The peo­ple have spo­ken, but our vot­ing sys­tem fails to tell us the com­plete story

An un­re­li­able elec­toral regis­ter and out­dated vot­ing meth­ods could un­der­mine pub­lic faith in our po­lit­i­cal sys­tem, writes Liam Weeks

Sunday Independent (Ireland) - - Comment - Dr Liam Weeks is di­rec­tor of the MSc in Govern­ment & Pol­i­tics at Univer­sity Col­lege Cork.

THAT well-known lover of elec­tions, Joseph Stalin, is re­puted to have said: ‘‘Those who vote de­cide noth­ing. Those who count the vote de­cide ev­ery­thing.” Stalin’s psepho­log­i­cal amour (a term we use in academia for some­one with an anorak-type fond­ness for elec­tions) stemmed from the abil­ity of him and his Com­mu­nist Party to at­tract near 100pc sup­port (and turnout) at elec­tions dur­ing his rule.

While we might like to think that Ir­ish democ­racy is far re­moved from the Soviet ve­neer, Stalin’s logic has some rel­e­vance for our elec­toral process.

A num­ber of is­sues around Ir­ish elec­tions, in­clud­ing the lim­ited and an­ti­quated meth­ods of vot­ing, all have the po­ten­tial to un­der­mine faith in the po­lit­i­cal sys­tem.

Take our most re­cent trip to the bal­lot box.

A few weeks ago, the peo­ple spoke, re-elect­ing Michael D Hig­gins as pres­i­dent. But they didn’t speak. The ma­jor­ity of them were silent, as only 43pc of the elec­torate, let alone the peo­ple, cast a vote.

Ac­tu­ally, we don’t re­ally know what pro­por­tion of cit­i­zens voted. Not be­cause it’s too soon to de­ter­mine this fig­ure, but be­cause the au­thor­i­ties them­selves never re­ally know.

It is es­ti­mated that the elec­toral regis­ter may have a mar­gin of er­ror of up to 10pc, a fig­ure un­ac­cept­able in any opin­ion poll, let alone an elec­tion. There may be dead peo­ple on the regis­ter, peo­ple who have left the coun­try, or some may be reg­is­tered in mul­ti­ple lo­ca­tions.

The sham­bles that is our elec­toral regis­ter led to Ire­land be­ing ranked 137 th for voter reg­is­tra­tion in a global study of elec­tion in­tegrity ear­lier this year, the low­est score of any OECD coun­try. We were on a par with Hon­duras, Tanzania and Kenya, not ex­actly world lead­ers when it comes to free and fair elec­tions.

Know­ing turnout mat­ters be­cause it af­fects the le­git­i­macy of a re­sult. In democ­ra­cies, we ac­cept the author­ity of elec­tion out­comes be­cause we be­lieve it rep­re­sents the wishes of the peo­ple.

For ex­am­ple, al­though many peo­ple in Ire­land are strongly op­posed to the in­tro­duc­tion of abor­tion ser­vices, they ac­cept the re­sult of the ref­er­en­dum last May in the be­lief that this is what the ma­jor­ity of peo­ple want. Af­ter all, the Eighth Amend­ment was re­pealed by an al­most two-to-one ma­jor­ity.

But a ma­jor­ity of what? Let’s be clear. Not the Ir­ish peo­ple. Rather, a ma­jor­ity of those who voted, which amounts to 40pc of the elec­torate, and less than 30pc of the Ir­ish pop­u­la­tion.

So, the mas­sive man­date that abor­tion seemed to win was, in fact, a mi­nor­ity opin­ion. This was not an ex­cep­tional oc­cur­rence, as only two ref­er­en­dums have ever been ap­proved by a ma­jor­ity of the Ir­ish elec­torate — in 1972 on join­ing the EEC and in 1998 on the Good Fri­day Agree­ment.

In other words, most so-called ma­jor­ity de­ci­sions are, in fact, cases of mi­nor­ity rule. This could raise a con­sid­er­able num­ber of is­sues for the le­git­i­macy of th­ese votes, es­pe­cially if the re­li­a­bil­ity of the turnout fig­ures are in ques­tion.

Are we as cit­i­zens obliged to ac­cept the results? What if we had a vote on an Eirexit from the EU, and what if this ref­er­en­dum at­tracted a low (or a seem­ingly low be­cause of the poor state of the regis­ter) turnout?

This is why in a num­ber of coun­tries us­ing ref­er­en­dums, such as Hun­gary and Italy, the turnout of a ma­jor­ity of vot­ers is re­quired to val­i­date a re­sult. Two years ago in a Hun­gar­ian poll, more than 98pc of votes cast were against the EU im­pos­ing mi­grant quo­tas. A clear out­come it seemed. Not so — 56pc of Hun­gar­i­ans did not vote, in­val­i­dat­ing the re­sult.

