NUI and Trinity graduates could storm some barricades if they register to vote – now
It’s estimated only a quarter of NUI graduates vote for the Seanad, but it’s not that simple
Rónán Mullen is one of the senators elected by NUI gradutes. Photograph: Gareth Chaney Collins
A cross section of the Irish electorate – more than half a million people – only semi exercises its franchise. Many university graduates are ignoring, or ignorant of, their right to a Seanad vote. And no one – not the universities, not sitting senators, not the Department of Local Government – is pushing them hard or fast enough to get more people to vote.
The Seanad is arguably the swampiest, least fair, most opaque aspect of our democracy. But, pending long overdue and eternally promised reform of the upper house, we are where we are, and those who actually have a vote in the Seanad should surely use it.
Tomorrow is the last day for graduates to make sure they have a say in who speaks on their behalf.
Graduates of National University of Ireland and of University of Dublin (Trinity College) are a large – elitest – electorate, but they have one day left to get the finger out and make sure they can vote for the next Seanad. It’s likely only a quarter of NUI graduates entitled to vote for senators are registered to vote – and no one makes it easy to do so.
It seems almost a secret that graduates – but only of NUI and Trinity, not the upstart newer universities – have to opt in to register, via dated rules, and that if they don’t do so by February 26th they will likely not be able to vote in the next Seanad election. Far be it for us to point out that the six sitting senators from the university panels – nevermind anyone else – don’t seem to be falling over themselves to increase awareness of the fact, encourage voter registration, or draw attention to the imminent cut-off.
It surely couldn’t be that it suits some other people to keep the status quo within the peculiar flavour of democracy that constitutes our Seanad.
Tuesday, February 26th is the last day that NUI and Trinity graduates can apply to be included on the register of electors, which is published on June 1st each year, and covers elections for the following 12 months.
The whiff of impending Dáil election was in the air at the weekend, with Fianna Fáil members chomping at the bit to present the party to the electorate, and while Brexit uncertainty is holding things at bay for a while, there could conceivably be a general election before June 2020.
To vote, graduates need to be registered by tomorrow’s cut-off. The Seanad vote is postal, by proportional representation in a single transferable vote, and takes place within 90 days of the dissolution of the Dáil. Intriguingly, it includes emigrant graduates, their only current franchise here.
The Upper House of the Oireachtas has 60 members – senators – with an electorate currently confined to TDs, senators, councillors, an arcane array of representative “panels”, and graduates of Trinity and NUI (proposals to widen the franchise are snailing forth with seemingly little urgency).
Six of those 60 are elected by the (older) universities of Ireland.
The three current NUI senators, elected in 2016, are Rónán Mullen (who topped the poll), Michael McDowell, and Alice-Mary Higgins. The three University of Dublin senators are Ivana Bacik, Lynn Ruane and David Norris. Many of those six senators are vocal on a variety of issues – they certainly seem more visible than some other senators in the upper house. But even if graduates don’t agree with the activities of some senators, far too few of those entitled to vote actually do so.
Following various controversial statements from some senators, there have been social media exhortations over past months encouraging graduates to register so the lineup might change after the next election. But according to the NUI academic registry, there has not been a dramatic rush to register.
The constantly evolving NUI gradate register includes 865,000 NUI qualifications (some individuals have multiple degrees) and it conservatively estimates at least 400,000 living individual NUI graduates – though some are not Irish citizens or may hold diplomas rather than degrees. Of those 400,000 graduates, just 108,251 are on the NUI 2018 Seanad register. As of February 22nd, there had been an additional 2,412 requests to register, and NUI estimates topping out at about 2,700 new voters since 2018 (around the same as the bump for 2016’s election year). This would mean a total 2019 register of some 111,500-112,000 electors.
Trinity’s academic registry had 61,867 registered electors for the Seanad in 2018, and by January 29th, 2019, this had increased by 2,046 to 63,913. There are 142,604 living degree graduates of Trinity.
This means that while fewer than 45% of Trinity graduates entitled to vote in the Seanad register, only 28% of NUI graduates do so.
Those numbers have grown only marginally in recent years.
This sounds like something is going very wrong. There are likely many factors causing this. One, surely and inexplicably, is that there is no automatic voter enrolment for graduates. Whereas voters can still be added to the register relatively late for a general election, graduates have to be on the Seanad register long before an election – so by the time a graduate knows about an election, it’s too late to vote unless they are previously registered.
NUI says it’s keen to modernise the Seanad electoral process, and encourages registration on social media, but its hands seem partially tied by outdated rules, and there has been little discernible enthusiam to change things speedily.
Any change to make voter registration automatic on graduation rests with the Department of Housing, Planning and Local Government; there is a general public consultation on modernising elections, accepting submissions before March 15th.
To register to vote for university senators, you must be an Irish citizen, over 18, and have a degree (and not an honorary one) from Trinity College or one of the NUI colleges.
Those NUI colleges are deceptively numerous. As well as the NUI constituent colleges (University College Dublin, University College Cork, National University of Ireland, Galway and Maynooth University), graduates of other NUI member institutions are entitled to register, including Royal College of Surgeons; the Institute of Public Administration; National College of Art and Design; the Burren College of Art; Mary Immaculate College of Education; and Milltown Institute of Theology and Philosophy ( full list is here).
Trinity College graduates can register to vote when they confirm attending their graduation, whereas NUI graduates have to go out of their way to register, which offers a clue to Trinity’s greater takeup.
For those who are not registered, Trinity graduates can do so online before the cutoff, but unless NUI grads can get the form in physically to the NUI on Merrion Square by tomorrow, they need to print out a form, sign it on paper, then scan and email it back to NUI before midnight on February 26th.
It’s doable, but more cumbersome. NUI says this is legally required.
Some 51.7% of us voted to retain the Seanad in 2013, but promised progress to make it relevant and democratic has been glacial. In the meantime, given the broken status quo, NUI and TCD graduates could at least use the bit of franchise they have, even if no one is making it easy for them.