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Voting during a pandemic? Plans for social distancing at polling stations and new Electoral Commission announced

Minister Darragh O’Brien described the proposed bill as the “most significant development for our electoral system in decades”.
Jan 8th 2021, 1:25 PM 9,742 15

NEW PROVISIONS THAT would allow elections to be held while Covid-19 restrictions remain in place are among a number of electoral reforms included in new legislation announced by the government today. 

The planned laws would allow voting in an election to be held over more than one day, which would help assist social distancing at polling stations. 

The plans also allow returning officers to provide a postal vote to those on the special voters list if nursing homes and hospitals are inaccessible at the time of an electoral event. 

The general scheme of the Electoral Reform Bill was published today by Minister Darragh O’Brien, whose remit also includes local government, and Minister Malcolm Noonan, a junior minister with responsibility for electoral reform. 

The bill proposes to set up a statutory, independent Electoral Commission for Ireland.

It would also see the regulation of online political advertising in the run-up to electoral events, along with the modernisation of the electoral registration process. 

In a statement, Minister O’Brien said that – if passed – this bill will represent “the most significant development for our electoral system in decades”. 

The proposed Electoral Commission will be independent of the government, and will be required to report directly to the Oireachtas.

It will take on existing statutory functions such as the registration of political parties and the work carried out by referendum commissions, constituency commissions and local electoral area boundary committees.

It’ll be responsible for regulating online political advertising during election periods, have oversight of the electoral register and provide a public information, research and advisory role on electoral matters. 

The commission will be comprised of public officials experienced in this field along with experts selected via a public, competitive process. 

The electoral register, meanwhile, will simplify its registration process and move to a single national register along with the introduction of a provisional registration for 16-17 year olds which would become active when they turn 18.

Separately, the new legislation will require online paid-for political adverts during election periods to be clearly labelled as such.

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Adverts will be required to display information such as who paid for the advertising, details of any micro-targeting that was applied and the total cost of the advertising. 

Writing in TheJournal.ie yesterday, Fianna Fáil Senator Malcolm Byrne said that the establishment of the “long-awaited” Electoral Commission would see Ireland “embrace technology in a secure way to enhance our democratic process”.

He added: “The establishment of an Electoral Commission here is welcome but the challenge it faces should not be underestimated. It is not simply about tidying up the register of electors; its role will be to safeguard and promote democracy in the age of technology.”

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