Flaws in Ireland’s elections

The core of Irish elections is strong, but more could be done to bring contests into the 21st Century. In particular:

  • Postal voting reforms would allow more people to vote early at city and county council offices.
  • A sustained and continuous campaign of civic information would deepen citizen’s awareness of the ballot choices. 
  • The voter registration processes need urgent attention to address inaccuracies.  
  • And finally a permanent Electoral Commission would strengthen administrative processes.

These reforms would allow more citizens to have their say, improve public trust, and thereby strengthen Irish elections and democracy. 

What is the evidence for these claims?

We can draw upon a survey of election experts from the Electoral Integrity Project. This evaluates electoral processes in 164 individual countries against international standards and global norms for the appropriate conduct of elections. 

In the most recent report (March 2018), Ireland is ranked in 27th position worldwide. Election experts assessed Ireland with a Perceptions of Electoral Integrity (PEI) score of 71 out of a maximum of 100. In contrast, Denmark is ranked first in the world with a PEI score of 87, while Ethiopia is ranked in 164th position with a score of 24.  

Drilling down into the detail of the 2018 Electoral Integrity Project report, it shows that Ireland rates well for its electoral laws, electoral procedures, party registration, candidate access and the dissemination of results. Election laws are perceived to be of high integrity gaining a PEI score of 77 and procedures on election-day earn Ireland its highest individual PEI score of 90. The counting of votes under Ireland’s single transferable vote electoral system (PEI score of 89) is recognised as fair and impartial, as are electoral boundaries and the process of districting. 

 Note: Table shows Perceptions of Electoral Integrity Sub-dimension scores (country-level, PEI 6.0) , coded from 0 to 100. 

Note: Table shows Perceptions of Electoral Integrity Sub-dimension scores (country-level, PEI 6.0) , coded from 0 to 100. 

Yet, complacency is not an option. Some areas of weakness are highlighted in the data release.

Most significantly, Ireland is ranked 137th in the world for its voter registration processes, only mustering a PEI score of 32. The project reveals that three-quarters of the experts surveyed believe the Irish electoral register is inaccurate. Ireland is clustered together with Tanzania, Honduras, Ethiopia and Kenya towards the bottom of the class for the accuracy of its electoral registers. It is the worst performing OECD country in this regard.

 Note: Figure shows Perceptions of Electoral Integrity Voter Registration Index scores (country-level, PEI 6.0) , coded from 0 to 100. 

Note: Figure shows Perceptions of Electoral Integrity Voter Registration Index scores (country-level, PEI 6.0) , coded from 0 to 100. 

Furthermore, experts noted the absence of voting rights for Irish citizens living abroad and awarded low marks for the availability of postal ballots and the lack of availability of internet voting. 

There were also mixed results on political finance; many experts questioned whether Irish parties have equitable access to political donations and public funding.  More than half of the experts do not believe that Irish parties publish transparent accounts.   

Electoral Commission

The data confirms what we have known for years - the Irish electoral register is part fiction and little has been done to bring Irish elections into the 21st century. 

One overarching change which would embrace all of these needs would be the establishment of an Electoral Commission. Successive Irish governments have been promising an Electoral Commission for years and occasionally there is a burst of activity – a report is commissioned or a public consultation initiated. All of these actions have the same outcome, they recommend that an electoral commission is established but somehow, the political will is never there to get a Commission over the line and set up.

The Electoral Commission would be a body whose entire focus would be overseeing the electoral process in Ireland. Much of the work is currently being done in scattergun fashion and to varying degrees of effectiveness across the system. However, an Electoral Commission would centralise, rationalise and focus on electoral procedures. 

A permanent Electoral Commission’s remit would also include the work currently done by Referendum Commissions, thus avoiding the need to establish these at short notice before a referendum, which results in limited time (usually between six to eight weeks) to raise public awareness about the referendum, and to provide detailed, oftentimes complex, information about a referendum proposal. Several Referendum Commission reports have recommended that a six-month period is optimal for its work. A permanent Electoral Commission would overcome this time deficit often lamented in the post-referendum reports.

The Programme for Partnership Government agreed between Fine Gael, members of the Independent Alliance and a number of other independent representatives in 2016 states that the establishment of an Electoral Commission is a ‘priority’. The government should start moving on this now.

 

The Electoral Integrity Project (EIP) is led by Professor Pippa Norris and is based at the University of Sydney and Harvard University. The authors, Dr Theresa Reidy (University College Cork), Dr Fiona Buckley (University College Cork) and Professor David Farrell (University College Dublin), are members of the Ireland sub-national team of the Electoral Integrity Project and they received funding from the Irish Research Council for the Ireland audit. Further information about EIP is available here and data from the project may be sourced on Dataverse.

Why corruption and coercion flourish in flawed elections

Why corruption and coercion flourish in flawed elections

This article first appeared in Democratic Audit UK, 16 March 2018.

Recent contests in Kenya, Honduras and Papua New Guinea were derailed by election-related violence and corruption. Financial malfeasance has also triggered scandals in Greece, Italy, France, Spain and Bulgaria. Transparency International, reports that graft, kickbacks and cronyism plague India, Indonesia, Mexico, the Philippines and Russia. Not all of these problems are related to elections – but many are. In Brazil, for example, the former President (Lula) Luiz Inácio da Silva was charged with receiving kickbacks from the state oil company Petrobras. The charges were upheld by a panel of judges in January 2018 thereby barring the leading candidate in the polls from running for the presidency. In Costa Rica, a scandal (Cementazo) damaged many prominent figures. Pledges to fight this problem featured heavily in recent contests from Mexico and Italy to Austria.  

