Should the presidential nomination rules be changed – and, if so, how?

By Michael Gallagher

The first of these questions seems to have acquired ‘Is the Pope a Catholic?’ status, with apparent unanimity that the existing nomination requirements are too exacting. To recap, a would-be presidential candidate must secure the nominations of either (a) 20 members of the Houses of the Oireachtas (TDs and Senators), or (b) four city or county councils. Additionally, an incumbent or former president who has served one term may nominate herself or himself for a second term.

This issue has arisen during several previous campaigns, as the requirements tend to be discovered anew at the outset of each campaign. There is usually some kind of vague consensus that, while it is too late to change the rules for this campaign, it is something that ‘should be looked at’ before the next one. However, once the current contest is over, everything to do with the presidency immediately drops to the bottom of the political agenda – governments have other matters such as the economy to think about – and no more is heard of the idea for the next six and a half years, at which point the cycle begins again.

It might be said that in the past, as far as we know, these restrictive requirements have not deprived the country of any outstanding presidents or led to the election of any sub-standard ones, but of course we can’t know who might have tried to come forward had the hurdles to nomination been less formidable. The issue acquired particular relevance in 2011 because a would-be candidate, David Norris, was leading in opinion polls and yet having great difficulties in securing a nomination. While his bid for candidacy ultimately foundered for other reasons, the general concern remains. Preventing a popular candidate from running would not just deprive that individual of a chance of elected office; it would deprive all those who intended to vote for the individual of their right to be represented by the person they preferred. If the rules on nomination at Dáil elections were so restrictive that they prevented well-supported independents such as Shane Ross or Mick Wallace from getting on to the ballot paper, they would be indefensible and, unless constitutionally enshrined, would be deemed unconstitutional.

Unless the rules are changed, the requirements are set to become even more onerous by the time of the next presidential election, since the anticipated abolition of the Seanad and reduction in the number of TDs will mean that the Oireachtas route will then require obtaining the signatures of 20 out of about 150 TDs (13 per cent) instead of 20 out of 226 TDs and Senators (9 per cent) as at present. As things stand, Fianna Fáil, with just 19 TDs at the moment, would struggle to get a candidate onto the ballot paper.

If the requirements were opened up, there are three main ways of altering them: financial, direct nomination by the public, or retaining the format of the current provisions but relaxing them.

At Dáil elections, a candidate can be nominated by a registered political party, by 30 registered voters, or by themselves on foot of a €500 deposit. The likelihood is that a financial requirement would be felt inappropriate for a presidential election, so a signature requirement is the only serious alternative to some amendment of the present situation.

With 43 Dáil constituencies, a simple scaling up of the requirement for 30 signatures in a Dáil constituency would give a figure of 1,290 signatures for a presidential nomination. This might seem rather low for a nationwide contest, and would conjure up the ‘chaos scenario’ whereby every county hospital committee (and many other groups besides) runs its own candidate and offers its next preference to the highest bidder: to whichever of the serious contenders makes the most sympathetic noises re retention of the local hospital services. A larger figure, somewhere in the region of 5,000 to 30,000, would filter out those without broad support while not making it impossible for genuine contenders to secure a nomination. Signature requirements on this scale are not a feature of the Irish political system; they arose only in the case of the initiative provision envisaged (though never provided) by the 1922 Irish Free State constitution, which would have enabled 50,000 voters, at a time when the electorate was only around two-thirds of its current figure, to demand that the Oireachtas either pass a law or put the issue to a referendum. Whatever the figure, to prevent a proliferation of ‘local heroes’ it would be easy to think of additional requirements insisting on proof of geographically broad support: for example, 10,000 signatures, with at least 100 from each of at least two-thirds of the counties or constituencies.

However, there is a general difficulty with a signature requirement, namely validation. This is why the Constitution Review Group, in its 1996 report, kicked to touch on the issue, stating that the existing nomination requirements are too restrictive but feeling unable to go further than saying that, given validation difficulties, a mechanism based on a number of voters ‘ought to be explored’ (p. 22) – back to ‘should be looked at’ again. Validating signatures would presumably mean local authority employees knocking on the doors of supposed signatories and seeking confirmation of their identity and their signature. As we know from the experience of conducting surveys and maintaining the electoral register, this would mean repeated visits to many addresses, a good deal of evening work, and the certainly that many names would prove in effect uncontactable. The administrative capacity to take on this task surely does not exist. Given that both central and local administrative machines have difficulty in coping with their existing responsibilities, and with public sector staff numbers being frozen or reduced, how realistic would it be it to expect them to deal meaningfully with this additional responsibility?

