Australia’s electoral administration shows up shortcomings in Irish system

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.

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17 thoughts on “Australia’s electoral administration shows up shortcomings in Irish system

  1. The problem of postal voting is that the deadline is a few days after polling is announced and several weeks before polling takes place. It’s designed to set the people running it and not the people likely to be using it. I can’t see why allowing people to apply for a postal vote up to one week before polling and providing that their votes are received back by polling day itself would be that onerous.

    Just to note on this “radical reform of the Seanad, an institution that has not shown much capacity to change”, the Seanad can’t reform itself. It is the entire Oireachtas that has shown its lacking in that capacity. The Seanad can’t do it on its own.

  2. Isn’t the problem corruption/cronyism in Ireland – something like evoting is approached from the point of view of how it can be of benefit to whatever crony group are linked to whatever minister is running it at any given time.

    No regard is made to the actual purpose of the policy – it’s still never been explained who made the decision to set up 30 year leases on machines that only function for 15 or 20 years.

    Until those sorts of issues are sorted out projects like evoting or other franchise issues can never be run properly in Ireland.

    Overseas voting is simple – you give each embassy consultate a machine, you arrive with your Irish passport and a verification reference sent to you personally and you vote.

    Again postal voting is simple – if the powers that be want it to be.

    However no one in Fianna Fáil wants anyone living outside Ireland casting a vote in an Irish election.

    • Your last point is a very interesting one – i guess this is what i was hinting at in the post, my intuition would be that emigrants would be significantly less likely to vote for government parties, especially recent emigrants. I’m currently living in Amsterdam myself, and none of the Irish people that I’ve met here have much fondness for FF. Though, of course, there’s no way of knowing for sure without doing some proper research.

      • Although all of us who live overseas have families left in Ireland and still FF gets a rating of about 25% to 30%. Is it only the children of non FF voters who emigrate – I guess it must be as my definition if you vote FF you are happy with how things are in Ireland so have no cause to emigrate.

        In fairness though I don’t see any evidence FG or L will do anything radical when they get back in on voting.

  3. Any Irish citizen who emigrates (and now that is most likely not by choice but necessity) should be allowed to vote provided they were enrolled as a voter before they left Ireland. As Desmond Fitzgerald stated a system could be set up at each Irish embassy (and perhaps be at each Consulate) to enable a vote to be cast by those found to be eligible. Irish citizens who are forced to leave because of economic reasons do not lose interest in the fate of their homeland. Rather than have these voters in “the fifth province” (overseas) shunted off to the Seanad – which should be abolished – they could cast ballots for an At-Large TD or TDs who would represent the displaced.

  4. @Matt,
    Excellent and timely posting which raises many issues of critical importance. Trust in the voting system is what actually confers legitimacy on the government at all levels.

    At this time of declining trust in our government institutions (I documented this in another posting https://politicalreform.ie/2010/06/21/freedom-of-information-and-corruption/), it is critical that the actual mechanisms of the voting system are modernised, in a robust way that maintains our trust that it is not being administered in whimsical and arbitrary ways. This applies to whatever voting system we use.

    I trust you and others will excuse me for having cast only a cursory glance at the Oireachtas Committee report on the Electoral system – as yet.

    In that context, let me simply suggest four examples of how public servants have applied Information Technology effectively and efficiently (at least in terms of ease of use, for those who have access to and are familiar with contemporary IT). I am not aware that the integrity of these systems has been questioned or that people doubt their fitness-for-purpose.
    1) The CAO system for allocating places in third level institutions (This takes the points system as given, whatever about current discussion and concerns about the Leaving Certificate exam system);
    2) The National Lottery which could not function without widespread use of IT to sell lottery tickets which are bearer instruments (Perhaps somebody will point out the similarities and differences of “polling cards” to such bearer instruments – with some suggestions as to which features are critically important for the integrity of the electoral process and which are not);
    3) The Revenue Commissioners’ ROS system – a key component of which is the PPS number;
    4) The motor taxation system.
    The CAO uses postal and IT services only. Revenue and Motor Tax also have direct public access counters, as does the National Lottery for the vast bulk of its transactions.

