How many ‘home to voters’ were actually entitled to vote?
Turning blind eye may set dangerous precedent for close abortion referendum
“After all, we Irish emigrants are disenfranchised, aren’t we?” Photograph: The Irish Times
Watching Irish voters back marriage equality from abroad last May was a moving but frustrating moment for many Irish emigrants who didn’t come “home to vote”. It was wonderful to see the country embrace common sense and tolerance, and for so many young people to realise that engaging with democracy does make a difference.
But for every emigrant cheered on their arrival back to Ireland last May, there were many more watching from abroad wondering what all the cheering was for.
After all, we Irish emigrants are disenfranchised, aren’t we?
Electoral law states that if you not an Irish resident you are not entitled to be on the register and are thus disenfranchised. Articles 11 and 12 of the Electoral Act 1992 list the exceptions: diplomats, members of the defence forces and some others.
There’s an exception if you have left the country within the previous 18 months and are intending to return within 18 months.
But who checks that, I wonder, or anything else to do with our electoral law?
My first doubts arose two years ago on a trip back to Ireland when I met a friend who has lived for years in China. He was “home to vote” in the family referendum. When I asked how he was he still allowed, he said the mammy was very inventive when the register people came round.
While the Department of the Environment is involved in elections, and in drafting electoral law, maintaining the register is the job of local authorities.
They send out the people to knock on doors and, according to the second schedule of the Electoral Act 1992, ensure that “sufficient inquiry” confirms that everyone on the register for an address is still living there and, presumably, still in the country.
But how often, when they’ve knocked on your door, have you been asked to prove your identity? Or that the others registered at your address are still living there?
If you’re out when they call, you are left a form to fill out. Like the doorstep interview, honesty seems to be a common policy. There’s another form to fill in if you’ve returned from living abroad and want to get back on the register. You bring it to a Garda station for a stamp. I called a Garda station in Dublin last week and asked what I’d need to re-register. A passport would be fine, I was told. No address on my passport, I thought.
When I called my former council in Dublin the person who oversees the register said their aim is to visit every house in the council each year. Around 60 per cent of their contacts are face-to-face. But the system is based on people telling the truth when asked.
When forms come in the council does spot checks, the official said, but mostly on applications to get back on the register – in particular to get on to the supplementary register ahead of a polling day. They have not the resources to do anything more than random checks.
A lack of resources for full checks is an issue at councils across the country. Dublin council officials complained to me that they do not yet have a computer system to automatically deregister a person moving from one area to another.
Of course no electoral registry will ever be perfect, and people who want to fiddle a system will always find a way. The Department of the Environment says it has “no records of actions taken against individuals” suspected of non-resident voting.
Nor do any councils or returning officers I contacted know of any cases of refusal to allow anyone vote because of doubts about residency. At the final hurdle, the polling station, guidelines state that one in four voters are supposed to be asked for proof of identity. Yet very few of the acceptable forms of ID contain an address.
So what precedent was set in May? Emigrants are excluded from voting except if they come home to vote for what the majority perceives as the “right” side of the issue? If so, we’re in for a very interesting abortion referendum.