(Cavan-Monaghan): I spoke at length in support of this amendment before the debate was adjourned last day. I consider I made a strong case in favour of amending the Schedule to change the system of counting as provided in the Bill to the method contained in the Presidential Elections Act, 1937. I notice Deputy Kavanagh has just entered the House. On the last occasion he was proceeding to elaborate on the reasons for the amendment being accepted and for the Presidential system of the counting of votes being adopted. Deputy Kavanagh spoke on this for a very short time. He was anxious to get in before the debate was adjourned because he anticipated the possibility of his not being here when the debate was resumed. However, now that he is here I propose to give way to him.
European Assembly Elections (No. 2) Bill, 1977: Committee Stage (Resumed).
I thank the Deputy. I did not know when speaking here last when the debate would be resumed. I was at the European Parliament up to last night. I was making a point on the last occasion in support of Deputy Fitzpatrick's argument for holding the first count of the Assembly elections at the traditional counting stations in the various local constituencies. I argued then that there is a strong possibility of the Assembly elections being postponed until late next year or perhaps, into 1979. However, the date will depend to a large extent on the timing of the elections in places like France, Britain and one or two other countries. The point is that 1979 is the year in which the local elections are due to be held. Consequently, one can see the possibility of putting off the Assembly elections until then and holding both elections together. I am sure that by now the Minister is thinking of holding the local elections at the time they are due to be held although he could extend that date by a year or two.
It can be said in favour of holding both elections on the one day that in the event of apathy in respect of the European Assembly elections, the local elections would ensure a big turnout. The usual poll for these elections is around 70 per cent. In addition, the holding of both elections on the same day would result in a major saving to the nation. Deputy Fitzpatrick was told that the cost of the Assembly elections will be in the region of £300,000. To have both elections on the same day thereby utilising the same presiding officers, poll clerks, gardaí and so on, would result in a considerable saving.
A problem could arise, though, in many centres in urban areas where there are two counts on the one day in respect of local elections—an urban ballot and a county council ballot. To hold the Assembly elections on the same day as these would mean having three ballot papers for every voter and this could cause much confusion. The real confusion would occur in the event of ballot papers being mixed up and finding their way into the wrong boxes. If, for example, Assembly ballot papers were to find their way into local election boxes, they would have to be transferred back to the count centre.
There is the other possibility too, that is, the holding of a referendum in conjunction with the Assembly elections. Perhaps it would be stretching the imagination too far to think in terms of having local elections, Assembly elections and a referendum on the one day. One hopes that will never occur but it is possibility and while we here must consider what is possible, it is more to the point to consider what is likely and the more likely outcome is that we will have local elections and Assembly elections on the one day, one count being conducted on the basis of a Presidential count. To provide by way of legislation that the Assembly votes would have to be counted at a central area would cause a great deal of confusion. Perhaps, too, it would have a bearing on the result in the event of ballot papers being lost in the transfer from one centre to another. In a small urban council election the result could be affected by two or three votes and there could be a loss of a few votes in the event of the ballot papers being put into the wrong boxes. Likewise, the Assembly election results could be affected by the respective ballot papers finding their way into local election ballot boxes.
There is a strong case to be made for Deputy Fitzpatrick's amendment and for holding more than one election on the date to be decided. I trust the Minister will see the wisdom of the amendment. It should not lead to any contention here because all of us are anxious that elections be carried out as quickly, as efficiently and as accurately as possible. This amendment is designed to ensure both speed and accuracy. I would like to hear what the Minister has to say. Deputy Fitzpatrick also might have something to say on what I have said.
(Cavan-Monaghan): I have covered everything I wanted to say in regard to the objections which I see to the conducting of the count in one place in each constituency. I think I covered the ground fully and when I hear what the Minister has to say, unless he intimates that he proposes to accept my amendment, I will have something further to say. I agree entirely with the additional case made by Deputy Kavanagh.
In the past it has been customary to hold more than one election on the same day. We have had a Presidential election and local elections held together. We have had a Presidential election and a referendum held together. In those cases it has invariably happened that ballot papers have been put into the wrong box. Indeed, it happens when local elections are held and there is an election for a county council and an urban council. Ballot papers for the county council are put into the urban box and urban ballot papers are put into the county council box. That entails only exchanging the papers between the town hall and the courthouse, and in the area with which I am most familiar that is a matter of only 100 yards or so. However, if you have to forward papers, say, from Letterkenny to Galway, Castlebar or Cavan, it is going to take days and it will be unworkable. The very strong point which Deputy Kavanagh made is that this could delay and confuse the count for days. The amendment put down by me and supported by Deputy Kavanagh is compelling and I trust the Minister will intimate that he is prepared to accept it.
Having listened to Deputies Fitzpatrick and Kavanagh, it seems to me that Deputy Fitzpatrick may be missing one very important point. He said that on the night of the poll the ballot boxes could be conveyed to a local counting centre in each county and county borough and that next morning the local returning officers could commence counting the votes. Unfortunately, it is not as simple as that. Under the European instrument, in this case, the election to the Assembly will be held on a date to be fixed by the individual member states within the period commencing Thursday morning and ending on the following Sunday and the counting of the votes cannot begin in any member state until the poll has been completed in all member states. Most of the continental countries will vote on a Sunday; this has been the pattern there for elections. Therefore the counting cannot commence anywhere throughout the EEC or in any member state until the polling booths close in the last country on the Sunday night. Taking the realistic view, the counting here probably will not start until Monday morning.
A decision has not yet been taken as to which day we will vote, whether it will be Thursday, Friday, Saturday or Sunday. During the debate on this Bill Deputy Kavanagh suggested that we should vote on Sunday. This suggestion will also be carefully considered when we come to decide on the day. Having regard to our tradition of voting on weekdays rather than at the weekend, Saturday or Sunday, it seems very likely that Thursday rather than Sunday will be the day that will be selected. This means that the ballot boxes must be retained unopened and under guard from Thursday night to Monday morning either at one centre in each Assembly constituency if the proposals in the Bill are accepted, or at two, seven, eight and in one constituency 11 centres respectively within the constituencies, if Deputy Fitzpatrick's amendment is accepted. The Deputy must accept that we should utilise the days between Thursday and Sunday night until Monday morning at least to get the boxes together in one centre in each assembly constituency. The question is really one of time and the continuity of proceedings. In effect counting cannot begin either at the local counting centres until Monday morning.
Under the proposal in the Bill counting would begin at a central counting place on Monday morning and proceed continuously until the count would be completed. Under the proposed amendment the boxes would be held in several different places in each Assembly constituency, and in the Leinster constituency there would be 11 different places. The first count would be carried out at each of these centres on the Monday morning and the proceedings would then be adjourned while the ballot papers were packed and transported to the constituency counting centre where the proceedings would recommence some time on Tuesday at the earliest. I will leave it to the House to judge which of these arrangements is more likely to recommend itself to candidates and their agents, the news media and the public generally.
Deputy Fitzpatrick raised a very important point when he said that there was grave danger that the proposals in the Bill would prove unworkable, that the arrangements would break down, that there would be litigation and that the entire election would be upset as a result. I am glad to be able to set the Deputy's mind at rest here. When these proposals were being prepared my predecessor set up a working group of experienced returning officers to advise on the practical arrangements for the elections. This group advised that while there were administrative advantages in having the first count carried out locally, as the amendment says, they were satisfied that either arrangement would work. The House can make a free choice between the two proposals secure in that knowledge.
Deputy Fitzpatrick spoke at length on the problem of transport and security. I have no wish to make light of these problems. They are the same whether or not there are to be local counting places or one centre. Each ballot paper must travel directly or indirectly on one or more journeys from the polling station at which the vote was cast to the control counting place for the constituency, and security must be provided right along the way. A vehicle carrying half a dozen ballot boxes is just as likely to be involved in an accident as a vehicle carrying 100 boxes. So far as the security aspect is concerned it must be easier to provide security for a few days at a single place than in seven, eight or 11 different places in the constituencies.
