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How an electoral commission can stop another e-voting fiasco

A new electoral commission can streamline the way we run elections and referenda in this country, writes the Labour TD Michael McCarthy.

Image: Mark Stedman/Photocall Ireland

MUCH INK HAS been spilled on the issue of setting up an independent Electoral Commission to oversee the management of elections and referenda here.

Successive governments over the years have been effective at talking about it, but only the current administration is going to make it a reality.

While our electoral system and the easy accessibility of politicians mean that citizens are deeply engaged with the electoral process, this isn’t necessarily matched by a sense of public confidence that the current system works.

Various controversies over the years have highlighted a level of political interference in our electoral system and have only added to the further erosion of that confidence.

For example, the botched €50 million e-voting machine debacle was due in no small way to the Minister of the day going on a solo run.

An independent Electoral Commission – the first steps for which were unveiled by Labour’s Environment Minister Alan Kelly yesterday – will remove decisions in respect of the electoral process from the political sphere, and place them solely in the hands of an independent panel.

Fit for modern Ireland

Making a singular body responsible for managing elections would also streamline the way they are conducted in Ireland, and end the situation whereby the Department of the Environment, local authorities, the Referendum Commission, Returning Officers and the Standards in Public Office Commission each have different roles to play.

This piecemeal approach simply isn’t fitting any longer for a modern Ireland where citizens legitimately expect a greater level of efficiency and accountability from their political and public institutions.

Modern voter registration systems are features of advanced democracies, but in Ireland, where we have 34 different local authorities maintaining their own electoral register, it is natural that standards will vary between each.

We need a system that has a uniform approach to issues such as these, and which addresses the controversial sticking point that is the disputed accuracy of the register, for once and for all.

Until now, there has been an absence of political will to establish an Electoral Commission – previous Governments have merely paid lip service to this promise of setting up an election management body that is institutionally independent.

Only the Labour Party is serious about making it happen, in keeping with our strong record of reform.

Under Minister Kelly’s new plans, we will move from an outdated system weighed down by political interference and duplication, to model that will be transparent, independent and citizen-focused.

Yesterday marked the critical first step in this journey.

The next steps

A consultation paper examining a range of critical issues, such as modernising voter registration, improving voter turnout and cleaning up election donations, will be examined by the Environment Committee, of which I am chair.

In the next few months, we will hear from academics, political scientists, non-government agencies and other interested groups, and their testimonies will form the basis of an expert report which we will then present to the Minister for final decision.

Questions that the Committee in its work will aim to address include whether responsibilities for local and general election boundaries should be run by an independent Commission, and who should be responsible for voter registration?

Should an electoral commission have an oversight role in respect of the responsibilities of local authorities in dealing with local election spending and donations?

These are important issues which will determine the shape of the future electoral landscape in Ireland, and in turn, the voting activities of future generations, so we need to get them right.

The Commission will be in place for the next round of local and European elections. In the meantime, I look forward to having a robust public and political debate on how this planned new departure can deliver better outcomes for our citizens.

Michael McCarthy is a Labour TD for Cork South-West and the Chair of the Oireachtas Committee on the Environment.

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