    I did hear a senior civil servant express surprise at the speed and efficiency with which local authorities were able to implement the recently-introduced tax on second homes etc

    I offer these examples to show that the Irish public service (at various levels) does bring excellence in conception and execution to the kind of work needed to improve the functioning of our electoral system. Examples of poor conception and badly-managed execution (eg. the electronic voting machines, integrated ticketing for public transport) get more publicity.

    In short, we have the know-how to modernise the administration of our electoral system (even if we change it – in whole or in part).

    I believe that we can do so with integrity, provided we take account of recent work done on the extent to which the current PPN system meets certain contemporary criteria. My cursory reading of the Oireachtas Report on the Electoral system did not find any reference to this publicly available work, which got some publicity in the printed and broadcast media.

    I refer to a Health Information and Quality Authority – HIQA (http://www.hiqa.ie/about.asp) report issued in June 2009 which pointed out certain critical weaknesses of the PPN, eg.

    “The current PPS Number failed on the following criteria…..
    3. Content-free. The structure and elements of the UHI should not contain any information about the individual. Currently there are approximately
    200,000 older PPS numbers in which husband and wife share the same number with the letter “w” appended to the number in the case of the woman…..
    6. Standards-based. A UHI should be based on international or industry standards. The PPS Number itself is not designed to act as a unique
    identifier, rather it is a personal number for use in accessing public services. It was not designed in line with international best practice for
    identifiers……
    8. Universal. There should be sufficient capacity to be able to generate new numbers as required into the foreseeable future. Based on the current average issue rate, the remaining PPS Numbers available will run out by 2012, although plans are being put in place to extend the number.

    The analysis presented in this document shows that, far from saving money, the use of the current PPS Number would not only fail to deliver the benefits of a UHI but could, in the longer term, lead to increased costs. Also, the use of the PPS Number without the appropriate infrastructure will result in an unsafe system leading to increased risk of
    misidentification which will impact negatively on patient safety.
    (http://www.hiqa.ie/media/pdfs/Unique_Health_Identifier_Report.pdf)

    HIQA concluded another report (February 2010) on unique health information number as follows;
    “Of the information that was sourced in the course of this research the following are the key points:
    • privacy and the protection of individual confidentiality is recognised as overarching the success of a UHI. Strong governance controls must be in place with clear lines of accountability prior to any implementation of a UHI;
    • a central trusted authority is necessary in driving the project forward and ensuring consistency across providers;
    • broad ranging stakeholder engagement is required early on in the project to ensure representation from all parties involved;
    • change management processes must be developed prior to implementation in order to minimise the impact on front line staff and consequently the delivery of care to the individual.
    • it is vital that any UHI satisfies the fundamental Criteria for Selection of a UHI in Ireland

    At the time of writing of this report a number of developments are ongoing – most notably in Australia and Germany, with an upgrade of the UHI system currently underway in New Zealand. As such the information presented in this document may
    change accordingly over the coming weeks and months. “
    (http://www.hiqa.ie/media/pdfs/UHIP_International%20Review%20Final.pdf)

    • Interseting stuff, Donal, I hadn’t thought about the PPS number from these angles before. though, I still think that a refined PPS system should be the starting point for electoral register updating, or should be at least used to check the existing registers.

      On your point about the state and technologies, this is extremely well made. There can be a tendency to by cynical about the civil service implementing change involving IT in the media. As you point out, there is substantial evidence that this can be done well. Of course, it has also been done badly on occassion, and ‘government squanders money on e-voting machines’is a far more compelling story than ‘ROS system extremely efficient and easy to use'(which, from my experience, it is).

      the e-voting debacle is a point in case – because one innovation involving the use of computers (which are, fundamentally, counting machines!) was badly managed, now any innovative proposals that even look remotely similar are simply laughed off. All you have to say is ‘e-voting’ and you win the argument to keep an outmoded and inefficient status quo. Look at the number of votes (I think it was around 3,000) that were miscounted when Declan Ganley asked for a recount in the European elections. Were that to happen under a new system, everyone would freak out. When it happens under the current system, everyone accepts ‘human error’ as an acceptable excuse.

      In Estonia, you can now cast your vote in legislative elections online. This potnetially has enormous benefits in terms of election administration costs. I feel that this type of option would be appealing to my generation and those younger than me, who have grown up with the internet, and are comfortable that secure transactions (credit card payments etc.) can be processed online. But, for a start, I’d be happy just to see an Electoral Commission established 🙂

      • Matthew, the difference between e-voting and the Declan Ganley incident is that the Declan Ganley incident (and others that occur) is that it was caught by the repeated human oversight inherent to the current system. The e-voting system we plumped for didn’t allow for that level of oversight. I’m not opposed to electronic assists in the voting system, if it does things the current system doesn’t, allowing people to vote while away from home, proportionate transfer of surpluses etc.