Comparison was also made with Presidential elections. In reality the two situations are quite different. At a Presidential election the whole State is one constituency and if there were no local counts every ballot box for every polling station would have to come in to the national counting centre. The problem would therefore be four times as big as it would be with the Assembly elections because we are talking about four constituencies. In a Presidential election counting can commence the morning after the poll and there is no question of waiting two or three days until the polling stations close in some places like Italy, France or West Germany. At a Presidential election we can proceed at a pace that suits ourselves; the result of the election is of national interest only. At the Assembly elections it may be taken that there will be considerable European pressure to get the counts and the results out as quickly as possible. In this connection we must bear in mind that the counting under the single transferable vote system is more complicated than under the systems employed by any other partners and that the counting in our elections will necessarily be slower than in the case of any of our partners. We would be well advised, therefore, to adopt an arrangement which holds out the best promise of a result as early as possible.
Deputy Fitzpatrick also spoke about the difficulties associated with carrying out a central count. We are all familiar with elections and I am quite sure none of us is under any illusion about the magnitude of the task involved here. I am quite confident of the capacity of the returning officers to meet this challenge. This is a suitable opportunity to place on record my appreciation of the efficiency and dedication of our returning officers and their staff. Over the years they have very ably met the demands on them and I am sure we can commit the conduct of the new Assembly elections to them.
Deputy Fitzpatrick in his argument also leaned very heavily on what he referred to as the obligation on returning officers to rule personally on doubtful votes. Is he interpreting the provisions of the Bill a bit too literally in this case? It is true that the Bill requires the returning officer to decide on the validity of ballot papers but the Bill also requires him to arrange the ballot papers in parcels, to count the ballot papers, to calculate the quota, to transfer surpluses and so on. We all know that all this is done by the staff under the returning officer's supervision, not personally by him. In relation to rulings on the validity of those ballot papers presumably what will happen in practice is that the returning officer for the constituency will lay down the criteria for assessing the validity of ballot papers and the actual ruling will be carried out by his senior assistant or legal assessors under his general supervision.
I would like to draw attention to section 14 (4) (c) of the Bill. This obliges the local returning officer to render such assistance to the returning officer for the said constituency as that returning officer may require. There is no reason why the constituency returning officer, if he so wishes, could not ask his colleagues from neighbouring Dáil constituencies to attend the count and assist him in ruling on the validity of these ballot papers. The Deputy spoke of teams of counting staff being brought in from other counties to help in the counting of the votes. I do not know to what extent this may be necessary but if this kind of arrangement is decided on in a particular constituency there seems on the face of it to be no reason why such a team should not operate as a team and be responsible for a particular block of votes, under the supervision of their own local returning officer.
With regard to the general desirability of having the entire count for a constituency conducted in one place rather than in several places, there is one question I would like to pose. At the conclusion of the local count the counted ballot papers will be packed in boxes and sent to the constituency returning officer. Let us suppose that one box is alleged to contain 5,000 ballot papers and suppose on a recheck at the central counting place the constituency returning officer says he can only find 4,500 ballot papers. The question then arises on whom can the courts or anyone else fix responsibility? Is it on the local man, the central man, on both or on none at all? I have gone to some lengths to answer the points raised. I believe it is important to do so because this is an agreed measure. I would like to think that we can all feel committed to each individual provision contained in the Bill.
With regard to the point made by Deputy Kavanagh about the confusion that would arise because of having two elections taking place on the same day, I doubt if any confusion could arise here. We have on many occasions had more than one election on the same day. Even when the local elections take place in urban areas, the urban election and the county council election take place at the same time and, so far as I am aware and my Department officials are aware, we have had no complaint on this score. No difficulties have been created and there has been no mix up of ballot papers. There are always two different coloured ballot papers and the presiding officer and his polling clerk are there to ensure that the right colour goes into the right box in case there is confusion.
In past elections we have had referenda and presidential elections taking place on the same day and we did not have any difficulty. I doubt if any commissioner from any town in Ireland will find his way to Europe through this confusion because I do not think it will arise. There has been no difficulty when we have had more than one election taking place on the same day. We do not know for sure at this stage when we will have the European election. It is quite possible the election could take place before we have any of our own elections. No consideration has been given to changing the local elections.
I would like to assure the House that I am not digging in my heels in regard to this particular amendment just for the sake of being difficult. The reason I will not accept the amendment is that I consider the proposal in the Bill to be the better one. I trust the Deputy will agree and possibly withdraw his amendment. On balance the proposal in the Bill is the better one.
(Cavan-Monaghan): I am disappointed that the Minister has not seen the force of the arguments that have been put forward in favour of the amendment. I regret that I am not prepared to withdraw the amendment. In regard to the major point made by the Minister that the count cannot start until the election has concluded in all the member states and that this would involve holding the ballot papers at the local centre for one or more days the Minister spoke about the possibility of holding the election on Sunday. I do not believe we have yet reached the point when we can hold an election on a Sunday. It is essential that people should not be discouraged from exercising the franchise in any election.
If we were to decide to hold the election on Sunday I believe a sizeable percentage of the people would either feel obliged to stay away from the poll or would be strongly discouraged from doing so on religious belief. I refer to the religious minority in the country who hold very strong views on the observance of the Sabbath Day. It is true that their feelings in regard to the strict observance of the Sabbath Day are as strong now as the feelings of the religious majority were towards the observance of abstinence on a Friday when that was a rule in the majority church here. Therefore, I would be strongly against any proposal to hold the election on a Sunday unless there was clear evidence that it was acceptable to all the people and that no sizeable body of opinion was against it on religious grounds.
Elections could be held on Thursday, Friday or Saturday. I concede Saturday could be quite a good day for holding them because many people have the day off and it could quite well be that Saturday would be a suitable day. I have not given very deep thought to that yet. I would not agree that the fact that the election was held on Thursday, Friday or Saturday and the count could not begin until Monday defeats the force of my argument. I have pointed out— it is on the record and I do not have to go into detail again—that if the count takes place at a central counting place in each constituency, thousands of ballot boxes will have to be assembled at a local centre because the local returning officer will have to check that all the boxes have been brought in and that he discharges his obligation under the Bill in forwarding them to the central counting place.
Therefore, I repeat, hundreds of boxes will have to be assembled locally. A very considerable amount of work is involved in that. These hundreds of boxes will then have to be transported long distances—up to 400 I am sure from some counties. A number of lorries will have to be engaged to transport them. A separate Army and Garda escort will have to be provided for each local constituency. There is a danger, as I said before, of a breakdown during transport and there is a real danger of their being attacked and the papers being destroyed. An enormous amount of labour is involved in this. Then there is the difficulty of securing a suitable counting centre large enough to accommodate all the ballot boxes which will be conveyed from the 11 centres, apparently, in Leinster, and the question of assembling sufficient staff at this one centre to count all these papers. There is also the danger of having great difficulty in reconciling the ballot paper accounts with the actual number of ballot papers contained in each ballot box.
The Minister does not see any difficulty arising out of the possibility and the likelihood, I would say, of having two elections held on the one day. As evidence of that, he says there was never any difficulty about this in the past. Of course there was not, because the count was held locally. If they were a referendum and a presidential election, the count was held in the same building. If they were a presidential election and a local election the count was held in the same building. If they were two local elections like an urban council election and a county council election the count was either held in the same building or in the same town. In those circumstances, one would not expect any difficulty arising out of ballot papers being put into the wrong ballot boxes.
