We need to ensure all citizens have their say

Ireland’s voter registration system is deeply flawed, says Laura Harmon, who has called for automatic voter registration at a certain age, as well as online registration and to allow our citizens abroad to vote
We need to ensure all citizens have their say

Ireland’s voter registration system is deeply flawed, says Laura Harmon,

WHEN we hear the term ‘voter suppression’, we might think of places like the United States. But does voter suppression exist here in Ireland?

Perhaps not deliberately but it exists as a default of the flawed system that we currently have.

How do people who are homeless in this country vote? In theory, they can register at their emergency accommodation but unless they’re living there long-term, they will likely not receive a polling card.

People who are homeless should be able to register to vote using the address of a homeless service and they should be able to vote in an assigned location convenient for them.

People who are homeless have been adversely affected by government policy decisions and should be able to exercise their democratic right to vote like everyone else without having to jump through hoops.

How can you vote if you don’t have any information about voting? One of the main reasons why people aren’t registered to vote is because they don’t know how or haven’t been prompted to. Much of the big voter registration drives in this country take place on college campuses. We know from CSO figures that the least likely age bracket is 18-24-year-olds. But what about the young people who are not in higher education? Many of these younger people do not have the same access to information campaigns.

In the last two referenda in this country, we witnessed a surge in youth voter registration and voter turn-out. I have no doubt this was due to their desire to shape the Ireland that they wanted to see and to cast their votes on marriage equality and in the referendum on the Eighth Amendment.

But this increase in voter registration was also due to the tireless work of organisations like the Union of Students in Ireland and local students’ unions like UCC Students’ Union who consistently register thousands of young people to vote every year.

Laura Harmon.
Laura Harmon.

All too often the process of registering people to vote and promoting effective information on how to register to vote is left up to civil society organisations. The Together for Yes and Yes Equality campaigns both promoted voter registration. The Together for Yes campaign in particular targeted first-time voters through its messaging during the voter registration aspect of the campaign. This was because we knew that younger voters were least likely to be registered to vote or aware of the deadlines.

But promoting voter registration information should be the responsibility of the Government and there is a need for an Electoral Commission to be set up to run large-scale, targeted awareness campaigns on this issue.

It is my view that the Seanad should be opened up as far as possible to all voters but the NUI Seanad panel’s voter registration process is a classic example of a complete mess. There are very little resources invested into promoting the need for graduates to claim their vote in these elections through the National University of Ireland. Again, the mantle of running effective campaigns for Seanad voter registration is often taken up by students’ unions. This is not to mention the fact that a referendum in 1979 passed to give all graduates of higher education institutions (not just NUI graduates) a vote in these elections — it is a disgrace that this was never legislated for. That is an example of voter suppression and disenfranchisement as a result of successive governments’ failure to act. Hundreds of thousands of potential voters — those who graduated before 1979 and in the decades after — have been excluded from voting in those elections and we hear very little from public representatives about this.

So what can be done to improve voter registration in Ireland? In the short term, we need to urgently move towards an online voter registration option which is common in many countries, including the U.K. Personal public service (PPS) numbers, coupled with valid identification when voting, could also be used to verify an individual’s identity and this could entirely replace the inefficient requirement for the Gardaí to stamp forms.

In the long term, we should introduce automatic registration when a citizen reaches voting age. Automatic voter registration has enhanced turnout in every country that introduced it. Germany, Finland, Italy, Switzerland, France, Argentina, Peru and Belgium are examples of countries that have some form of automatic registration.

Ireland is highly unusual by not allowing the majority of its overseas citizens any say in the political process. Members of the armed forces and the diplomatic services are able to vote in Dáil elections, while only NUI and Trinity graduates can vote in the Seanad elections from abroad.

Beyond these exceptions, only those who are ordinarily resident may vote. Ireland should join over 100 countries worldwide by allowing our citizens abroad to vote. The Convention on the Constitution voted by 78 per cent to allow citizens abroad to vote in Irish presidential elections. Citizens could vote via Irish embassies abroad.

There is a massive opportunity to increase enfranchisement and voter turn-out in Ireland. Registering to vote and voting are two of the most fundamental cornerstones that underpin the democratic process and as a country we absolutely need to get this process right and ensure that all citizens can have their say.

Laura Harmon from Baile Bhuirne, Cork, wasthe Mobilisation Team Lead for the Together for Yes campaign. She was president of the Union of Students in Ireland in 2014/2015 during the marriage equality referendum.

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