Voting should take place on Saturdays and Sundays, and also be open to 17-year olds, according to recommendations set out by the Oireachtas’ Joint Committee on the Constitution. Its report, published in July, is one of the factors influencing Environment Minister John Gormley as he works out how to establish an independent electoral commission. This would, in turn, carry out most of the committee’s recommendations, if they were approved by the Oireachtas.
TDs are currently elected using the single transferable vote system (STV), as laid down in Bunreacht na hÉireann.
Electoral reform is not to be taken lightly. As the report states, the functioning of an electoral system reflects the “history, values and culture of the society in which it is situated” and the committee itself is not convinced that there is a compelling case for a complete replacement of STV. Most alternatives put forward to the committee envisaged a multi-member proportional system (MMP), whereby some seats are elected in single constituencies and the remainder elected using a party list.
It must not be seen in isolation, with members also pointing to the importance of improving the Oireachtas’ role in holding government to account.
An electoral commission was suggested in the 2007 Programme for Government and the renewed version in 2009. Committee members called for its urgent establishment on a constitutional footing, to affirm its legitimacy and independence.
The committee insists on a non-partisan approach to avoid any perception that reforms are ‘for or against’ any party. A citizens’ assembly is therefore proposed, to examine STV’s performance and propose any necessary changes. The key question is whether the system “continues to meet the needs of our democracy.”
A voter education programme in schools would inform young people about their right to vote. Political parties are meanwhile encouraged to promote gender equality when selecting candidates. Party funding, potentially, could be allocated according to the number of women candidates, although this is only a speculative proposal; the Attorney-General’s advice is needed.
Under a new voter registration system, established and maintained by the electoral commission, voters would be allocated personal public service numbers and information would be verified for accuracy at a local level.
In a timely reference, the committee called for Dáil by-elections to be filled within six months of the vacancy. Alternatively, a candidate could nominate a list of replacements, to fill the seat on a resignation or death. This was used in the Northern Ireland Assembly until February 2009, when party leaders were allowed to nominate the successor. While cost-free, the proposal could allow an unpopular party to hold a seat despite the electorate’s opposition.
If a voter were unable to attend their polling station due to conflicting commitments, they could opt for a postal vote instead. No change in Dáil Éireann’s size is put forward but the number of TDs per constituency should be no less than four. The current threshold (three) could still be used if a four-TD formula would mean covering a “disproportionately large” area.
Addressing the Dáil in October, Gormley explained that legislating for an electoral commission would involve changing over 20 Acts of the Oireachtas, “a major task” in his words. The Minister saw the committee’s work as a “valuable input” which was “being taken into account in progressing work in this area.”
The electorate has twice decided to keep STV, when presented with first-past-the-post as an alternative. The 1968 referendum saw a 60.8 per cent vote for the status quo, while the 1959 endorsement was a more marginal 51.8 per cent.
Separately, northern voters will take part in a UK-wide referendum on 5 May 2011, with a choice between first-past-the-post and the alternative vote system (AV). The Liberal Democrats support AV but the Conservatives are opposed. Unionists back the current system while nationalists and the Alliance Party would prefer some form of proportional representation.