Government needs to act on promise of electoral commission

Reform is needed to address vulnerabilities in management of Irish elections

“Elections and referendums work reasonably well in Ireland and this has allowed an alarming complacency take hold.” Photograph: Cyril Byrne

“Elections and referendums work reasonably well in Ireland and this has allowed an alarming complacency take hold.” Photograph: Cyril Byrne

 

The electoral process is only as strong as its weakest link and there are many chinks in Irish voting procedures. Since 2007, government after government has promised to establish an electoral commission to address vulnerabilities in how we manage elections and referendums. The commitment is back again in the 2020 programme for government. All the political parties favour an electoral commission but somehow it never gets to the top of the to-do list. Elections and referendums work reasonably well in Ireland and this has allowed an alarming complacency take hold.

Age and stability in a democracy provide no guarantee of immunity to global threats. Last month, in the United Kingdom, the Russia report demonstrated there was direct interference in the political system by Russian state actors. This interference was ignored by successive governments, and questions about how the Scottish independence and Brexit referendums were affected remain unanswered. Russian meddling in elections has been well documented. The Trump election in 2016 continues to be marred in controversy and investigations. The release of emails from the campaign of Emmanuel Macron at the last French presidential election was traced back to Russian sources. The European Union was on high alert for the 2019 European Parliament elections but these passed off relatively unscathed. While external threats to democracy are at least discussed in other democracies, they are virtually ignored in Ireland.

Crucial linchpin

Those who argue that Ireland is a small country of little interest to others forget that it is a crucial linchpin in global supply chains, perhaps most pertinently at the height of the global pandemic, for pharmaceuticals and medical devices. It is also the European hub for the digital economy. Decisions taken in Ireland have global repercussions.

And there is evidence of interference. Overseas groups and individuals were able to purchase political advertising directly targeting Irish voters during the 2018 referendum on the Eighth Amendment, and no Irish institution had any power to act. With broadcast highly regulated but the online world remaining a virtual no-man’s land, we have witnessed the slow creep of disinformation and polarisation into Irish public life, with attack ads and conspiracy finding traction under the radar. We are leaving decisions over the kind of discourse we want for our country to private companies in California with their eyes trained on Washington, DC.

Voting in Ireland is also beset with more prosaic but equally important problems. An important point that’s lost in debates about the outcome of the 2020 election was the troublingly low level of participation. Turnout of just 62.9 per cent was recorded. Only general elections in 1922, 1923 and 2002 had lower levels of participation. In 2002 when turnout dropped to 62.6 per cent, a national campaign was initiated to improve electoral registers and staff involved in the most recent census were recruited to undertake a door-to-door campaign to address major concerns about the accuracy of the electoral registers.

The 2002 process may have temporarily alleviated the disarray in the electoral registers but all evidence since points to the re-emergence of irregularities. A study in 2016 suggested that there could be as many as 500,000 names on the registers that should not be there. These included people who were registered at other addresses, voters who had died and many who had emigrated in the preceding years. The global Electoral Integrity Project, an independent academic study founded in 2012, has audited Irish electoral procedures over several elections and voter registration processes have consistently been scored as weak. At the 2016 general election, Ireland was ranked 137th in the world for our voter registration processes. This is an alarming finding for an old and stable democracy.

Voter education

An interconnected problem is the poor voter education efforts at elections. This problem is all the more bizarre because there are quite robust voter information campaigns at referendums when each referendum commission engages in sustained campaigns highlighting the issues involved in the referendum, when the vote will take place and what the ballot will look like. But none of this information is provided at elections. The State relies entirely on media organisations which, while they do great work, cannot be a substitute for a publicly-funded national voter education campaign, explaining which election is taking place, who will be elected, what roles they play, when the election will happen, who is entitled to vote and how to vote.

Proportional representation through the single transferable vote is a very unusual system and voters deserve detailed and regular information campaigns about how it works and how they should vote under this system. Most other democracies have such campaigns, helping voters understand the decisions being made and encouraging them to votThe electoral commission has been put on the long finger for too many years. There are domestic and international reasons to be concerned about the Irish voting process. The Government must act and meet its own commitment to protect Ireland’s democracy. The programme for government commits to having an electoral commission in place by the end of next year. The work to meet that deadline starts now.

Dr Theresa Reidy is a political scientist at University College Cork. Prof David Farrell is the head of politics and international relations at University College Dublin

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