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Opinion 'Young people should be automatically registered to vote at 18'

Our democracy is diminished and undermined when so many young people are unnecessarily excluded, writes James Doorley.

EARLIER THIS YEAR we commissioned RedC to survey young people aged 18 to 29, and asked if they were registered to vote. This poll found that 22% of this age cohort were not registered.

Based on the Census 2016 population data from the CSO, we estimate that up to 151,000 young people who should be on the register were not. This undoubtedly is a startling and concerning figure, but given the deficiencies in our voter registration system we should not be surprised.

Our system is outdated and cumbersome

While it is accepted that each citizen has a responsibility to get registered, the system as currently operated is outdated and cumbersome and, rather than facilitating potential voters, makes it difficult. It was designed for the nineteenth century, when the vast majority of the population were born, raised and remained living in the same area all of their lives.

It is not designed to easily capture and adapt to a population which is highly mobile, especially a young mobile population.

In 2017 alone, over 61,000 young people will celebrate their 18th birthday and become eligible to vote. The National Youth Council of Ireland has proposed for many years that all young people should be automatically registered when they reach 18: this would dramatically reduce non-registration.

If we are serious about supporting and promoting voter participation, especially among young people, we need to make the process easier and simpler. This is demonstrated by studies in the US which suggest that eliminating voter registration barriers can raise voter participation rates by between 7% and 10%.

Electoral Commission promised in 2007

A significant issue is that we do not have a national register but rather thirty-one registers managed by the various local authorities. Each applies varying levels of human and financial resources to maintain the voter lists.

Some conduct advertising campaigns and extensive door to door surveys, others are less active. Local authority personnel do excellent work to maintain the register but their efforts cannot overcome the flaws inherent to the system. In order to centralise and coordinate the electoral register, successive governments have committed to the establishment of an Electoral Commission.

However, since this was first promised in 2007 little has happened. This body could develop a centralised and national online voter register. While it is currently possible to check if you are registered online, many young people cannot understand why it is not possible to register online.

This would not only assist those seeking to register for the first time but also those voters who want to change their registration details.

New Zealand comparison

An online process would also reduce the administrative burden on the proposed Electoral Commission.

The establishment of an Electoral Commission will not solve all these issues unless it is properly resourced. In 2014 just over €4.84m was allocated by the Government to local authorities to maintain and revise the electoral register. This is insufficient based on information from other jurisdictions.

New Zealand is a useful comparison because they have 3.1 million registered voters while we have 3.3 million. The New Zealand Electoral Commission invested $20.5m NZD or the equivalent of €11.8m which is almost two and a half times what we spent in 2014. If we want an accurate, complete and user friendly voter registration system we need to invest more.

These deficiencies cannot be solved in the short-term. However, our poll demonstrates that urgent reform is necessary and it is vital that the government establish an Electoral Commission as long promised and give it the powers and resources to reform and modernise the electoral register.

Our democracy is diminished and undermined when so many, especially young people are unnecessarily excluded.

James Doorley is Deputy Director of the National Youth Council of Ireland.

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