European Assembly Elections (No. 2) Bill, 1977: Committee Stage (Resumed).

Debate resumed on amendment No. 5:
In Part II, page 20, rule 46, lines 43 to 45, to delete paragraph (4), and substitute the following paragraph:
"(4) The local returning officer shall appoint a place within or convenient to the constituency as the place at which he will open the ballot boxes and arrange the ballot papers in parcels as hereinafter provided and shall at that place so appointed provide suitable accommodation and all furniture and equipment necessary for opening the ballot boxes and arranging of the ballot papers in parcels as afore-said".—(Deputy T. J. Fitzpatrick,Cavan-Monaghan.)

(Cavan-Monaghan): Before we adjourned I was dealing with amendment No. 5, the object of which is to change the method of accounting as described in the Bill. It is provided in the Bill that, on the conclusion of the poll, all ballot boxes from every part of the constituency comprising eight or ten counties, as the case may be, be forwarded to the constituency returning officer and that the count be conducted from beginning to end by him. The object of my amendment is to alter that and to provide that, instead of forwarding the ballot papers in their boxes to the constituency returning officer, these ballot boxes should be retained locally and the ballot boxes for each local constituency or each county or county borough should be opened by the local returning officer, checked by him, reconciled with the ballot paper counts and doubtful votes adjudicated on by him. The first count should be conducted by the local returning officer and the ballot papers then put into parcels according to the name of the candidate who got the first preferences and the ballot boxes should then be forwarded to the constituency returning officer who would complete the count from that point.

I want to make it perfectly clear that this amendment is tabled by me to afford me an opportunity of arguing in favour of this change, a change I think most desirable. If the Minister accepts my argument and decides, as I hope he will, to revert to the presidential system of counting the votes, then he will have to return this Schedule to the draftsman who will have to get to work on it and redraft it in order to make it possible to implement in this Bill the presidential counting system. I want to make that clear lest it may be said later on that what I propose is not workable. I agree this is only a formula for providing me with an argument. It would be a major job for an ordinary Deputy to sit down and redraft the whole Schedule. The parliamentary draftsman will have to get to work on that.

I am very serious in putting forward this amendment and, if it is not accepted and written into the Bill, the count will be virtually unworkable and we will be running a grave danger of having the election in one of the constituencies completely upset. We will be running the risk of having to start the election from beginning to end all over again. We will have to hold a new poll. I am that serious about it and I think the arguments I have put forward will justify the fears I am expressing.

The procedure written into the Bill involves the delivery of the ballot boxes to the local returning officer. He will have to collect them and bring them to a point in his county or county borough—I will deal with counties because it is simpler than repeating county boroughs—and retain them there, satisfy himself that he has collected all the boxes from each polling station because there is an obligation on him to forward them to the constituency returning officer. First he will have to collect the boxes after the ballot closes at presumably 9 o'clock at night. We know it takes a matter of hours to get the boxes into headquarters and presumably they will arrive in local headquarters at midnight or later. The local returning officer will then have to check them and ensure they are intact. He will either keep them overnight or despatch them to constituency headquarters. There will be anything from 100 to 300 or perhaps 350 or 400 ballot boxes. They will have to be despatched by lorry or other vehicle under, I presume, an armed escort. The presidential ballot boxes are sent under military escort. On the night of the count there will be a fleet of lorries converging on constituency headquarters in each constituency accompanied by an armed escort. That will involve a great deal of work on the returning officer in providing the necessary transport.

This will involve a considerable amount of work by the security quarters in providing an escort for each vehicle from each county to constituency headquarters. There will be a real risk of a road accident. There may be a big delay. Some of the boxes could burst open and the ballot papers could be strewn all over the road. Furthermore, there are people who hold rather strong views about our participating in Europe. Percentagewise the number may be small but they hold strong views and they are prepared to adopt extreme methods because they believe we sold our sovereignty and independence by going into Europe. There is a real risk that these people might think it their duty to attack the ballot boxes in order to invalidate the election and upset what they regard as a continuation of the sell-out of this country to Europe. That would be a very real danger because in the constituency of Connacht-Ulster, if you have the constituency headquarters in Roscommon or Sligo—I suppose Roscommon would be fairly central—and if that were so, you would have to transport ballot boxes from Donegal, Galway, Roscommon, or very long journeys and subject to the risks I have mentioned.

The transport of boxes is a major task open to the risk of accident or attack. These boxes will be conveyed overnight to the constituency headquarters or will be retained in the local headquarters until next day. If that is done, most of the first day after the election will be spent in getting them to the constituency headquarters, a source of considerable delay. I have dealt with the number of lorries that will be required and the escorts. The next big task will be for the constituency returning officer to find a suitable place to hold, not a couple of hundred ballot boxes as in an ordinary general election but, in the constituency of Munster thousands of ballot boxes. The figures can be worked out by anybody, perhaps 3,000 or 4,000 boxes. A suitable place must be found to store all these when they arive at constituency headquarters. There will be the work of moving them about which will entail an enormous amount of labour.

