I move that the Bill be now read a Second Time.
The main purpose of the Bill is to give effect to the recommendations made by the Joint Committee on Electoral Law in their Interim Report which was presented to this House on 26th October and to the Seanad on 9th November.
I should like at the outset to express my appreciation of the work which is being done by the Joint Committee. The law which they have been asked to examine is very complex and in many ways archaic. It goes, in oppressive detail, into matters which we should nowadays, if we were dealing with them completely anew, treat a lot more generally. The examination, revision and codification of this branch of the law is overdue and I welcome the speedy presentation of the interim report as an earnest of the Joint Committee's desire to comply with my request, when moving the motion for the establishment of the Committee, that its report should not be unduly delayed.
Deputies will have received with the Bill an explanatory memorandum which sets out briefly what the measure proposes to do. The interim report of the Joint Committee, on which the Bill is largely based, describes more fully the changes which are proposed and the reasons for them. I do not think, therefore, that it is necessary for me to go too deeply, at this stage at any rate, into the provisions of the Bill.
One of the important proposals is contained in Section 3 and in the Schedule which provides for the repeal of the prohibition on the registration of Gardaí as voters at Dáil elections. In future, if this provision is enacted, Gardaí can vote at Dáil and Presidential elections and at referenda. Deputies may remember that as long ago as 28th April, 1959, in a reply to a Parliamentary Question, I gave an undertaking to introduce legislation to deal with this point.
Under Section 6 of the Bill, Gardaí will be entered on the postal voters lists. This provision is desirable because, at election time, Gardaí are liable to be assigned to duties outside their own polling districts or constituencies.
Under Section 1 of the Electoral Act, 1923, a member of the Defence Forces living in barracks or other place provided by the Government is not to be treated, for registration purposes, as being ordinarily resident there or in occupation of business premises. He is, however, entitled to be registered in the constituency where he states he would, but for his service, be ordinarily resident. Section 21 of that Act gives soldiers the option to be entered on the postal voters list if they so desire.
Section 6 of the present Bill proposes that a soldier will be registered wherever he is ordinarily resident on the qualifying date. Since we are repealing the provision in Section 1 of the 1923 Act which states that he is not to be treated as ordinarily resident in the barracks where he is living, this new provision will mean that members of the Defence Forces may be registered in the constituency in which they are living in barracks. It is further proposed that a soldier may claim to be registered in the place where, but for his service, he would be ordinarily resident. This provision preserves a right which soldiers already have of voting in their "home" constituency, as distinct from the one where they are stationed.
As in the case of the Gardaí, all members of the Defence Forces will in future be entered on the postal voters list. The provisions for postal voting by Gardaí and soldiers will be applied to local elections under Section 17 of the Bill.
Another important provision recommended by the Joint Committee is that at Section 5 under which an elector's age will be taken to be his age on the 15th April, when the register comes into force, rather than seven months earlier, on 15th September, when the preparation of the register officially begins. This provision, if enacted and implemented, will mean that about 20,000 to 25,000 persons who would not otherwise have been included in the forthcoming register should be registered in it.
I may say that, on 13th September last, I notified registration officers of the possibility of the change and told them to make arrangements for its implementation, should this legislation be enacted. I also told them to give the new proposal the widest possible publicity so that all persons affected may claim to be registered. This publicity has been supplemented by radio broadcasts, stamp cancellation slogans for which I arranged for this and future years, news reports and public announcements in the press. Notwithstanding these efforts, some persons may still be omitted from the register and, therefore, be left without a vote. It is too late on polling day to correct this situation. Now is the time to act. I would suggest that every person should take a look at the electors lists in his local post office and see if his name appears. In particular, persons in the 21 year old age group would be well advised to write to their county registrar at the local circuit court office to make certain they are registered.
The recommendations of the Joint Committee dealing with voting by blind and incapacitated voters are their only recommendations which I have found myself unable to accept without qualification. Briefly, I consider that a person should be allowed to assist one or two blind or incapacitated voters to record their vote, instead of only one such voter as recommended by the Joint Committee, and I have not accepted their recommendation that a person assisting a blind or incapacitated voter should be obliged to complete a declaration of secrecy. The Bill contains a condition, additional to those suggested by the Joint Committee, requiring the person assisting such voters to be at least 16 years of age.
At present a presiding officer can refuse a request by a blind or incapacitated voter to have his ballot paper marked for him if the request is made within four hours of the close of the poll, and the officer considers that acceding to it would obstruct other voters. This discretion to refuse will remain in the case of requests for the presiding officer himself to mark a blind or incapacitated voter's ballot paper under the existing procedure in the presence of the agents but will not apply where such a voter wishes to have his paper marked for him by a companion.
I propose these departures from the recommendations of the Joint Committee as a result of pressing representations which were made to me by a deputation from the National League of the Blind here in Leinster House shortly after the publication of the interim report. I think that the changes are reasonable and that they should be accepted.
Matters not dealt with in the interim report are the continuance by Section 2 of the Bill of part of the Parliamentary Elections Act, 1868, and the Currupt Practices Commission Expenses Act, 1869, and the proposal in Section 7 to assimilate the procedures for fixing the latest days for nominations and polling at bye-elections and general elections. Under this section a somewhat longer maximum period for fixing the polling day than exists at present is suggested. The intention of this change is to enable a sufficiently long period to be allowed between nomination and polling to enable ballot papers to be sent to postal voters abroad and returned by them in time to be reckoned as countable.
The Acts of 1868 and 1869 were continued up to 31st December, 1960 by the Expiring Laws Act, 1952. It is intended that they should be continued in operation until they can be revised and assimilated into the general electoral code. It is considered appropriate, since they are purely electoral enactments, that they should be continued by this Electoral Bill.
Under Parts III, IV and V of the Bill, the changes being made in the Dáil code by Parts I and II will, where appropriate, be carried into the referenda, presidential and local election codes.
The Bill, I may say, at first sight strikes one as complex and involving much legislation by reference. We may, however, I think, comfort ourselves with the thought that it is a step towards the eventual rationalisation and consolidation of the law, towards which the Joint Committee and my Department are now working.
In conclusion, I should like to suggest that any ideas on electoral matters which occur to Deputies and which do not directly relate to the provisions of this Bill might appropriately be submitted by them for consideration by the Joint Committee.