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43 per cent of voters didn't understand Oireachtas Inquiries referendum by polling day

Only 57 per cent of voters claimed to understand the proposal, compared to 71 per cent who understood plans on judges’ pay.

43 PER CENT of Irish voters said they did not understand the question being put to them in last October’s defeated referendum on Oireachtas Inquiries, according to polling data published by the Referendum Commission.

In its official report for the two October 27 referendums, which has now been released to the public, the Commission said 21 per cent of voters told a poll it commissioned directly after polling that they “did not understand it [the question] at all”.

A further 22 per cent said they did not understand the question very well, meaning a total of 43 per cent who did not understand the proposition – compared to 57 per cent who said they did comprehend it.

Of those 57 per cent, 16 per cent said they understood the proposition “very well”, while 19 per cent said they understood it “quite well”. A further 21 per cent admitted to having “some” understanding of the measures.

The referendum on Oireachtas inquiries was rejected by 53 per cent of the electorate.

By comparison, 71 per cent of voters said they understood the proposal being put to them on judges’ pay, with 24 per cent understanding it “very well”, 27 per cent “quite well” and 20 per cent “to some extent”. That proposal was ultimately passed with 80 per cent of the vote.

29 per cent of voters said they did not understand that proposal to varying degrees.

The report compares the levels to those after the two votes on the Lisbon Treaty – with 44 per cent of people saying they understood the treaty after its first running in June 2008, and 72 per cent claiming to understand it by the time of the second vote in October 2009.

38 per cent of those who voted No in the Oireachtas Inquiries ballot did so because they did not understand it, while 27 per cent voted No in the judges’ pay question for the same reason.

The polling also asked people who did not vote why they had not done so, with 18 per cent of non-voters in the Oireachtas Inquiries referendum saying they did did not cast their ballots because they felt they did not understand the question, or did not know enough.

Similarly, 13 per cent of people who did not vote in the referendum on judges’ pay said they chose not to vote for those reasons.

The report concludes that “not only was it the case that a significant minority of voters did not feel they understood the referendums, but this lack of understanding influenced a significant number either to vote No or not to vote.”

Recommendations

The report offers seven firm conclusions to be taken on board in advance of future referendums, as follows:

  1. The timescale for the referendum campaigns was “exceptionally short”;
  2. The short timescale meant the Commission had only five weeks to write, translate, design, print and circulate its guide to homes around Ireland;
  3. There was uncertainty over the proposals being put, as evidenced by a late amendment to the Oireachtas Inquiries wording;
  4. The Commission did not have sufficient time to monitor commentary about the ballots and to address any shortcomings;
  5. The short period for the wording of the ballot meant there was no leeway in the delivery period, meaning some homes did not get the Guide before polling;
  6. The limited debate in the Oireachtas and the “lack of vigorous campaigns” meant the public did not get a chance to engage fully on the issues;
  7. The high-profile Presidential election made it more difficult for the Commission to perform its functions.

As a result, it recommends the adoption of a minimum notice period before any future referendums, which should be at least three months, with an extra two months if the Commission needs to secure additional services in advance.

It also suggests that the government appoint a permanent electoral commission, which could incorporate its own responsibilities, which would have more time to allow full preparations to be made for a ballot.

In lieu of this, it suggests amending current legislation so that a Referendum Commission – which does not exist in between campaigns – can be established before a Referendum Bill is published in the Dáil, a situation which can result in the short period between the establishment of the Commission and the voting taking place.

Read: The Referendum Commission’s official report on the October referendums (PDF) >

About the author:

Gavan Reilly

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