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Opinion: 'We need funding for councils to go house to house and check the status of the voters'

I know of cases where all that is needed to remove a name from the register is a phone call request and a follow up email to the council, writes Sinéad Halpin.

Sinéad Halpin Community activist

SOON AFTER I moved to our ‘forever home’ in early 2014, I started the process of registering to vote at my new address.

While the right to vote kicks in when we all turn 18, your name must be on the electoral register before you can cast your ballot in an election or referendum.

The first hurdle I faced was that the annual window for the electoral register to be updated had already closed. So, I needed to get a particular form stamped at my local garda station, and to bring it, along with valid ID and proof of address, to my local council which is responsible for keeping the local register up to date.

Bureaucracy

A complicating factor was that my house – to which my vote is attached – has no number and is one of the longest roads in Cork city. Suffice to say, the process of pinpointing its location wasn’t that simple in those pre Eircode days.

In all, it took six weeks, two forms and several phone calls to my local council to finally get my name on the electoral register.

I am not complaining about the level of bureaucracy involved. Voting is at the very heart of our democracy and it is only right that people are required to supply proper proof of identity and residence before getting on the electoral register.

Removing people from register

Given all this, you might reasonably expect that the process of removing people from the electoral register would be equally as rigorous. But you’d be wrong.

At every election or referendum, there are reports of voters turning up to cast their ballots only to be told that, inexplicably, their name is no longer on the register.

Removals can be due to various factors: human error or oversight being the most likely of course – either on the part of the council which maintains the register or the voters themselves.

How exactly a person’s name is removed from the electoral register seems to vary from council to council. Some councils take a rigorous approach, requiring people to download, fill in and sign a hard copy form. But I know of cases where all that is needed is a phone call request and follow up with an email to the council.

Open to abuse 

That is clearly too lax an approach, and potentially wide open to abuse. Anyone could make a call pretending to be another person and could also create a false email address using someone else’s name.

While the risks of such fraudulent behaviour are likely to be low, all our councils need to have much clearer and more robust systems in place when it comes to removals.

Many electoral registers are simply not sufficiently accurate. There are no mandatory checks carried out by councils to ensure that a request to de-register is in fact genuine. And in some cases, neighbouring councils even interpret and apply the same rules differently.

Under existing guidelines, councils are generally required to write to the address of the person seeking de-registration within ten days of receipt of a request, to let them know that their removal from the register is complete.

However, I am personally aware of quite a few cases where this was not done, and the issue was highlighted by the chief executive of Cork County Council back in 2015.

Fraud

Under the current system it would be nearly impossible to track and investigate attempts by people to fraudulently deregister others. Even if a person is very tenacious and follows up with a complaint, the only trail would be at best a note of a phone call and an email that could have come from any source.

The lack of transparency is compounded by the fact that councils do not publish the numbers of de-registered voters and the reasons for removals from the register (this can  be due to death, voluntary removal or moving to a different area). They only publicise the total number of registered voters.

Next month, the people of Ireland will be asked to decide whether we want to keep or repeal the Eighth Amendment to our Constitution. This is a massive issue for many people including myself, and the outcome may well by a very close-run thing.

Check the register

This makes it even more important that all voters can be sure that when they turn up at a polling station on May 25 that their voice will be heard. Now is the time to check the register and if you find that you are not there you can still get on the supplementary register by completing the relevant forms before May 8.

What’s needed for funding for all councils to routinely go house to house and check the status of the voters in each residence should be reinstated. As thing stand, such field worker visits vary hugely from one council to another, with some councils funding them annually while others have relied solely on self-declaration since 2008.

In the long term, we need to see the establishment of a single Electoral Commission to maintain one electoral register at a national level – this was recommended ten years ago by an Oireachtas committee which found that errors were ‘rampant’ in the data held by councils.

The right of every person to be engaged with the democratic process is at the core of our democracy and needs to be supported. We trust our information is used appropriately so that we can vote and it’s important that similar respect is given in return.

Sinéad Halpin is a community activist and the Social Democrats candidate for Cork North Central.

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About the author:

Sinéad Halpin  / Community activist

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