There is no such clause in the Ir­ish Con­sti­tu­tion on a min­i­mum vote to au­tho­rise ref­er­en­dum results, which is where the un­re­li­a­bil­ity of turnout sta­tis­tics be­comes a prob­lem.

We also have to con­sider the phe­nom­e­non of var­i­ous #home­tovote cam­paigns. At the last few elec­tions, thou­sands of Ir­ish peo­ple liv­ing over­seas trav­elled back to Ire­land to ex­er­cise their voice.

But how many of them were legally en­ti­tled to vote? The elec­toral law lim­its the fran­chise to those who are abroad tem­po­rar­ily and for a pe­riod of less than 18 months. How many of those who trav­elled back fell into this cat­e­gory? We sim­ply don’t know.

More wor­ry­ingly, the Depart­ment of En­vi­ron­ment, the body re­spon­si­ble for the con­duct of elec­tions, doesn’t know, and pro­vided such vot­ers had polling cards, there were no re­ported cases of in­di­vid­u­als be­ing re­fused a vote on the grounds of res­i­dency.

You might think I’m be­ing pedan­tic, but what if mar­riage equal­ity and abor­tion had been passed by the nar­row­est of mar­gins, like di­vorce, which had a bare ma­jor­ity of 10,000 in 1995. Would there have been le­gal grounds for the de­feated side to chal­lenge the va­lid­ity of the re­sult, since most of those par­tic­i­pat­ing in #home­tovote seemed of a lib­eral per­sua­sion?

Chal­leng­ing the re­sult of an elec­tion hap­pens in quasi- or non-democ­ra­cies, but is not sup­posed to hap­pen in es­tab­lished democ­ra­cies like our own.

So, turnout has two prob­lems. First, we don’t know what it is, and sec­ond, it may not be at an ad­e­quate level to lend le­git­i­macy to a re­sult.

We’d like to think it wouldn’t take much to re­solve the first, but even the sec­ond prob­lem could be reme­died with some imag­i­na­tion.

Take Aus­tralia, pi­o­neers in elec­toral democ­racy as they be­lieve that get­ting ev­ery­one to vote is a civic duty, to the ex­tent that vot­ers are fined if they don’t ex­er­cise their fran­chise.

To give vot­ers every op­por­tu­nity to par­tic­i­pate, votes can be cast a num­ber of weeks be­fore polling day, postal votes are avail­able to all, and votes can be cast for any con­stituency in any polling sta­tion. Just be­cause some­one from Syd­ney hap­pens to be in Mel­bourne or Moscow on the day of an elec­tion, they are not dis­en­fran­chised.

In some cases, Aus­tralians also use in­ter­net vot­ing. We couldn’t even get a very ba­sic form of e-vot­ing to work prop­erly.

Ap­ply­ing th­ese dif­fer­ent meth­ods of vot­ing has a pos­i­tive ef­fect on turnout, be­cause con­trary to the im­age some may have of an ap­a­thetic elec­torate, the vast ma­jor­ity of peo­ple want to vote.

Stud­ies of non-vot­ers in Ire­land have found that most of them in­tended to vote, but some­thing came up on the day of the elec­tion that pre­vented them from do­ing so. Mak­ing avail­able dif­fer­ent means of vot­ing would rec­tify this.

Of course, if it was that easy to im­prove turnout, we would re­ally have to won­der why it has not been done yet.

The Amer­i­can econ­o­mist, JK Gal­braith, wrote of a cul­ture of con­tent­ment, in which the po­lit­i­cal elites pre­vent change in the be­lief that the con­tem­po­rary sys­tem suits their in­ter­ests.

Is there such a cul­ture among the es­tab­lished par­ties in Ire­land, who have a vested in­ter­est in not see­ing higher turnouts?

We know that those from dis­ad­van­taged back­grounds are less likely to vote, and his­tor­i­cally they tend to lean to­wards the more rad­i­cal par­ties. Are the au­thor­i­ties afraid of who th­ese vot­ers will sup­port if they are en­cour­aged to turn out?

This has long been sus­pected to be a fac­tor in why over­seas vot­ing is not per­mit­ted for Ir­ish vot­ers (whisper Sinn Fein), even though it is fa­cil­i­tated in most democ­ra­cies.

There are many as­pects of elec­tions in Ire­land that need im­prov­ing — and in most coun­tries, the usual body that con­sid­ers this is an elec­toral com­mis­sion. Un­like al­most all other democ­ra­cies, we don’t have one of th­ese.

Even Stalin’s wannabe suc­ces­sor, Vladimir Putin, has an elec­toral com­mis­sion. To count the votes, of course.

‘It is es­ti­mated that the elec­toral regis­ter may have a mar­gin of er­ror of up to 10pc’

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