The Minister seems to be advised that ballot papers were not put into the wrong ballot boxes. Practical politicians who have been present at counts over 20 or more years know as a matter of fact that when there are two elections ballot papers are invariably put into the wrong ballot boxes. Either two of them are put into the one box or the ballot paper is put into the wrong box. There is no fuss or real trouble because the papers are just transferred from one counting centre in the town to another, or from one room to another in the same building. Here we will have real difficulty because we will have to transfer them not from one building to another in the same town, or from one room to another in the same building, but from as far as 100 miles or more. That is where we will have the real difficulty.
The Minister also said the entire State was the constituency in a presidential election. Of course that is true, but the counts are held in every Dáil constituency, and the difficulties I see here do not arise. I gathered from the Minister when he rose to speak that, when this matter was considered in the Custom House, the Minister had the benefit of practical advice from practical people. I gathered from what he said that he consulted, or his predecessor or his officials consulted, experienced returning officers on this topic. They said either the system proposed in the Bill or my system was capable of working. I do not deny they are capable of working. As the Minister conceded that these experienced returning officers or other experienced people he consulted, advised in favour of the presidential system of counting, it is difficult to see why he has overruled that advice and, I believe, going against the opinion not alone of this side of the House but against a great body of opinion on the Government's own side of the House.
When the Minister says he is prepared to leave it to the House I wonder does he mean he is prepared to leave it to a free vote or to the House under the Whipping system. If he does the latter the result is a foregone conclusion and the Minister will force the system in the Bill, which is not acceptable to this side of the House and apparently not acceptable to the experts he consulted. If the Minister is prepared to leave it to a genuine free vote I will be interested to see the outcome of that.
This is not a controversial matter.
It is an effort by the House to get the best workable system possible. I do not believe the Minister dealt fully with the points raised by me in regard to counting staff, for example. He seemed to say that if additional staff were necessary it would have to be got. Of course additional staff will be necessary. Nobody suggests for a moment that the staff which could count the votes for County Sligo, for instance, would be capable of counting the votes for the eight counties comprised in the Connacht-Ulster constituency. It is absolutely certain additional staff will be necessary and the counting staff will have to be augmented fourfold or fivefold. Where will accommodation be found for that staff? I said the last day, and I repeat it now, that there is a tradition and a procedure which has worked well over the years. It is not necessarily a uniform system but, if staff are brought in from all over the provinces, there are bound to be different approaches and there is bound to be difficulty and contention.
I do not accept what the Minister said about spoiled votes. There are duties which can be delegated by returning officers, such as mathematical calculations and so on, but I put it to the Minister and to the House that the adjudication on spoiled votes is something that is not delegated. It is conducted personally by the returning officer in the presence of the candidates and their agents. Before the count starts there is agreement on general criteria. But there can be borderline cases which have to be adjudicated on by returning officers before the count begins. For instance, it may be agreed that a single "x" standing alone will be regarded as No. 1. That does not give any trouble. But a question can arise as to whether a No. 1 is really that or whether it is some sort of stroke and there are two Nos. 1 on the paper. All these have to be scrutinised by the returning officer. Not for one moment do I accept that as a matter of practice this is delegated by the returning officer or, indeed, that it would be possible to delegate it.
The Minister also seems to suggest that the count would take longer here because of proportional representation than it would in other countries. There are mechanical methods of counting in the United States and other places. We do not have that system here. I understand, however, that in some of the member states the same system of propotional representation as we are advocating here will be operated. I speak of the other part of this island. It is unlikely that the election will be held in Britain on a Sunday. I could not see the election being held in Northern Ireland on Sunday. I do not know whether they will have a central system of counting or a local system, but all the arguments here so far support my amendment.
We have the strongest possible arguments. We have the presidential system. We have had several presidential elections since 1937 and that is the system I am asking the Minister to adopt. It is hard to understand why he will not accept it. There was an agreed presidential candidate in 1937 but there have been several elections since and one went to a recount. They were all held under the system I am proposing. The system has been tested. It has worked well and there has never been any trouble.
Now, if politicians are authorities on anything, they are authorities on elections and counts because that is the way they find their way into this House and it is something in which they take a deep interest. As far as I can gather, opinion in this House is practically unanimous that the presidential system is the right system and the system proposed is absurd. The Minister said that the expert opinion he consulted—county registrars and returning officers—advised him that he should adopt the presidential system. That is my information. The Minister is now turning that down and opting for this new type of count which has not been tested. He is taking a step in the dark. That is not what politicians want. It is not what the advisers he consulted want. I strongly urge the Minister to have another look at this, think about it, consult the members of his own party and the returning officers and I am satisfied that, if he does that, he will come down in favour of my amendment.
The Minister said that each ballot paper under one system or another will ultimately find its way to the central counting centre. I agree, but it is a totally different operation to transfer up to ten, at a maximum, ballot boxes from County Cavan to County Galway or from County Galway to County Cavan than it is to transfer over 400 boxes involving a totally different volume of transport and more escorts. The Minister has not dealt with that to my satisfaction nor has he dealt with the amount of transport required or the difficulty in providing on the same night a fleet of Army transport lorries for every province and county in the State. That is what is involved. There must be an Army escort and if there are hundreds of boxes it will have to be a heavy Garda and Army escort. That will have to be provided at the same time in every county.
Neither has the Minister dealt with the fact that the boxes will have to be hauled back from the central counting centre to the local ones. Of course, they will not need an escort then and there will be no rush about it and it is not as strong a point as the other but it means more work. Apparently, the Minister has not given any thought to how the extra staff will be recruited, the extra cost of transporting them from far outside the immediate area where the central count will take place, keeping them overnight and paying expenses. I think it will double if not treble the cost of the count. Also, I am not satisfied that the Minister has dealt with Deputy Kavanagh's point about the possibility—and it is far more than that: it is a certainty— of ballot papers finding their way into wrong boxes if there are two elections on the same day. Anybody who says that does not happen is not familiar with the conduct of elections. I suppose the quickest way of coping with this would be to have Army motor cyclists plying between the central counting centre and the local ones or the ones concerned with the other election. It means unnecessary delay and unnecessary problems.
Those are some things the Minister has not dealt with. I believe that for some reason he is being advised at central level to adopt this system which is not practicable.
Last week I suggested that the Minister should consider a Sunday ballot as a possibility because of its popularity in other Community states. I take Deputy Fitzpatrick's point that some people would have strong objection to balloting on the Sabbath, particularly among the minority, but one does not know how strong these objections are until we find out from them. There are ways of doing that. I think the possibility is worth considering not only for this election but for all elections. People should be convenienced. We have found in elections that quite a lot of people who have to travel to their work in cities, say in my constituency from Wicklow to Dublin, do not get back until night and miss the voting. They are unable to vote because they leave before the booths open and get back after the booths close. Strangely, many of our voters will not go to vote in their working clothes, particularly in rural areas. Many of them go home, put on a good suit and then go to vote. Some who go home do not bother to go out again to vote. On Sundays when people go to Mass or Service, polling stations are usually close by, in schools or colleges, practically next door, and it could be quite convenient to do two jobs on the Sunday. Even though tradition has it that we do not vote on Sundays, the idea is worth considering.
We are on the amendment.
I know that, but this was a point brought up during the Minister's speech on the amendment.
That might be more appropriate to the Schedule.
