How to rig election properly

 

A Fine Gael candidate for the Dún Laoghaire constituency, Eugene Regan, has acknowledged that in the 2004 local elections he spent personally €45,000 on his campaign, writes Vincent Browne

He got 2,000 votes so the cost per vote was €22.50. Were he to get a quota in the five-seat Dún Laoghaire constituency and were the cost per vote to be the same, he would have to spend in excess of €200,000. As he is a successful barrister, that might not be a problem for him.

A fellow Fine Gael candidate in the Dún Laoghaire constituency, John Bailey, has spent close to €15,000 already on his campaign. He has huge 48-sheet posters at Dart stations in the area. He has a huge van with his name and "message" emblazoned on the sides and this has been touring the constituency for some years now. John Bailey says he does not expect to spend more than €20,000 of his own money in the campaign. The appearances are that he is likely to spend much, much more of his own money and possibly money obtained from contributors.

The third candidate is the former TD and Fine Gael minister Seán Barrett. He says he expects to spend about €10,000 on the campaign and all or most of this will come from the party and from contributors. But he has been forced into paying for huge posters at some Dart stations in the constituency and smaller posters at bus shelters. Eugene Regan has these large posters at Dart stations too, and at bus shelters.

Between them it is unlikely they will spend less than €150,000 on the campaign before the legal limits click in.

Some people might not think this matters. It is their own money and money from donors and they are entitled to use it to spread their "message". But what does all this money do to democracy? Eugene Regan spent at least four times the money that, on average, other candidates spent in his electoral area in his local government constituency. Clearly, he thought the expenditure of €45,000 enhanced his chances of getting elected and while some of this lavish expenditure must have been wasteful, it is not believable that it did not have a significant effect in terms of name recognition, presence and all that.

In recognition of the unfairness of a system which would permit candidates to spend limitless amounts on election campaigns, the Oireachtas has imposed spending limits for elections. These limits are €25,000 per candidate in three-seat constituencies, €32,000 for candidates in four-seat constituencies and €38,000 for candidates in five-seat constituencies.

But some candidates, be they Independents or candidates of parties representing the interests of minority groups or disadvantaged communities, could never raise sufficient funds to spend anything like these amounts. This means that such candidates are at a serious disadvantage to candidates who are able to fund their campaigns themselves, such as Eugene Regan or John Bailey, or candidates who have access to funds from rich benefactors.

But of course the system is far worse than that in practice, for there are no limits at all on expenditures in advance of the election being called. This means that parties and candidates can spend, between them, millions and millions, in biasing the democratic system in their favour, in subverting the principle of equality captured in the phrase "one person, one vote".

Fianna Fáil abused this loophole - more a chasm than a loophole - in the last election and, no doubt, it will do it again with massive postering campaigns ahead of the election being called, costing hundreds of thousands. Its candidates, certainly the richer ones, will do the same in individual constituencies, and of course the same will go for Fine Gael.

But not just the two big-boy parties. Labour is at it too.

Ruairí Quinn has already started an expensive postering campaign in Dublin South East. His nephew, Oisín Quinn, is spending lavish sums in Dún Laoghaire.

You can be sure the Progressive Democrats will get in on the act fairly massively as well, having tapped their constituency (the very rich bog boys) who should be more than grateful for how the PDs have looked after them in government.

And to be sure the election is well and truly rigged, Fianna Fáil is planning on raising the spending limits from the above thresholds.

The Standards in Public Office Commission itself says: "If limits are increased, it will almost certainly be the case that the level of campaigning will grow in line with that increase, as will the gap between those, both individuals and parties, who are in a position to incur higher levels of expenditure and those who are not. Assuming a direct positive correlation between election spending and electoral success, as is suggested by recent published research findings." The only way of making elections fair is for every candidate to be funded equally by the State and all candidates to be prohibited from using any other funds, whether their own or anybody else's, in the campaign.