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.
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.
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.
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.