The Minister's argument in refusing the amendment was that he is confined to rules—laid down by the Council, I assume, because it is certainly not laid down in the Treaty of Rome how the election should be run. One of the big problems about the EEC is their desire for harmonisation. They want to harmonise the size of eggs and sausages and so on and apparently also how we run elections. I see nothing wrong in our saying once in a while, in the case of something as important as an election, "We will run it to suit our own traditions." I do not see any strong objection to that. But I am certain that it would not be acceptable to our people to hold a ballot on a Thursday and tell them that we would not start the count until the following Monday. They would not get even a first count result by the following Tuesday. Nowadays if a person puts a bob on a horse he wants to know the result an hour after the race is run. When something as important as an election takes place he will want the result as soon as is practicable, allowing counters and polling stations staff a chance to get a night's rest, so that some of them can take their places at the counting tables the next morning. We have accepted that system and I do not believe anybody wants to change it because someone in Brussels decides that we should not start a count for three or four days.
I found the Minister's reply to my problem and my strong objection to this rule and his defence of his objection to Deputy Fitzpatrick's amendment evasive and I can describe it in no other terms. He did not have an adequate answer. He did not say that there was no possibility of a second election or a referendum or a local election taking place on the same day as the Assembly election. He is being practical in that: he knows this election could take place at the same time as the local elections; he knows that there are some things in the Constitution that are likely to be considered in the next year or so and that a referendum could take place at that time. A presidential election does not seem likely; neither does a general election seem likely before the Assembly election, but there is the possibility of two elections taking place on one day. And merely because of the saving that could be made by having two on one day the likelihood becomes a strong possibility. There is also the political wisdom of getting as many people as possible out to vote on issues that are attractive to them, that is local issues, interests and candidates. These are very attractive to people and bring them out in large numbers.
While the Minister did not say that there was no possibility, he said that the tradition has been that the presiding officers and so on were all so efficient that they never let a vote go astray and that a voting paper for the local elections could not possibly get into an Assembly elections box and that we would have different coloured ballot papers. I have stood at local elections. I presently represent Wicklow, at urban council level, at county council level and in the Dáil. It is quite conceivable that my name would be on the Assembly elections ballot paper as well. To have the same name on three ballot papers would cause confusion regardless of what the Minister says. In some areas the duties are taken very seriously, but where lighting is inadequate and so on mistakes can be made. Some people screw up their votes into a nice tight little ball and they would certainly take offence if the presiding officer asked them to smooth out the votes so that he could take note of which box they were going into. Some of them would think he was interfering with their rights to a secret ballot. The Minister should seriously consider this point. I do not see why the Minister cannot have both options in the Bill and so cover himself should we hold two elections on the same day. The Minister should consider the objections raised by both Deputy Fitzpatrick and myself.
All of us here belong to the three main parties that will be contesting the Assembly elections. Our organisations—consisting mostly of amateurs even though they work like professionals—are not paid, they work in their own time. One small recomnense they like to get is to know the result in their areas, and as many as possible would like to be present at the count to see how their areas polled. This information is useful for political parties. They need to know how the trend is going. It is very important that each constituency know the trend. They need to know if there has been a shift in popularity from one party to another. After the result of the last general election we would all like to see how the Government are doing. An election on this issue will certainly indicate how the Government are being considered by the people in the overall situation. Those of us who will have the duty of turning out our support in Dáil constituencies will want to know how the constituency is behaving. This information can be obtained by having the count in one central place.
Does the Minister now say that he wishes to have in the rest of Leinster constituency 11 separate counting areas where the different county ballot boxes will be counted, where the boxes will be taken into different rooms and counted and then brought together? If that is the case surely Deputy Fitzpatrick's proposal is met far more simply by having the count done within the county or county borough and then transferring in one vehicle the checked and counted ballot papers. The Minister has not convinced us of the value of proceeding in the way he chooses in this Bill. The Minister should open up the possibility of being able to change his mind should our arguments in the future seem to him to be correct. There is likelihood of an election being run with the Assembly elections. Due to the polling patterns we have here and to our wish to know the trends in the various constituencies, it is reasonable to press Deputy Fitzpatrick's amendment as strongly as possible, or, as I have suggested, the Minister should try to contain both possibilities in this Schedule.
The Deputy wondered why we could not do our own thing with regard to when we count the votes and so on. Under article 9, subsection (2), of the Act agreed by the Council of Ministers in September, 1976, by agreement it was laid down that the counting of votes may not begin until after the close of polling in the member states whose electors are the last to vote within the period referred to at paragraph 1. We do not have any choice in this. With regard to the confusion about ballot papers if two elections are held, a point seems to have escaped Deputies in the argument. If the elections are held on a Thursday the count for the local elections will definitely take place the following day, because council candidates will not hang around waiting. In most instances the local elections counts will be completed and the winners declared in the shortest possible time. If a local election ballot paper got into an EEC election box that would not be discovered until the following Monday, so that will not affect the position if the winner has been declared. Over the years two elections or maybe a referendum have taken place together on many occasions. If this had ever created a problem or continued to create a problem surely we would not have continued holding these elections at the same time. I am not saying that it would be an isolated incident but there have been few complaints in this regard.
(Cavan-Monaghan): The reason there were no complaints is that they were usually in the same building and were able to solve any problems that arose.
Perhaps that is the reason but it had never been brought to the attention of my Department that it was creating a problem. Different coloured ballot papers will be used and there will be a presiding officer and a polling clerk supervising the polling.
The ballot boxes will have to be transported to the central counting centre under Deputy Fitzpatrick's amendment or under the Bill, and a security problem will arise during transportation. There are 11 centres in Leinster which would need to be secured from Thursday night until Monday when the counting starts. Security would also be needed the following day when the boxes are being transported to the central counting centre. Surely it would be more realistic to have a proper security system at the central counting centre than at each polling centre.
The arguments and disagreements of the working party have been referred to. The returning officers assured the former Minister that either system was workable. Some of them were in favour of the provisions contained in the amendment and some of them were in favour of our system. When the Bill came before Deputy Fitzpatrick and his colleagues they agreed with its contents. I do not know where all this disagreement is coming from because the Bill is an agreed one. It was agreed by the previous Government and by my predecessor.
Deputy Fitzpatrick referred to Northern Ireland and wondered what would happen there. The only answer to that is to refer to the referendum on the Border. On that occasion all the ballot boxes were transported to a centre in Belfast so it is probable that the same system will be used again. At every general election the ballot boxes are transported from each constituency to Bolton Street where the count takes place. The system has worked well in Dublin and everybody is satisfied with it.
Is Rathmines not used any more?
Rathmines is used as a counting centre for Dublin County, and Bolton Street is the counting centre for the city constituencies. I should like to emphasise my agreement with my predecessor in relation to the contents of the Bill. I cannot accept the amendment.
(Cavan-Monaghan): The Minister has made considerable capital of the fact that the Bill was introduced by the former Minister for Local Government and presumably it was cleared by the Government before it was circulated. That is true in regard to the general details of the Bill. The Second Schedule to the Bill was the work of the independent commission established by the present Government. It is the duty of this House to scrutinise legislation on Committee Stage and to try to improve it. As Opposition spokesman on the Environment it is my duty to scrutinise the Bill.
I am perturbed by the Minister's belief that the holding of two elections on the same day would not lead to confusion. Anybody who has any experience of elections knows that this invariably happens. I agree that it is not the sort of thing that would be reported to the Custom House, that it would be dealt with locally by the two returning officers, one operating in the town hall and the other operating in the courthouse. They would simply exchange the ballot papers and that would be that. The Minister made a rather alarming point which would seem to make it impossible to hold the two elections on the same day. He said if both elections were held on Thursday, the local election count would be completed on Friday when the result would be declared, and the Assembly count would not begin until Monday. I should like to see the reaction of local authorities when it would become apparent that the wrong people had been elected or that the wrong people had been eliminated by one vote. There would be civil strife and an uproar that would take the military to put down. There is nothing more important for any man who stands for election than to be elected. If a candidate who was eliminated on Friday discovered on Monday that there were a couple of votes available that would have elected him he would react very strongly, as would his party. That is unthinkable and it shows how far removed some people are from the reality of the situation.
