Saturday, 24 May 1986
Seanad Eireann Debate
Mrs. Robinson: I would welcome clarification on a small point. In relation to section 3 and the text of the statement which will be issued with the polling card, I notice at the bottom of the last statement it is provided that a copy of the Bill can be inspected free of charge and purchased for 2½p at any post office. Is that a special publication of the Bill? The Bill I have costs 60p. Will the post offices be issued with a separate special version of the Bill, or will post offices be required to ensure that it is only sold at 2½p instead of 60p?
Minister for Justice (Mr. Dukes): The covering legislation requires copies of the Bill to be held available for inspection or for purchase at a nominal price, and 2½p is about as nominal as it can be.
(5) (a) Where a ballot paper is to be  marked pursuant to paragraph (3) of this Rule, the presiding officer may assist the voter by reading out in full from the ballot paper the proposal stated therein and asking the voter `Do you approve of or do you object to that Bill becoming law?' and shall then, unless it is a case to which subparagraph (b) of this paragraph applies, mark the ballot paper in accordance with the answer of the voter, but he shall not act on any written instruction.
To my mind, that section covers people who are unable to vote or to understand. Under that section, do you call those voters illiterate voters? If you are an illiterate voter, the section should be vivid and clear because as it stands it may confuse the voter. We are asking the voter whether he is going to amend the Constitution, but at no time do we use the word “Yes” or “No”. Later we say that if the voter approves of the proposal he or she should mark X opposite the word “Yes” on the ballot paper and if he or she does not approve of the proposal, mark “X” opposite the word “No” on the ballot paper. In my view there is a measure of confusion there for an illiterate voter and it will be very hard to define exactly what he is voting for. I think the wording should be clear and vivid so that  he would understand if he is voting “Yes” or “No” rather than the words “in favour” which are used in the second part. The two phrases we are using in the Bill are: “Do you approve” or “do you vote in favour?” Approve of what? Approve of amending the Constitution. To an illiterate voter “Amending the Constitution” is a very vague term. He would not be able to grasp what we mean by “amending the Constitution”. If you go further into explaining it you frustrate him further. For that reason the questions put should be clearer. At no time is he asked if he is voting “yes” or “no”, and that is what I am objecting to. He knows when going in to vote that he is going to vote “yes” or “no” but he is going to be asked “Do you approve” or “Are you in favour?” and that is what I object to in the Bill. You remove the clarity by explanation. A presiding officer may try to explain to an illiterate voter in an effort to clarify it, but the more he does so the more he confuses the voter. I do not agree with the wording. It should be clearer to the illiterate voter if that is possible.
Mr. Dukes: This is exactly the procedure that has been used in all previous referenda and I am not aware that there has been any particular difficulty about it. Under the provisions here the illiterate voters — the voters concerned here — are getting exactly the same instructions or requests. The voter who can read the ballot paper reads the question and he is then told “If you approve of the proposal, mark X opposite the word yes. If you do not approve of the proposal mark X opposite the word no.” In the case of the voter the Senator is talking about he or she is asked “Do you approve or do you not approve?” When the voter says what he wants to do and whether he approves or does not approve the returning officer follows the instruction given and marks the X at “yes” or “no”. I cannot see how the matter could be made any clearer to that voter. The House will see that the words that are to be read out by the returning officer to the voter are specifically prescribed here so that there can  be no suggestion of any uncertainty or ambiguity in the question put to the voter. That is to ensure that it is the same question and the same question only that is put to each voter.
Mr. M. O'Toole: I see no other place where I can ask the Minister a question in connection with personating agents and sub-agents. In my reading of it a Senator, TD, Minister or whatever has the right to appoint a director, sub-director, personating agent or whatever. In the event of my party not taking any active part and leaving this referendum to the people to decide, it is possible that our organisation will not appoint sub-agents and so on in the polling booths. It is likely that the Opposition and the Minister's party will be taking an active part——
Mr. M. O'Toole: The Minister's party in Government will be taking an active role in this referendum and I take it that they will appoint sub-directors and personating agents and the transport mentioned by Senator McMahon to take people to the polls. Our party may not be doing that.
Mr. M. O'Toole: Secrecy of the ballot should be observed and duties should be carried out effectively. If sub-agents and personating agents of one political party are in the polling booths and another major political party are not represented, doubt may be created in people's minds about what might be taking place in the absence of our Garda Síochána or some other body at a polling booth. Does the Minister see any danger in the fact that our party will not be providing personnel at this referendum? Does he think that there will be any inaccuracies or that the secrecy of the ballot may be——
Mr. Dukes: It was one of the reasons I stayed awake last night, I must confess. If there were to be any worry in people's minds in that regard I would feel obliged, as I am sure Senator O'Toole would also, to point out that it was because one of the largest political parties in the country had abdicated their normal responsibility and that it was a shame that that happened.
Mr. Dukes: We can provide the protection of the law for the people. We can provide the protection of our democratic system and we can ensure that they have the right to participate, but we cannot oblige them to participate. Of course, if any substantial party decide that they are not going to participate, that is their decision. The rest of us, of course, will act as we always act.
Mr. Ferris: Lest there be any ambiguity, let me defend the presiding officers in the polling stations as they are not here to defend themselves. Irrespective of what political parties go in or out of polling stations, and many go in and out when they should not, I would trust the presiding officer if he was instructed by an illiterate or blind voter to carry out the instructions of the voter. Only political parties have suspicions about that and they put in sub-agents to make sure that what the voter requests is done. My party have never queried voters or a presiding officer in a polling station. We have always trusted the man who was appointed, and the same people are appointed all the time. We have no problems about them. We set up structures.  We must trust somebody. Senator O'Toole and I have stood outside polling stations together——
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