Given these sorts of headlines, when asked to identify the most corrupt institution in their country, it is not surprising that the public sees elected representatives as one of the most problematic agencies, according to TI’s Global Corruption Barometer. During the post-Cold War era, concern has risen about the proliferation of election-related protests and violence. Contentious elections challenge the legitimacy of electoral actors, procedures or outcomes. These types of contest can undermine democratic transitions in countries emerging from dictatorship, cause further instability and social tensions in fragile states, discourage international investment, and jeopardise stability, growth and development in low-income economies. 

But how extensive are these problems? The Perceptions of Electoral Integrity (PEI) expert survey has gathered new cross-national evidence about the extent of election-related corruption and coercion. Electoral corruption and coercion are often related, as shown in the figure below. Not surprisingly, experts estimate that Western democracies such as Iceland, Portugal and Australia are generally free of these problems. By contrast, problems of electoral corruption and coercion are far more common in authoritarian states such as Chad, Djibouti, Syria and Equatorial Guinea. Autocratic states, such as Uzbekistan, Kazakhstan, and Central African Republic, appear predominantly above the trend line – indicating more election-related threats and intimidation. Hybrid regimes, which are neither clearly autocracies or democracies, often have more corruption.   

What causes these problems? 

The type of political regime and path-dependent historical legacies are likely to prove important – but how? For long-established democracies, experience of a succession of competitive elections and processes of democratic consolidation will lessen the problems of coercion and vote-buying. Hybrid states – which have transitioned from democracy but have not yet developed robust institutions such as stable systems of party competition – are likely to be vulnerable to contentious elections and the use of electoral corruption. By contrast, autocratic regimes, which fail to respect human rights in general, are more likely to engage in coercive practices and outright repression to maintain electoral support for ruling parties.  

In general, democracies also usually flourish in affluent societies while they remain more vulnerable and unstable in poorer states. Poorer voters are the primary targets of vote-buying initiatives, where modest material inducements like small gifts of food or clothing may make a difference to voting behaviour. Both vote-buying and coercion are therefore expected to be more widespread in low-income developing societies. 

At the level of institutions, the type of electoral system may also be important. In general, elections with single-member plurality rules heighten the incentives for malpractices such as vote-buying and coercion, since the shift of even a few votes can make all the difference for a candidate’s victory.    

Among structural conditions, the well-known ‘oil curse’ is also expected to count as an intervening condition. Several relatively wealthy economies dependent upon natural resources, such as Kuwait and Equatorial Guinea, are characterised by endemic corruption. Vote-buying practices are also likely to be above average when elections are held in oil-rich states and economies based on natural resources.  

To test evidence for these claims, we look at correlations between social and political indicators and the PEI estimates of the prevalence of coercion and corruption. Both corruption and coercion worsen in poorer societies with lower levels of democracy and more natural resources. This suggests that deep-rooted structural conditions are at the heart of these problems – making it difficult to hold free and fair contests in many states around the globe.  

In addition to these persistent barriers to electoral integrity, new challenges from authoritarian-populist parties, cybersecurity risks of foreign hacking and social media misinformation campaigns have emerged. These will require particular scrutiny for key elections in 2018, which include Russia’s upcoming election, Egypt in March, Zimbabwe in July, Brazil in October, and the US mid-terms in November.   

Making voting both simple and secure is a challenge for democracies

Making voting both simple and secure is a challenge for democracies

Recent elections around the world have raised concerns about the procedures used for voter registration and their potential consequences. This article by Norris, Cameron and Wynter presents the results of the EIP Perceptions of Electoral Integrity survey evidence concerning the quality of these procedures in 161 countries that held 260 national elections from January 1 to June 30, 2017. The study concludes that it’s critical to strike the right trade-off between making registration accessible and making it secure.

Populism, RIP?

Populism, RIP?

Is the rising time of populism stalled? It is apparent that headline reports joyfully proclaiming the death of populism are premature.  The results in a series of recent European elections suggest that voting support for this phenomenon is growing, due to a cultural backlash, even if leaders fail to win office, and support is unlikely to diminish as a long-term trend.

The performance of Indian states in electoral integrity

The performance of Indian states in electoral integrity

India, the largest democracy in the world, periodically conducts massive electoral exercises, which are often successful yet several problems have been reported, including electoral violence, lapses in voter registration, unequal access to finance and media. How do Indian states vary in their electoral performance? And what explains these differences?

Challenges of crime and violence in Mexican Elections

Challenges of crime and violence in Mexican Elections

The issue of integrity has long been of concern in Mexico, given many decades when clientelism and corruption were widely used to influence elections and their outcomes. This commentary examines evidence of how far these problems persist in the July 2015 Mexican state elections.

Flawed and Failed Elections: The Global Picture

Flawed and Failed Elections: The Global Picture

Elections have spread worldwide but many end as flawed or failed contests. How do Perceptions of Electoral Integrity vary by state and global region? And what explains the disparities? This commentary provides an overview summarizing the results of PEI-4.5.