That is a case for not having the two together.
(Cavan-Monaghan): There is a way out of it.
We are discussing amendments which relate to whether or not the local returning officer should appoint the place of the count but we are hearing all sorts of details about the method of voting. We are totally out of order as far as the amendment before the House is concerned.
(Cavan-Monaghan): With great respect, and I am rather slow to say this, the Ceann Comhairle would have had to be here all the time to follow the argument. The argument I am putting forward is relevant to the amendment.
As I see it the argument is not germane to the amendment.
(Cavan-Monaghan): The argument is relevant because the question is whether we should have a central count or not.
When the Schedule is being discussed Deputies will have ample opportunity of discussing these matters.
(Cavan-Monaghan): There are strong arguments in favour of having a local count rather than a central count. If the two elections are held on the same day it is imperative that the two counts commence at the same time. I would be in favour of holding the elections on the last Saturday within the specified time between the Thursday and the Monday and commence the count locally for both elections, or three elections if they are held, on the Monday.
How would candidates for the county council elections react?
(Cavan-Monaghan): They would react favourably to it rather than run the risk of discovering after they had been defeated that they had enough votes to elect them. The Minister fails to get my point in regard to transport and has said that the ballot boxes will have to be transported one way or another. I agree with the latter but they will have to be transported in six or ten boxes rather than in hundreds of boxes. That is a different operation. The Minister said his suggestion has worked in Dublin but that is not a valid argument against my amendment. Votes in Dublin do not have to be transported any more than a few miles and they are stored in different rooms in one building. There is no comparison between transferring ballot boxes from Rathmines to Bolton Street and transferring ballot boxes from Letterkenny to Castlebar or Letterkenny to Cavan.
The Minister said we would be slower in the count than other member states because we would be the only state using proportional representation. As far as I know the entire vote in the UK will be in accordance with our system of PR. Certainly, the count in Northern Ireland will be in accordance with our system of PR and, consequently, will take as long as ours. I did not put down this amendment to score political points. I tabled it because I believe the system suggested by the Minister is unworkable. I say that from a practical commonsense point of view. I agree with the point made by Deputy Kavanagh, that our system of democracy works because of voluntary organisations and because a lot of people are involved in the various political parties. If this form of democracy is to continue it is necessary that our people be involved at local level. Deputy Kavanagh also made a valid point when he stated that the key men in any organisation want to be at the count and see local boxes opened. Practical politicians know that it is not feasible to transport political organisations from, for instance, 11 centres to one centre. In my view this is another attempt to centralise things, to take democracy away from the grassroots and to gather everything and transport it to Dublin, other cities or big towns, forgetting about those who did all the work leading up to the election. The Minister's suggestion would be bad for democracy and would lead to less interest in the election.
The Minister concedes that he has been advised that either system will work. That is the Minister's argument against my amendment at its best. He admits that he has been advised in favour of my amendment but added that he was told that either system would work. If that is so why does the Minister not retain the system that the people want, retain the system that has been in operation here since 1937, a system that is in the interest of local democracy. The old system avoids votes which are meant for Cavan Urban Council being found 100 miles away from that centre when they are badly needed by a candidate at the count in the town hall in Cavan. The Minister should give us the system everybody wants. I urge him to have a rethink about this and apply his own common sense to the matter. If he does that I am satisfied that he will be in favour of my amendment. I am not prepared to withdraw my amendment entirely but I do not want to put the issue to a vote. I want to reserve the right to raise this matter again. This discussion affects practical politicians and is one between practical and experienced politicians. The Minister should apply his political experience and common sense to this issue. Out of his own mouth he had been advised by experts that his system will work, or that my system will work. I put it to him that my system is the most practical, the less expensive and will meet the wishes of every grassroot politician down to the personation agent; they do not want their boxes to be brought in from little polling centres, packed up on a lorry and driven 100 miles, never to be heard about again except what they might learn from television, the radio or the newspapers. They want to be involved in the count and the only way they can be so involved is if it is retained at local level.
I want to give my reaction to two statements the Minister made when he replied earlier. Two fundamental and basic beliefs that sustain me in politics and which the Minister does not seem to consider as important to democracy as I think they are, are that when a Bill comes into the House it is up to every Member to endeavour to put his views forward and improve the Bill wherever possible, irrespective of what agreement is reached at whatever level outside it. Until we arrived at this point in this Bill one could say agreement was fairly general, except in some smaller details. We have now reached the stage where we have an important point to make. Had there not been the general election in June, with the previous Government remaining on and, were we still over there, I would still make the same objections to whichever Minister would be presenting this Bill.
The other basic fact the Minister did not consider when he made his remarks is that convenience as far as counting is concerned should come before the accuracy of the result. Whether it be a local, general or Presidential election we all want to see the correct result being brought out. A voter goes to a ballot box, places his ballot paper in the box in the polling station, which is the limit of the jurisdiction of the presiding officer. He is then entitled to ensure that that vote is counted amongst the others in that election. Every effort must be made to ensure that that vote is counted and that an accurate result is brought forward. All sides would be appalled if a local election count were to take place and, three or four days afterwards, an Assembly election's count was to commence, with ballot papers proper to the local election becoming available which would obviously distort the result previously found in the local election. The result previously found in the local election would have been distorted because the ballot papers were not counted at the appropriate time or were disregarded by the presiding officer as not being available to him when he declared the result at the earlier count.
Since there is this very strong possibility I, too, would insist that the Minister either accept the amendment as put down or that, on Report Stage, he would alter this section giving himself the widest possibility of holding the count wherever the most accurate results can be obtained. That is really what we want.
What Deputy Fitzpatrick is asking is very reasonable and is in line with tradition here. If the Minister holds strongly to his argument and is not going to give way to Deputy Fitzpatrick's amendment, at least he should accept that there is the possibility of one or more elections taking place in conjunction with this election. Therefore he should maintain in the Bill the opportunity of affording himself the widest possible scope when it comes to the counting of votes. He can do so very simply on Report Stage by indicating that the count can take place either at the local counting stations up to a certain stage of the count and will then be transferred elsewhere, or that the count can take place at a central point. He should not set his face totally against the amendment. We have said all we can and we cannot advance any more arguments, at least from this side. But I would not like the Minister to say that any Bill, because it had the agreement of the previous Government around the Cabinet table, would necessarily meet with the total agreement of every backbencher in the House and would get the go-through on the nod. There must be debate on any Bill introduced in this House.
Is Deputy Fitzpatrick withdrawing his amendment?
(Cavan-Monaghan): Perhaps the Minister has some comments.
I will make two points : firstly, the danger of the mixup of having the two elections on the same day and the fear expressed here that if an urban council or local election vote finds its way into the EEC ballot box—because of these being taken to a central point for counting, as set out in the Bill—such would create a serious problem and that a candidate might find himself elected or eliminated, or the wrong man elected and the wrong man eliminated and so on. Even were we to accept Deputy Fitzpatrick's amendment this danger would still exist. Assuming that we would be polling on, say Thursday, and this happened the European count could not start until the following Monday. There is no way I know of in which one could persuade the local election candidates to wait until the Monday to start the count if polling day was the previous Thursday.
Might I ask the Minister one question about that. Suppose the presiding officer for the local election was approached by the agent of a particular party who said: "I have evidence that a number of votes have found their way into the Assembly box; I want this count halted until those boxes are checked." Does the presiding officer not have to suspend the count until those papers are brought back?
Yes, if such should occur. In my opinion the possibility of holding the two elections together is very slight because, in all probability, the European elections will be over a year before the local elections are due to be held. Therefore, we are worrying about something that will probably never happen here.
