituencies, with 54.6 per cent of voters rejecting the proposal here. This area proved crucial in winning the 2007 general election for Fianna Fáil and also in ensuring a strong result for Fine Gael, who gained a seat in each one of these constituencies, at the 2011 contest. Now there may be some concerns for the Coalition parties if the extent of this No vote is pointing towards a growing level of anti-Government sentiment in this crucial electoral battleground.
Rural areas tend to have the highest turnout levels when it comes to general and local election contests. Reviewing turnout trends in recent referendum contests, including Friday's elections, a remarkably consistent pattern emerges. I've examined the average turnout levels across all of the referendum contests held since the 2007 general election, excluding those that were held on the same day as other types of electoral contests (Lisbon I; Lisbon II; the children's rights referendum and Friday's referendums
on the Seanad and the court of appeal).
Over that period, referendum turnout levels, on average, tend to be highest in the more middle-class urban constituencies of Dún Laoghaire, Dublin North-Central and Dublin South (with high levels also associated with the commuter belt Wicklow constituency), although higher than average turnout levels can also be found in some rural constituencies, including Roscommon-South Leitrim, Cork North-West and Tipperary North.
By contrast, the lowest referendum turnout levels tend to be associated with constituencies located along the western seaboard and the "inner city" Dublin constituencies of Dublin Central, Dublin South-East and Dublin South-Central. It could be argued that a sense of being distant from the State – whether this is in terms of actual geographical distance from the capital and/or in terms of social distance – is a factor that has a bearing in shaping lower referendum turnout levels. The relatively healthy levels of electoral participation for local election contests associated with many of these areas suggest that higher levels of attachment to local politics could be compensating for weakened levels of State-identity.
The highest referendum turnout levels in the history of the State were associated with the two occasions (1937, 1992) on which referendum contests took place on the same day as general elections. Holding referendum contests on the same day as local and European elections (as with the 2004 citizenship referendum) or presidential elections (as with the 2011 Oireachtas inquiries/judges remuneration referendums ) also can have the effect of pushing up turnout levels for these contests. This may prompt the question as to whether the Government could have pushed the Seanad abolition proposal through had they held off on holding the referendum until next May, in which case it would have been held on the same day as the 2014 local and European elections and a higher turnout level would have ensued.
With the notable exception of the 2001 Nice Treaty contest, turnout levels for referendum votes relating to the European Union have tended to be relatively high – an average of 52.1 per cent nationally across the nine such contests that have taken place since the first such contest on EEC membership in 1971. Referendums on the "moral issues" of divorce and abortion have also attracted higher than average turnouts – an average of 57.2 per cent across the last three decades. The average turnout over the same period (since 1970) for referendums relating to other issues (44.5 per cent ) has been notably lower than those for the European or "moral issue" contests.
Should the low turnout level on Friday be cause for moral panic and is this pointing towards a growing disengagement from the electoral process? Not necessarily.
Low turnout levels for contests associated with specific, low-interest, referendum issues have happened in the past, when the overall turnout propensity of the Irish electorate was notably higher, and will no doubt occur again. More than half of those who chose not to vote on Friday will no doubt vote at the next general election and a significant proportion of these will also be voting at next year's local and European elections. Ultimately, most voters are pragmatic and they will choose to vote, or not vote, depending on whether they perceive a contest to be important to them and their life prospects, or not.
Rather than bewailing a thankless section of the electorate that has forgotten those past generations that won them the right to vote, more effort needs to be placed on framing the political process, and different associated election issues, in order to make it more relevant to people’s lives.
This weekend’s turnout also highlights the need for more emphasis on voter education and mobilisation. The persistent association of low turnout levels with certain areas suggests that area-based responses may be particularly useful here.
We need to ensure that everyone who has the right to vote and who wants to vote is allowed to vote on polling day. A national electoral register system could link voter names to their PPS numbers. These, and other political reform issues, are probably too much for a Government that has many other key concerns
to address at present, but especially given that a non-partisan approach is best taken in this regard.
Ultimately, this is yet another area that underpins the need for an electoral commission to be introduced to push for effective electoral reform, as has been the case in other democracies.
Adrian Kavanagh is a lecturer in the department of geography, NUI Maynooth, and his main research interests focus on electoral geography