Ireland needs an Electoral Commission now!

votingCommon to all the discussions about political reform in Ireland is the need to reduce the excessive centralization of power in the executive. In recent posts I’ve examined this from the perspective of Dail reform. This post focuses on the administration of elections in Ireland.

A good starting point is this document, which was the response of the Department of the Environment to a request by the Constitutional Convention for its input into the Convention’s deliberations on electoral reform last month. The arrogant and dismissive tone of this response drew the wrath of the members and the comment of one of the experts, Prof Michael Marsh of TCD, that it served as a wonderful illustration of why Ireland needs an Electoral Commission.

An Electoral Commission was promised in the programme of government of the current coalition. It was also promised by the previous government. We’re led to believe that this time the government is serious, but that we need to give them time. According to the document sent to the Constitutional Convention by the Department of the Environment:

Establishment of an Electoral Commission will be a major body of work. Issues for consideration include international best practice, the Commission’s structure and functions, who it reports to, its relationship with other bodies currently involved in electoral administration, and the approach to be followed in relation to the extensive legislation that will be required, as well as practical matters including staffing and funding arrangements.

The put it at its politest, this response is disingenuous. The Department has already done most of this groundwork. In 2008 it commissioned a detailed report that examined these issues – a report which can be downloaded from its own website (see the Sinnott report). From what I’ve heard, a considerable amount of additional work was done in the Department on foot of this report (though the details are not in the public domain). In short, a lot of the groundwork necessary to establish an Irish Electoral Commission is completed: all that is lacking is the political will (and perhaps also some means of sidelining senior civil service bravado) to take the necessary action.

For those who might ask what is the point of an Electoral Commission, here are some pointers. First, creating an Irish Electoral commission would be following the best international practice. Research published by the prestigious International Institute for Democracy and Electoral Assistance (IDEA) based in Sweden shows how increasingly out of step Ireland is in this regard. Of the 156 countries they examine, Ireland is one of only 32 in which elections are still managed by government.

Election management bodies in the 2000s

Number of cases

%

Independent 101 64.7
Governmental 32 20.5
Mixed 23 14.7

Second, a properly constituted Irish Electoral Commission could play a key role in better coordinating all matters related to the administration of parties, elections and referendums in Ireland. As set out in the Sinnott report, there could be considerable economies of scale not least through the merger of existing agencies and functions such as SIPO, the Register of Parties, the Constituency Commissions, and the ad hoc Referendum Commissions.

Third, as shown for instance by Australian and British experience, an Irish Electoral Commission would be an important new player in the process of elections in Ireland, pro-actively managing the process of modernising the electoral register, testing ways of making voting easier and more convenient, rigorously policing party finance, promoting research on key questions relating to such matters as how to improve turnout, and so on.

An Irish Electoral Commission should be established without any further delay. It is time for action now. The research on how to do this has been done. This government has made a commitment to do this. Now please get on with it!

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