A very important feature of what is contained in the Bill is the fact that we are doing it in the most efficient and, let us say, quickest possible way. Deputy Kavanagh possibly will be a candidate and, for all I know, Deputy Fitzpatrick.
(Cavan-Monaghan): I keep saying there will be no scarcity of candidates.
If we were to have the local counting centres they would still have to wait until the Monday to start their count. The boxes would still have to be transported—perhaps fewer in number—to a central point. It would definitely be, say, Tuesday evening before they would arrive, some of them perhaps from distant parts; it would be into Tuesday anyway. By using the time between, say, Thursday and Sunday night, or Monday morning, to have the ballot boxes at a central counting station, you would have a quicker result and spare a lot of worry and suspense on people like Deputy Kavanagh, who I assume will be going as a candidate for the election, and many more. This is the way the candidates would want it themselves—the count to take place and winners declared elected in the quickest possible time. It would be more convenient in every way and, in my opinion, the proper way to do it. We have been through all the arguments for and against and I am still convinced that our decision for doing it in the manner contained in the Bill is the correct one.
I can assure the Minister that I will certainly be going for the local elections.
Is Deputy Fitzpatrick withdrawing his amendment?
(Cavan-Monaghan): I am withdrawing the amendment to allow political common sense overtake the Minister. I am satisfied that if he makes inquiries from his own party, discusses this with sensible down-to-earth people, he will accept the amendment and that he will move, on Report Stage, to accept my amendment in some form or another.
Furthermore, I want it to be known now that although I am withdrawing this amendment, I will be putting it down again on Report Stage.
The Deputy may raise it on Report Stage.
(Cavan-Monaghan): I shall put down the amendment again unless the Minister informs me he is putting down an amendment.
Last week when we were talking about this very long Schedule we said we could, if necessary, just glance through it page by page, but I am in the hands of Deputies Fitzpatrick and Kavanagh on the matter. Perhaps they would indicate what pages of the Schedule they wish discussed so that we will not have to go backwards and forwards.
(Cavan-Monaghan): I am prepared to take it page by page. Perhaps we might pause for a moment on each page to see if there is any point that needs clarifying?
I have no objection to that.
(Cavan-Monaghan): There is a point on page 12 of the Bill that I raised before. Rule 2 states:
The returning officer shall, not later than the twenty-eighth day .... before the polling day, give public notice in the prescribed form of the Assembly election ....
I suppose this is one of the ways we will find out when the election will be held. In a section of the Bill it is stated that the Minister shall fix the polling day by order. I should imagine that he will have to fix it more than 28 days from the date of the order, otherwise the returning officer could not give 28 days' notice. The point I made on the last occasion was that this is a very roundabout way of fixing the date of the election and I should like the Minister's views on it.
We are meeting the Deputy on that point on Report Stage.
(Cavan-Monaghan): I should like to raise a point on page 14 of the Bill. Only seven days are allowed for nominations and that sounds a very short time. However, I suppose it would be generally known that the election was on the way and people would plan accordingly. Rule 7 states:
The earliest time for receiving nominations shall be 10 a.m. on the day .... next following the latest date for the publication of the Notice of Elections and the latest time for receiving nominations shall be 12 noon on the seventh day ....
It seems the period is approximately seven days for making nominations. Unless people were prepared, it appears that seven days is too short.
The period of seven days is two days longer than in Dáil elections. Taking into account the fact that we will know well in advance about the European election, candidates and those interested will have ample time.
(Cavan-Monaghan): Naturally I accept without reservation the Minister's word about Dáil elections but it surprises me to hear that in a snap election there is only five days to get in nominations. We know that involves calling a convention and they are not always called by telegram. When the Dáil is dissolved notice is not given for a few days. I suppose it could work out to be seven or ten days from the date the Dáil is dissolved.
It is seven days from the dissolution of the Dáil.
(Cavan-Monaghan): The time is still a little short, but I am sure it is all right.
I should like to raise a point on page 16 of the Bill. In general elections a candidate is entitled to appoint a sub-agent and a personation agent. I know that in a referendum there is no provision for sub-agents and I do not think there is any provision for them in this Bill. I suggest there should be provision for appointing sub-agents as in the case of a general election. It could happen that there would not be a personation agent in every polling booth and in such case it would be essential for the candidate to have a sub-agent who would be entitled to go to the polling booth, to be there at the opening and when the boxes were sealed. Even if a candidate has a personation agent it is desirable that he should also have a sub-agent. I could never understand why the distinction was drawn between local government elections, Dáil elections, referenda and Presidential elections. In the case of local government or Dáil elections there is provision for personation agents and sub-agents but in referenda and Presidential elections there is no provision for sub-agents. There is no provision in this Bill for sub-agents and I suggest we should make such provision.
We will have a look at this matter with a view to doing something about it on Report Stage.
(Cavan-Monaghan): I shall have to refer to Rule 20 (1) in its entirety because that is the rule that provides for what happens when a candidate dies. It states:
Where, not less than seventy-two hours before the latest time for the withdrawal of candidature underRule 12 of this Schedule, the returning officer becomes satisfied that a candidate standing nominated has died, the returning officer shall immediately give public notice to that effect and the candidature of the candidate shall be deemed to have been withdrawn.
The period specified means that it is some time before the latest date for making nominations and in that event the candidature is deemed to have been withdrawn. That is simple enough and I have no objection to it. However, paragraph (2) states:
Where, at any time during the period beginning seventy-two hours before the latest time for the withdrawal of candidature underRule 12 of this Schedule and ending on the commencement of the poll, the returning officer becomes satisfied that a candidate standing nominated for election has died, the following provisions shall have effect in relation to the Assembly election—
(a) the returning officer shall notify the Minister and the chief returning officer of the death of the candidate and at the same time, if notice of the poll has been given, he shall countermand the poll.
That is to happen even if the candidate was a next door neighbour of the returning officer and he happened to die at 8.30 a.m. on the morning of the polling day. If the returning officer became aware of this he would have to call off the election. Has that been the procedure in general elections to date or is it something new? It is a grave duty to impose on a returning officer the obligation to countermand a poll and call off the election if he hears of the death of a candidate half an hour before the poll begins. That would be bad enough in an ordinary general election where the constituencies are comparatively small but in Leinster he would have to call off the election throughout the entire constituency. If I understand this correctly, the notice appears to be too short. I would like to hear the Minister on this.
If a candidate dies the arrangement is identical to that which applies at local elections. If we are to make any changes in this, I suggest that the change be considered generally.
(Cavan-Monaghan): I agree.
The same applies at local elections.
(Cavan-Monaghan): When a Bill like this comes into the House and where it is obvious that very substantial portions of Schedules have been taken from precedents and put into the Bill, we should avail of a debate like this to look at the whole question. That is what I tried to do in regard to this Schedule and it appears that this provision is unreasonable and unworkable. Even if a candidate died in the middle of the night before the election, I cannot see how the returning officer for Leinster would be able to advise his hundreds of presiding officers that the election was off. Would the Minister have a look at this?
Yes. In an ordinary election if a candidate dies up to the close of the poll the election is called off.
(Cavan-Monaghan): I will come to that when we discuss the next page. Will the Minister look at the point I raised?
(Cavan-Monaghan): The provision in rule 20 (3) came as a complete surprise to me. Is it new? It reads:
Where, at any time after the commencement of the poll in a constituency and before the close of such poll, the returning officer becomes satisfied that a candidate has died—
(a) all votes cast at the Assembly election in the constituency shall be disregarded and the ballot papers destroyed,
(b) the returning officer shall notify the Minister and the chief returning officer of the death of the candidate,
(c) the provisions of subparagraphs (b) to (f) of paragraph (2) of this Rule shall apply.