One of the most important functions in a count, so as to ensure that everything goes right, is the checking of the ballot papers count with the ballot box and the number of votes in it. If that goes wrong I understand it is not possible to have a proper check on the number of votes cast. The boxes in each constituency are numbered consecutively and the ballot paper counts will also be numbered consecutively. There is a danger of the ballot paper counts and the boxes becoming mixed. I may be told that would be averted by putting the local constituency name on both the box and the ballot paper. Perhaps so, but it is another risk.

Having got the boxes to constituency headquarters, the next requirement is a suitable and experienced staff. If the constituency returning officer is to rely on the staff of the county in which he conducts the count it would take a very long time; the count would drag on indefinitely. That means an experienced staff will have to be got, which would involve drafting in staff from over many counties, staff not accustomed to working together, each conducting the count according to his own local way of doing it. That could lead to difficulties, mistakes and delay.

There is also the question of dealing with doubtful votes, a task reserved to the returning officer himself. As far as I know, he cannot delegate it and the same man has to adjudicate on each doubtful vote. The only appeal from him is on an election petition. In the average county. I suppose approximately 300 votes are spoiled but that does not mean that only 300 papers have to be examined. For every vote rejected, some five or six are scrutinised as doubtful to see if they should be accepted or rejected. In an average county you will have between 1,000 and 1,500 votes to scrutinise. If you apply that to Munster, where there are far more and larger counties, you will be dealing with between 20,000 and 30,000 doubtful votes. That is an enormous task to entrust to one man and that also would delay the count enormously in each constituency.

All these are very real difficulties. Every practical politician will find it hard to disagree with the case I am making because he has seen the counts being conducted and knows that what I say is substantially correct. Many of these difficulties could be eliminated if we reverted to the presidential system of count which has been operated here since 1937. I know that very often the presidential election involves only one count because there are seldom more than two candidates but we have had occasions when there were three or more. We certainly had one occasion where the result depended not on the first count but, I think, on the distribution of the late Dr. McCartan's votes when he was eliminated.

That system has been tried and has worked. It is difficult to see why we have departed from it in this Bill. I am asking the Minister to adopt the presidential system. If that system is adopted, when the poll closes the ballot boxes from each county will be brought to the local courthouse or somewhere like that, where the counts are held for every election and referendum, and the presiding officers will know where the boxes must go, and the usual security precautions will be taken. No matter which system is adopted these precautions will have to be taken. If the presidential system is adopted the counts will commence presumably at 9 o'clock the morning after the election and the whole operation will finish the same day. The boxes will be opened in the local offices and checked as they have been checked in the past, and the counts will be reconciled. The doubtful votes thrown out by the checkers will be adjudicated upon by the local returning officer. The votes will be sorted and arranged in bundles for each candidate. The first preference votes will be counted and when that is over, instead of having 100 or 300 boxes to deal with, there will be perhaps six or seven bundles of ballot papers. They will be put into six or seven ballot boxes with a certificate from the local returning officer and sent off to the constituency headquarters from the local office. That would mean that everything would be in readiness for a continuation of the count on the second day and in most cases if not in every case the count would be concluded on the second day. If we go through this other nonsensical method proposed here, there is no way in which the count can be concluded in two days.

Would Deputy Fitzpatrick allow me to intervene here because next week I will be going off to that Assembly which we have discussed so much?

(Cavan-Monaghan): Certainly.

Does the Deputy give way to Deputy Kavanagh?

(Cavan-Monaghan): I am giving way, I am not concluding yet.

I support what Deputy Fitzpatrick is saying. The likelihood of there being a poor turnout in an election such as this was mentioned on many occasions. In order that a larger turnout could be encouraged it has been suggested that another election could take place on the same day. Since the local elections could occur at the same time, we could have an urban council election and a county council election in a constituency along with the Assembly elections, the ballot papers for three elections being filled in in the same town hall. This could result in a mix-up of ballot papers. In those circumstances it would be necessary that the sorting stage should take place in the national constituency rather than in a central place in the European Assembly constituency. If the two elections were to take place on the same day there could be distortions in both elections. If votes for a small urban council found their way into the ballot boxes of the Assembly elections there would be a horrible mess in the counts at the end of the day. There is also the possibility that the Government could take advantage of a national election, such as an Assembly election, to make changes in the Constitution, and thereby have a referendum. This would not be the first time this has happened. At a presidential election we had a referendum taking place on the voting system. If this were to happen the same problem could occur. We could have the votes for the referendum counted in the Dáil constituencies, and according to this Bill we would have to count the votes for the European Assembly elections at a central point. Once again we would have distortion and mixed ballot papers. There is no possibility that a presiding officer can ensure that the ballot papers go into the right boxes, or he would interfere perhaps with the secrecy of a person's ballot.

Progress reported; Committee to sit again.