An Cailin Rua
It may not feel like the most urgent priority right now, but the creation of an electoral commission is probably more urgent now than it has been at any stage in the past.
We have been promised in successive programmes for government for the past 13 years that an electoral commission will be established in order to address vulnerabilities in how we manage both elections and referendums in this country. Somehow, it never seems to be a priority, and we are reasonably fortunate in Ireland to enjoy relative stability, hence complacency has clearly set in.
But as political instability takes hold, and with the growth of far-right sentiment and activity and associated conspiracy theories, combined with the recent trend of low electoral turnout, some proactivity and foresight is badly needed from our government, to combat misinformation and ensure immunity to threats of interference, to update the electoral register, and critically, to educate voters on how our voting system actually works.
This may all sound a bit dramatic. Ireland, in fairness, is small, and insignificant in the grand scheme of things, right? Who’d want to interfere with us? Well, when you consider the fact that Dublin is a major European digital hub, and decisions made here have significant international implications, you might start to see how we might be regarded as a target for interference.
And it has already happened; in 2018, groups from overseas were able to invest substantially in a digital advertising campaign targeting Irish voters in the referendum to repeal the Eighth Amendment, and not a single Irish institution had the authority to do anything about it.
While broadcast media is regulated, pretty much anything can happen on digital, where there are millions of easily influenced eyes. Foreign interference in the Brexit referendum still hangs in the air, and look at the implications that has for us. And yet, these very real threats barely arise in public discourse in Ireland. The precedent has been set and we have an opportunity to nip these threats in the bud; we ignore them at our peril.
The electoral commission should also be charged with ensuring our electoral register is fit for purpose. All current indications suggest that it is not. We are still dealing with a huge fallout from emigration during the last crash, there are countless tales at every election of people who have apparently been removed from the register without their consent, of people receiving other people’s voting cards to their address, or cards being addressed to people who have died.
Anyone who has ever ‘Checked the Register’ will know how finicky the system is, and in addition, it is inconsistent across the country. It is hard to measure accuracy of turnout when the database itself is fundamentally inaccurate.
Equality is also a consideration; a commission has a duty to examine and address the barriers to voting that exist for people with disabilities, ensuring that they have equal access to information, and indeed to polling stations, where wheelchair-accessible booths are not always available, where people with hearing impairments are not facilitated with sign language and visually impaired voters experience difficulties with Braille templates.
The public discourse around the last election, particularly in the aftermath, makes it abundantly clear that a voter education campaign is urgently needed to explain how the PT-STV (Proportional Representation – Single Transferable Vote) system works. While it is passionately argued that this system is much fairer and more nuanced than the first-past-the-post system used by our neighbours, it is nevertheless unclear to many how it works, and how their vote can be put to use across all counts. This is addressed to an extent during referendums, when the Referendum Commission explains the process, but never at a national, publicly funded level for general elections, where the need is arguably far greater.
Calls have been made recently for the Government to commit to a timeline for delivery of an electoral commission. Isn’t it often the case that things you put on the long finger during quieter times are the things you find yourself wishing hard you’d invested time into later?
Sadly, given the reactionary performance of this government since its inception, expectations of proactivity unfortunately will not be high; but the price of inaction may well be.
An Cailin Rua