Thursday, 28 February 2002
Seanad Eireann Debate
Mr. Cosgrave: I welcome the Minister of State to the House. I presume there is an ongoing review of election procedures in the Department. Will the Minister of State update us on those procedures because, being realistic, we are now within weeks of an election?
I want to raise a number of matters with the Minister of State and I ask him to reply to them to the best of his ability. The first concerns the new procedures on nominations for general elections in light of the High Court decision on deposits etc. Has the Department come up with a formula in that regard? Will it be the case that only a certain number of people can nominate or what will be the position in that regard? Will pictures of candidates appear on the ballot papers? Have steps been taken to ensure that certain procedures are adhered to and that candidates or agents will be satisfied with those procedures?
I presume the Minister of State will be of a mind that, as far as possible, polling stations should be as accessible and user friendly as possible, although I am sure there may be difficulty with the odd polling station. While people who are handicapped in one way or other might be entitled to special voting arrangements, there are others for whom voting is part of a day out. Will direction be given to returning officers that, as far as possible, areas should be made wheelchair accessible etc.? I understand notice went out in one constituency recently to the effect that certain polling stations were not wheelchair accessible and people now have an opportunity to vote at an alternative station. I realise arrangements cannot be 100% perfect but I am sure the Minister of State would support, in principle, my thoughts on that matter.
I understand three constituencies have been selected to use electronic voting in the forthcoming election but will polling clerks be sufficiently briefed in that regard? Have these machines been tested and will there be a back-up system in place? Will people in the three nominated constituencies – Dublin North, Dublin West and Meath – have the option to vote using either system? What will happen if technical difficulties arise? I have had the experience, as I am sure have other Members, of arriving at a polling booth very early only to find that machines had broken down or there was a power failure. I am sure the Minister of State has discussed that aspect thoroughly with his senior Minister and the officials in the Department.
On the question of polling clerks and the instructions given to them, council officials or local teachers sometimes apply for the position. In the last Seanad election, instructions were given by the returning officer which obviously had not been read fully by some people resulting in certain votes being disallowed, through no fault of the returning officer or her assistant. It may be a case of certain information being passed down the line to officials – one official described it as the “Noddy Noddy letter”– but some people can be briefed morning, noon and night and they still do not take in the information. Is there a plan in place to ensure that instructions are fully effective? In the trial areas it may be necessary to brief those involved on this system because some people are less mechanically minded than others, particularly if they have not used these machines  previously, regardless of what will be explained to the public.
I ask the Minister of State to take on board the various points I have made. I am sure he and his officials have been working on these matters but given the mistakes made in the past, a full examination of this area is needed, although I acknowledge trials have taken place. I thank the Chair for his indulgence. I am sure he will agree with some of the points I have made.
Minister of State at the Department of the Environment and Local Government (Mr. D. Wallace): I thank Senator Cosgrave for raising these matters. A range of improvements has been made to electoral law over the past five years and I will confine my comments to the specific matters raised by the Senator.
The House will recall that in July 2001, the High Court held that the provisions of the Electoral Act, 1992, and the European Parliament Elections Act, 1997, in relation to election deposits, were repugnant to Article 40.1 of the Constitution. In light of this finding of the High Court and following examination of the matter, the Government approved the text of a Bill on 26 February 2002 to provide for an alternative to deposits. The Bill, which will be published shortly, will provide that non-party candidates at European, Dáil and local elections will be required to obtain the signatures of 60, 30 and 15 electors, respectively, and those assentors will have to be registered in the constituency or local electoral area to which the candidate is seeking election. Candidates who are nominated by a registered political party and who have a certificate of political affiliation from their political party will not have to obtain signatures on their nomination papers. Details of the procedures for assenting the nomination forms will be set out in the Bill.
In relation to wheelchair access, polling stations are located, whenever possible, in buildings that are accessible to people with disabilities and must be located on the ground floor in all cases. My Department issues advice on access matters to returning offices in advance of each poll setting out details in relation to access widths, the need for suitable parking facilities and information in relation to ramps. Returning officers are also required to make a table and chair available at polling stations at which electors can vote if they find that is more convenient than the traditional polling booth.
There are a number of other arrangements in place to facilitate voters with disabilities. These include voting at an alternative polling station if the local station is inaccessible; assistance in voting at the polling station by a companion or the presiding officer; postal voting by electors living at home with a physical illness or disability and  voting at hospitals and nursing homes by electors living there.
The Senator raised the issue of electronic voting. The Government recently agreed to proposals for the use of voting machines and electronic vote counting in the constitutencies of Dublin North, Dublin West and Meath at the forthcoming general election, subject to satisfactory final testing of the software involved.
The elections in the three constitutencies will be conducted by the respective returning officers who will set up each election using election management software. Voters will register in the normal way at the polling station, record their preferences on a ballot paper displayed on a voting machine by pressing the space beside the candidate's photography and vote by pressing a “cast vote” button. The votes will be securely stored in vote modules, which will be brought to the count centre after the close of the poll and counted electronically using the PR-STV count software. Final results should be available within two hours of the close of the poll. The voting machine is accessible for wheelchair users.
While the system is simple to use, an information campaign will be undertaken in each of the three pilot constituencies. This will involve the distribution of an information leaflet to each registered elector, a poster campaign, local radio advertising, a travelling roadshow with the voting machine and a number of other measures. In addition, training of returning officers and their election staff will be undertaken in the run up to the polls.
The electoral system comprises a complex set of arrangements from voter registration to voting and vote counting. It requires continual assessment to ensure that any unnecessary obstacles or inflexible practices in the registration and voting process are removed. At the same time, however, we must make certain that the integrity and security of the system are not diminished in any way. Significant improvements in the electoral process have been adopted in recent years and this process will not doubt continue.
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