That means that it will start all over again. That comes as a complete surprise to me. I thought that whatever the provision about a candidate dying before the poll began, if he died after the poll began the election carried on.
I have a recollection—not a very clear one I want to emphasise—of something like this happening and an aeroplane being hired to notify the electorate that the candidate had died and that they should disregard him. If this has been the law for a long time, this comes as a great surprise to me.
This has been the case in all elections. If a candidate dies before the close of the poll, the election is called off. This is not a new departure.
(Cavan-Monaghan): Rule 22 (2) (a) deals with ballot papers. This is only a minor point but it needs looking at. Rule 22 (2) (a) reads:
Each ballot paper shall contain the names and descriptions of the candidates standing nominated, as shown in their respective nomination papers. The names shall be arranged alphabetically in the order of the surnames, or if there are two or more candidates bearing the same surname in the alphabetical order of their other names, or if their other names are the same, in alphabetical order of their occupations.
We had two Paddy O'Reillys on the ballot paper and both were farmers. Their addresses were not given. Were they drawn by lot or what happened?
The only thing I can visualise would be their party affiliations.
(Cavan-Monaghan): That is not provided for here.
As the Deputy said, that did happen——
(Cavan-Monaghan): Yes, and I wonder how they got over it.
We will have a look at that between now and Report Stage because when it happened once it could happen again.
(Cavan-Monaghan): Rule 22 (2) (e) says:
the ballot papers shall be numbered consecutively on the back and the back of the counterfoil attached to each ballot paper shall bear the same number. The numbers of the ballot papers shall be printed in the smallest characters compatible with legibility and shall be printed on or about the centre of the ballot paper,
Is that material now? It was very important when the identity of the candidate could be traced through this number but following a High Court decision, the identity of the candidate cannot be traced and this does not now appear to be relevant.
There is very little chance—about one in a million—that anyone would remember a particular number.
(Cavan-Monaghan): That is not the point. In the old days there was a number on the counterfoil and a number on the ballot paper. Then the presiding officer or his clerk took the number of the voter from the register and put that on the counterfoil. Consequently, in theory, if one knew the number on the ballot paper and had enough time and facilities to get the counterfoil, he would find the voter's number. But somebody challenged that situation in the High Court on the basis that it did not preserve the secrecy of the ballot. So far as I know an order was made to the effect that it was no longer legal to put the voter's registered number on the counterfoil of the ballot paper. If that is so I should like to think that not only is it a million to one chance but that it is impossible to ascertain how someone voted unless the returning officer, and he is bound by the secrecy of the ballot, were to memorise the number on the ballot paper counterfoil and search perhaps for years until he found the other paper. I am wondering whether it is necessary to put numbers on ballot papers at all and if it is necessary, whether the numbers should be big or small.
The Leas-Cheann Comhairle would be an expert on that.
Much as the Chair might wish on occasion to enter into debate he cannot do so.
I understand that there is the question of security involved. There is no possibility of the number of the ballot paper being recorded on the counterfoil. That eliminates the chance of anybody tracing a vote.
(Cavan-Monaghan): That is so as a result of the High Court decision, but to provide that the ballot paper shall be numbered consecutively on the back, that the back of the counterfoil attached to each ballot paper shall bear the same number and that the numbers on the ballot papers shall be printed in the smallest characters creates a suspicion that if the numbers were big enough someone could find out something about the vote. I would go further and say that there should be a number on the counterfoil but none on the ballot paper because the only purpose in having a number on the ballot paper is to be able to relate it to the number on the counterfoil for some reason or other. I can understand it being necessary for the returning officer to know how many ballot papers he issued and, consequently, they should be numbered but why not have the number appear on the counterfoil only?
Perhaps this is something we could consider generally in regard to all elections.
(Cavan-Monaghan): Yes, but we should avail of this opportunity of considering the whole situation.
(Cavan-Monaghan): With regard to page 21 I am availing of this opportunity to raise all the points that have occurred to me in regard to elections. Rule (3) provides for postal voting. Not so very long ago I had experience of Seanad ballot envelopes that were of a very poor quality. It was very difficult to seal these envelopes properly and to ensure that they would not prevent the appearance of having been interfered with. The quality was so poor that in one instance is was considered necessary to telephone the Seanad Returning Officer to ask for directions. The difficulty was overcome by putting on one side of the envelope a certificate similar to and in addition to the one that normally goes on the back of the envelope. I am sure that the returning officer used the envelopes with which he was supplied but steps should be taken to secure superior-type envelopes for this purpose, envelopes that will do the job properly.
I shall have that matter looked into in order to ensure that envelopes of a proper standard will be used in future.
In regard to page 22, the situation in regard to polling cards leads to a great deal of confusion for many people who think that if they have not received a card they cannot vote. In city areas in particular with the greater movement of people and so on these cards are sent often to the wrong addresses. I suppose one of the best ways of checking whether one is on the register is to consult with the agents for the candidates. The problem in relation to polling cards is that they very often fall into the wrong hands. Cards have been collected and used by people who had no right to use them. I see no need for a continuation of this system. The cards only add to the confusion that is caused in households by the amount of material that arrives at election time.
I agree with the Deputy. In my personal experience I can say that polling cards certainly create problems. People do not always realise that although they may not be in possession of a polling card they have the right to vote so long as their names appear on the register. The system of polling cards was introduced some years ago on foot of representations made at the time but it is creating unnecessary problems and needs to be reviewed.
(Cavan-Monaghan): I should like to call a spade a spade and say that polling cards facilitate impersonation wholesale, especially in the cities where people are more anonymous than is the case in the country. However, I am sure the practice is not confined to any particular area.
I thought the Deputy was calling a spade a spade.
We must be careful not to make allegations.
(Cavan-Monaghan): I understand that interested people collect armfuls of these cards in flats throughout the city of Dublin and that they do not collect them for use as souvenirs. Polling cards create confusion in so far as people who do not receive them think they are not entitled to vote. Rule (3) of paragraph 28 provides that a polling card shall be despatched by post and shall be transmitted free of charge by the earliest practicable post. It is provided that if a person fails to receive a polling card he has no complaint and the election is not invalidated. However, the more serious aspect of the polling card system is that it facilitates impersonation. Therefore, I am glad to hear the Minister saying that these matters will be reviewed.
Regarding page 24 and the provisions for polling on the islands does this provision not run counter to the argument made earlier regarding Thursday and Sunday voting?
I do not see how it does.
(Cavan-Monaghan): If the weather was inclement and the returning officer was advised that it would be necessary to vote on the islands on perhaps the Tuesday, would that be in keeping with the EEC regulations?
They will have to vote between Thursday and Sunday on the islands.
(Cavan-Monaghan): Is that irrespective of the weather?
They will surely get a calm moment in between.
(Cavan-Monaghan): I understand that the islands are sometimes stormbound for a fortnight.
They will have to vote between Thursday and Sunday.
(Cavan-Monaghan): It would be a pity if the Minister for Health and Social Welfare were deprived of a vote.
Rule 36 is the rule that deals with the voting of persons in the employment of a local returing officer. In an earlier section it says that the person shall vote in the polling place allotted to him.
We are having an amendment on Report Stage.
(Cavan-Monaghan): I am obliged to the Minister. I want to avail of this opportunity to make a few general remarks about the provision at the end of page 25. Up to comparatively recently—I do not know what “comparatively recently” might be, perhaps ten or 15 years—if a person could not vote himself he had to vote as an illiterate person. Everybody was excluded from the polling booth except those entitled to be there under the rules and the presiding officer voted for the illiterate or incapacitated voter, the person who could not vote for himself. Some years ago, probably 15 or thereabouts, the rules were changed and provision was made under which a person who was not illiterate but who was incapacitated, because he was blind or suffering from arthritis or something like that and could not mark a ballot paper, could vote through what was called a companion. I assume that by a “companion” was meant some relative of his own, somebody who was a genuine companion. This has been grossly abused, especially in institutions where politicians of all sides take the institution by storm and some of them who are not relatives at all bring the voters out and act as companions and vote for them.
