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Simplify ballot papers? It could cause legal problems, say Environment officials

55 per cent of people found last year’s referendum ballot papers confusing…
Apr 16th 2014, 5:34 PM 7,373 21

OFFICIALS FROM THE Department of the Environment say simplifying the wording of questions on referendum ballot papers could cause legal problems.

TDs and senators have been discussing the issue with the Department this afternoon, after the wording of the question posed to voters in last autumn’s Seanad Abolition referendum led to a raft of complaints.

Research by the Referendum Commission indicated that 55 per cent of people found it difficult to tell from the paper what they were being asked to vote for.

The apparent “double negative” in the formulation was the main factor in the confusion, as one TD pointed out this afternoon…

[Photocall Ireland]

The comparable figure for the Court of Appeal referendum, run on the same day, was 47 per cent.

The research also showed that 13 per cent of respondents who stated that they voted ‘yes’ on the Seanad ballot paper meant to vote ‘no’. 6 per cent of those who did vote ‘no’ had intended to support the abolition of the chamber.

“The use of précis or paraphrases of the proposal which is the subject of a referendum could cause legal challenges,” Assistant Secretary of the Department Ger Deering told the Joint Committee on Public Oversight and Petitions.

Deering also asked whether there was a possible formula of language that eliminates the possibility of confusion.

“An approach that may be completely understandable to one group of people may give rise to confusion in another group.

“Some of the recent work done by the UK Electoral Commission is instructive in this respect.”

He said proposals to amend the Constitution could have “far reaching and profound consequences”.

“In a constitutional referendum voters are not simply being asked their opinion on a particular issue. They are being asked to decide on amendments to the written constitution that are set out in the relevant constitution amendment bill.”

Advance information

Deering also stressed that information was also provided to voters in advance of polling day, and was available in person at the polling station. He said Referendum Commission research had shown that 72 per cent of the public claimed to have read at least some of the guide provided ahead of the votes.

Responding, several members of the Committee insisted there were still ways the process could be improved .

Labour Senator Susan O’Keeffe said just because something had been done a certain way for such a long time didn’t mean it couldn’t be changed.

At least two members of the panel said members of their own family had told them they’d been confused by the wording on the papers.

Deering said it was an area that merited further consideration, and that it was a subject the Department would be able to turn its attention to once again after the upcoming Local and European Elections.

Read: “FG and Labour have spent months dodging questions”: Coalition slammed over water ‘farce’

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Daragh Brophy

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