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Column: Voting is too often seen as a "right" when it's actually a duty

Structures need to be put in place to get the most amount of people to vote, to ensure the structures of the country have the greatest legitimacy along with those who govern them.

Colm Bergin

A STRIKING STATISTIC for the Seanad Abolition Referendum on the 4th of October is that only 39 per cent of people actually turned up to decide how their country should be governed.

Even more worrying this was not the lowest turnout in an Irish referendum; that honour can be given to the 1979 Referendum on the power of the Adoptions Board, where only 28 per cent of people to cast a ballot. Whatever one feels on the issue of politics or the political establishment, surely it can’t be argued that adoption, the future of a child, is not of importance.

That same day in 1979 another ballot was cast on extending the franchise for Seanad elections beyond those that hold NUI degrees, again with only 28 per cent of people voting. This was held only 16 years after Dr Martin Luther King marched on Washington with 300,000 other people demanding the enfranchisement of all American citizens, regardless of colour, and we in Ireland did not cast a ballot to allow others to have a greater say in how the country was run, regardless of their educational background.

But the problem doesn’t stop with referendums. Enough people don’t turn out to decide who runs the country; 70 per cent of people turned out in 2011 to decide who runs the country after the country’s economic sovereignty was lost. While it showed a two per cent increase in turnout when compared to the 2007 general election, it still showed that 3 in 10 people didn’t think the bank bailout, loss of economic sovereignty, cuts to public services, and tax increases were of importance.

But an increase in turnout can be achieved through a variety of ways:

Education

A dedicated civics class is needed for children of all ages from primary school all the way up to secondary school.

This subject needs to focus on the importance of government, the importance of the voting and what could happen, with examples, if we got it wrong. It is through these examples that people will realise the importance of the vote and if it is engrained in them at such a young age they are unlikely to forget it.

Saturday Voting

When a bill was introduced for the city of San Francisco to make Saturday voting mandatory for its local elections it was acknowledged that it was important to ensure citizens get an electoral schedule “based on current housing and workplace patterns…” This applies to parents, workers and students alike.

Saturday voting would make it easier for people to make it to the polling station and would help increase the turnout.

Automatic Registration

People should be automatically registered using their when they reach 18 years of age. We have a system in place to ensure everyone upon reaching 16 is issued a PPS number. There is no reason why this same system cannot be used for the electoral register.

This would allow people who turn 18 up until the day of the election to vote in the election, rather than the antiquated system of having to register at three weeks before the poll.

Postal Vote

The Postal Voting system in Ireland needs to be improved. As it currently stands a person needs knowledge on whether they will be away from their constituency two days after the dissolution of the Dail which could be up to four weeks before the poll takes place.

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A centralised electronic system that would allow people to input which constituency they would be in on polling day, allow a ballot to be there for them, and then returned to their constituency of origin in time for the count should be put in place.

Compulsory Voting

Voting is too often seen as a right, whereas a more accurate term would be that it is a duty and obligation. If a fine was put in place people who did not vote (with exceptions) then turnout would rise dramatically.

Compulsory voting operates in 31 countries throughout the world, including Brazil and Australia which registered a turnout of 91.3 per cent and 93.2 per cent respectively in their last elections. And to those who suggest that it is a statement to the political establishment if there is low turnout, a spoilt vote is a much stronger statement. Whatever the positives and negatives of compulsory voting, it must be recognised that it achieves its aim of an increase in turnout.

With a greater turnout comes a greater legitimacy. Structures need to be put in place to get the most amount of people to vote, to ensure the structures of the country have the greatest legitimacy along with those who govern them.

Colm Bergin has experience in both politics and public policy having worked in New York, Brussels and Washington DC. He is a graduate of Government and Public Policy at UCC and holds a Diploma in Law from the IPA.

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Colm Bergin

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