        What is remarkable to me in the discussion about e-voting is that a key reason for the adoption of the system was completely undermined once analysis of the voting record in 2002 was done. There was significant undervoting in Dublin North,West and Meath at a rate much higher than the previous numbers of spoiled ballots. This undervoting was the difference between the numbers crossed off the marked registers by the polling clerks and votes registered as cast by the machines. Whatever the reasons, people without casting a ballot in protest, people not using the machines properly etc. The fact remains that the system didn’t deliver as intended. And that’s aside from the excessive costs, lack of security, the potentially unconstitutional nature of the double sorting of votes that occurred in the software.

        Guthan na pobhail had a good analysis of these issues a few years back. I will try and dig it out

      • Matt,
        I suspect we agree more on this than we disagree, inlcuding the Electoral Commission.

        I too welcome using all the contemporary IT means of voting coupled with the traditional polling station for those who prefer that. My understanding of the electoral turnouts is that a higher proportion of older people vote than younger people:-)

        I referred to the HIQA work on PPN just to ensure that more use of IT in the running of elections do not end up in another e-Voting machines fiasco.

        Of course the PPN has to be used, because we all have it. But HIQA has already done the thinking and research for the “next-generation” of personal ID numbers,within one very well-defined context which also bears on each of us individually.

        In any design for better administration of the electoral process – including e-voting in many differnt ways -, at least this work does not have to be done again. I was pointing out that the dots can be joined, simply and cost-effectively. This is just a lesson from the poorly thought-out e-voting effort.

        IMO, computers (through which medium we are communicating!!!) are far more than counting machines – precisely because of software developments building on the power of hardware to manipulate 1s and 0s.

        The fact that many Irish people enjoy electoral counts (will the GP also ban this ‘blood-sport’?) may have an influence on the future of e-voting here.

        That said, I believe that improving the adminstration and running of elections is a critical part of the checks and balances that we now sorely need.

  5. Yes, these are fair points, and a lack of a ‘paper trail’ that could be double-checked was a key failing. Obviously, the whole e-voting project in Ireland was extremely badly managed, especially in terms of value for money.

    I’m just saying that, because we tried something once and managed it badly, doesn’t mean we should abandon ever looking at innovating again. Any new initiative goes through a process of trial and error, while it is being bedded in.

    I brought up the point about the ganley recount just to show that our system is not error free – if the recount hadn’t been called for, the erroneous count would have stood. Problems and errors are really difficult to avoid in any large undertaking, but we should not abandon innovation in the adminstration of our elections because of this.

    • I agree that we shouldn’t abandon innovation but we need to learn from the mess that was made of the introduction and the design of the e-voting system. And let’s face it no one has lost their job over e-voting, which makes me inclined hold off until we change the system of public service and political accountability.

      • Yeah, again, fair point. Evidently, there isn’t much of an accountability mechanism. Martin Cullen had to take a lot of stick on the issue, but nobody really took accountability for the failings.

        So, you might argue that there is nothing to make sure that the trial and error process results in a more efficient system.

        I would only say that we may be a very long time waiting for such a change to come about. If we put electoral innovation on hold until we completely overhaul our system of public administration, we’ll continue to lag behind other countries for a long, long time.

      • @Daniel
        “hold off until we change the system of public service and political accountability.2

        Delay is the deadliest form of denial!

      • I think of it more as a call to action on accountability. The public won’t accept changes to the process of voting for a generation after the e-voting, we owe it to the next attempt to improve things to make sure the ground work has been properly laid.

      • Daniel,
        You may well be right about the time-scale for change, but I hope not.
        In drawing our attention to the ways things are done in Australia, Matt pointed out other possibilities.
        Combining that with what HIQA has done will enable us to improve the administration of elections much sooner that you believe is possible.

        In this time of crisis, we owe more throught and effort to ourselves, now – not a generation hence.

  6. didn’t howard get rid of late registration in Australia and they had to court to get back in the last couple of weeks

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