1.8 million Australian voters used the ‘early voting’ facility provided by the Australian electoral commission in the three weeks before today’s election to cast their votes, a record number. The Australians also have facilities for voting if a citizen happens to be outside of the electoral district in which they are registered on the day of the election. Simply put, Australia makes it much easier for its citizens to vote than Ireland does. This is partly because voting is compulsory in Australia, but their approach to making voting as easy as possible for their citizens should inspire Irish electoral administrators to similar efforts.
The excellent Australian Electoral Commission website has a summary of ‘ways to vote’ . The website also shows the benefits of having an electoral commission from the point of view of access to information for citizens. Type in ‘ways to vote Ireland’ in google, and the first page that comes up doesn’t have any useful information at all. Type in ’right to vote Ireland’ and you do find some helpful information on citizensinformation.ie , type in ‘Irish electoral register’ and you pull up the checktheregister.ie site. The Australians have all the information that they need on one central site, which seems to be well search engine optimized.
John Gormley appears to be moving towards establishing an Electoral Commission, though progress has been so slow on this that, if it is established, it probably won’t have time to play much of a role in the administration of the next elections. The highly decentralised structure currently in place is not all bad, it is regarded as legitimate (i.e. there is little questioning of the honesty of counts), and it takes advantage of localised knowledge and infrastructures. However, some aspects are in a fairly lamentable state – the electoral register in particular could benefit from centralised administration that uses electronic data from other state agencies, PPS numbers seem a logical source of data on the existence and whereabouts of citizens.
While we have expanded postal voting facilities for students or those who cannot vote because of work commitments or immobility, the process itself is somewhat off-putting. Like nearly every other form of interaction with the state, a Garda has to stamp a form! Furthermore, the existence of postal voting facilities for students/workers who cannot be in their constituency on election day has not been extensively publicised.
The report of the Committee on the Constitution recommended the establishment of an electoral commission, the expansion of postal voting facilities (with an attached public information campaign) and the introduction of weekend, multi-day voting. Because there is no mechanism relating Committee reports to government or legislative action, however, we have no way of knowing how likely it is that these recommendations will be implemented.
Finally, it’s interesting to note that the Australian system places far fewer restrictions on who can vote in their elections than we do – especially in terms of facilitating citizens who are non-residents. In Ireland, only a tiny fraction of those living overseas (defence/police force members and diplomats) are entitled to vote. There are arguments both ways on this – some say that non-residents give up the right to have a say in the running of the country when they leave, others say that citizenship is an inalienable right, regardless of where you live. There is an interesting political dimension to this problem too, firstly one must contemplate the sheer number of Irish citizens who are currently non-resident, this number looks likely to grow for the forseeable future. Secondly, it’s interesting to ask whether non-resident Irish citizens would differ in terms of political preferences from residents. I haven’t seen any data in this regard, however. One suggestion that has come up has been to have a slate of Senators elected by overseas citizens, but, of course, that would entail radical reform of the Seanad, an institution that has not shown much capacity to change up to this point.