That seems to leave only the option of a relaxation in the current requirements. Instead of 20 members of the Houses of the Oireachtas, the figure could be reduced to 5 per cent of such members, which would be 12 of the current 226, or 7 if the Seanad were abolished and the size of the Dáil reduced to 150. The local authority route might be lowered from 4 to 2 city or county councils. Alternatively, given the anomalies that can arise when councils as a whole are required to make a decision – a nomination can be made by a handful of councillors with the majority abstaining, or a coalition of parties could use their combined majority on every council to prevent any independent candidates emerging – individual councillors might sensibly be made the unit of nomination, with a requirement of 5 per cent of councillors. With the present figure of 883 councillors, this would requite a nominee to secure the signatures of 45 councillors – and to ensure that such candidates are not simply capitalising on highly localised esteem, these signatures might need to come from, say, members of at least 10 different local authorities.

Thus, Article 12.4.2 might be rewritten as:

2° Every candidate for election, not a former or retiring President, must be nominated either by:

i. a number of persons, each of whom is at the time a member of one of the Houses of the Oireachtas, amounting to not less than five per cent of the total membership of the Houses of the Oireachtas, or

ii. by a number of persons, each of whom is at the time a member of the Council of an administrative County (including County Boroughs) as defined by law, amounting to not less than five per cent of the total membership of such Councils. The nominators must include members of at least ten different administrative Counties (including County Boroughs) as defined by law.

7 thoughts on “Should the presidential nomination rules be changed – and, if so, how?

  1. Some kind of random sampling procedure could hugely cut down on the amount of work involved for signature verification. I know this is done in parts of the US. Suppose 10,000 signatures are hypothetically needed for a presidential nomination. Then a smaller subset, say just 500, of the collected signatures could be randomly chosen and then investigated and verified fully. Suppose the candidate has collected 15,000 signatures and 80% of the sample is found to be valid. Statistically, it’s fairly certain he’s going to have circa 15,000×80% = 12,000 valid signatures. Usually if the random sample indicates valid signatures are less than some threshold of the required level (say less than 90%) the petition automatically fails. Conversely, if the random sample indicates a comfortable margin above the threshold (say over 110%) it automatically is successful. Of course, there’s still then the 90-110% case where things are a bit too close to call. In that case a full verification of all signatures is launched (with all the manpower that would require). But presumably most candidates would try to collect more actual signatures that strictly necessary to give them the extra breathing room. It’s quite likely exhaustive signature verification would be needed only rarely.

  2. I think 35 is a reasonably age limit because it would be ridiculous to have someone under 50, with no life experience as the president of a modern countr. I wonder who is the youngest person to ever be elected head of state in a modern democratic country?

    In Portugal, any citizen over 35 and apply to be a candidate for President if they gather between 7500 -15000 signatures and then their application is passed by the Constitutional Court according to the law.

    In their election earlier this year there were 6 candidates and 3 who tried and failed, which seems reasoanble and manageable.

    It would require monumental political reform before we could feel confident enough to trust the same person being head of government and head of state in a country like Ireland, where to date I wouldn’t class any of our Presidents (past or present) as being anything special, the fact Mary Robinson was a women and liberal doesn’t mean she made a good President and we know with hindsight that Patrick Hillery upheld theo ffice to a far higher standard than we thought – I wonder would he have referred NAMA etc to the Supreme Court or would he have rubber stamped like his party told him to as Mrs McAlesse did?

  3. One way that could be considered for collecting signatures on a Presidential nomination petition would be to have the signatures collected at a Council office. A returning official representative would have to be present with a listing of the local registered voters. Anyone who wanted to sign a petition would have to bring a valid photo ID and proof of address. This would allow for immediate verification and eliminate the need for a call to houses to verify a signature.

  4. Also any reform based on a number of signatures would make it a requirement that the signature must be someone already on the voting register at the point of signing and they would have to make an effort to go somewhere to sign ie a council office where their inclusion on the voting list can be verified.

    If a person can’t be bothered to be registered to vote then they shouldn’t be allowed nominate a candidate.

  5. That sounds like a great suggestion to me, Michael. It’s a pity that they don’t try to pick up on new ICT verification possibilities though.

    If it’s possible payments online, shouldn’t it also be possibe to register peoples’ preference in the presidential primary?

    On other bone of contention for me is the 35 year old age limit. For me, no age limit would need to apply. James Hyland has some fascianting thoughts on this topic in his ‘Democratic Theory – the Philosophical Foundations’

  6. Really good post Michael and I would hope that the suggestions made here are taken up, and taken up quickly before the political opportunity space offered by the impending election fades away and everyone forgets about the issue for another eighty months or so. I agree with Matt on the abolition of the 35-years age limit; I can see no reason with the discriminatory and profoundly undemocratic rule is in place and think this needs to be repealed. It’s preventing some potentially good younger candidates from entering the race and offering a different perspective/viewpoint in the coming presidential debates. The Irish electorate should be free to decide whether life experience is necessary for the job of president or not.

  7. is 4 councils really too much of an ask, is it not the whip that’s the problem?

    and was it the Fianna Fail GE collapse that opened up the field

    think more effort could be made to consider and overcome the practicalities the petition route.

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