There is a provision here in the rule that lays down that the voter may be put on oath or affirmation that he or she is incapacitated and cannot vote. I saw voting through a companion for people who were so far gone that they could not make that affirmation or take that oath because they could not talk. The presiding officer asked them not once but up to ten times "Whom do you want to vote for you?", and eventually the presiding officer got some sort of a hand wave from the invalid in the wheelchair indicating that invalid wanted the person who was pushing the wheelchair to vote for him. That is going too far.
If somebody is incapacitated and being brought from his own house to the polling booth by a relative there is no abuse. The abuse takes place when inmates or patients in an institution are voting. I want to go on record as saying that the way these people are treated is a public disgrace, and it does not matter whether they are so treated by the Minister's party, by my party or by Deputy Kavanagh's party. They are not being treated as human beings. I know too of a person being "retrieved" from a companion on the basis that the voter admitted that he, the voter, was illiterate and the presiding officer then held that he could vote through a companion, but the vote was different from what it would have been voted if the companion had gone about his business properly.
This matter needs to be tightened up very much in regard to institutions where the practices permitted are not in keeping with the dignity of the patients there. We hear a lot of talk now about human dignity, but certainly what these people are subjected to—if they know they are subjected to it, and some of them do not—is not in keeping with human dignity. The machinery in the Act is good enough to ensure that a lot of these companions can be excluded, but that leads to scenes in the polling booths and to rows between the various parties, and this is an unseemly exhibition. I ask the Minister and the officers of his Department to have a look at this now when we are far away from elections and to see that the rules in institutions where old people are living as patients or inmates will be changed and that strict instructions will be given to those in charge of the institutions to see that abuses are not permitted.
Some time ago polling stations were established in mental hospitals for a short time. The result of that was so outrageous that the practice was stopped. The Government of the day amended the regulations, and mental patients are now put on their home register. There is a lot to be said for putting inmates or patients of institutions on their home register. If they are able to go a mile or two miles to the local polling booth they are able to go home if they want to. Of course there are unfortunates who have no home to go to, but if a person's home address is known I strongly recommend that that person should be put on the register of his or her home address. If that person's relations want to bring him or her out to vote that should be allowed. Such a person should act as that person's genuine and proper companion. I feel strongly about this and I have as much experience of it as anybody else. I put it on the record of the House that this is something which needs to be looked into. The only way this can be accurately dealt with is to see that as many of those people as possible are taken off the registers of the institutions where they are and put on the registers of the addresses from where they came into the institutions. That will leave them in touch with their own people.
We are dealing with the item at the bottom of page 25 which carries over to page 26.
I want to refer to the item on page 26 which deals with the illiterate voter. It states here:
the presiding officer shall, in the presence of the personation agents and no other person ....
Does this mean that the poll clerk and the garda are excluded? There have been occasions when a garda would not exclude himself.
And the poll clerk as well?
(Cavan-Monaghan): We are talking about the poll clerk now not the garda.
They are obliged to move away from the part of the room concerned with this. The garda never had any entitlement to remain as far as I know. His function is to maintain peace in the area of the polling booth.
Some of them have actually remained while a paper was being marked for an illiterate.
They should never have remained.
Has the poll clerk to go also in accordance with this provision?
It applies to him.
Has a personation agent for a party any function in this particular instance? He is assigned for a particular reason for his own political party. Is he deprived in this instance from exercising his rights there on behalf of his political party? Will he also be excluded?
No, he can remain to ensure that justice is done. Have we gone to a different page?
We are dealing with the same subject.
I should like to refer to some points made by Deputy Fitzpatrick with regard to assisting an elector or using a companion. I agree that we need to have a look in a general fashion at all the legislation dealing with elections. As the law stands it means that a person or a companion can assist only two electors. An agent of a candidate is not entitled to assist but I suppose all those things are not observed in accordance with the letter of the law. We certainly should have a look at it and see if we can improve the situation.
(Cavan-Monaghan): I was rather surprised to hear that the presiding officer's clerk, the poll clerk, is excluded. He is bound by secrecy and the garda is also bound by secrecy. My experience of elections goes back to 1937. I probably have taken part at elections one way or another since then and certainly the poll clerk is never excluded and neither is the garda excluded when an illiterate voter is voting. That is the practice. It is understandable because the poll clerk is there to assist the presiding officer. He has a function. He reads out the elector's name and marks off the elector's name on the register.
There is another thing which is not generally understood and is not contained in the instructions which go out to presiding officers. It is clear from this Schedule that anything a candidate can do through an agent he can do himself or do with the agent. In other words, if a candidate has somebody to detect personation on his behalf that candidate can be there at the same time. The candidate can be there, rightly or wrongly, when an illiterate voter is voting. It is stated here in black and white that he can do anything which he can do through an agent. That is not generally understood. It is not contained in the book of instructions which goes out to presiding officers presumably from the Custom House. That matter should be clarified.
The poll clerk has always been excluded under the law. Maybe it was not recognised that that was the law. A garda should never have been permitted to remain inside. He has no jurisdiction in that respect at all other than to maintain law in the precincts of polling booths. The garda should never have been permitted to stay inside. Some presiding officers may have presumed that a garda had some right to be there but the garda was never entitled to be there. There might be a case where the polling clerk was concerned, from what the Deputy said, but he was always excluded under the law.
(Cavan-Monaghan): I have no objection at all to the garda being there but the Minister may take it from me that presiding officers all over the country regard the garda as a most important person.
As the Deputy knows, the presiding officer is boss of the job, not the garda.
The illiterate voter voting towards the end of the day can cause quite a lot of confusion if he arrives at 8.40 p.m. and the poll closes at 9 p.m. The presiding officer now can refuse to let him vote if he arrives within the last four hours. That is excessive. One hour would be reasonable but four hours is excessive.
It is identical with the general law governing elections.
Does the Minister not agree that it is excessive?
(Cavan-Monaghan): It has been there for 40 years.
The four hours seems a bit excessive. The rush usually comes during the last couple of hours. There is ample time to deal with an illiterate voter during the last two hours.
(Cavan-Monaghan): I think it is at the discretion of the presiding officer. If he thinks it would interfere with other voters voting or delay the poll unduly he can refuse to let that person vote.
It is optional.
(Cavan-Monaghan): On page 31 I have something underlined here. Rule 48 (1) provides:
Not less than four days before the polling day the local returning officer shall give written notice to each candidate of the time and place at which he will open the postal ballot boxes ....
It is the local returning officer who opens those apparently?
(Cavan-Monaghan): We recognise him in the count to that extent?
On page 41, what is a "spiritual injury"?
Religious threats, I understand.
That is useful to know on occasion.
(Cavan-Monaghan): On page 45, Rule 91 deals with penalties and paragraph (2) provides:
Where a person is guilty of an offence under Rule 78, 85 or 88 of this Schedule, such person shall be liable on summary conviction to a fine not exceeding £100 or, at the discretion of the court, to imprisonment for a period not exceeding three months or to both such fine and such imprisonment.
That seems to be a smaller fine than the fine provided in Rule 91 (1) which reads:
Where a person is guilty of an offence under this Act, other than an offence mentioned in paragraph (2) of this Rule, such person shall be liable,
(a) on summary conviction to a fine not exceeding £500 or, at the discretion of the court, to imprisonment for a period not exceeding six months or to both such fine and such imprisonment, or
(b) on conviction on indictment to a fine not exceeding £1,000 or, at the discretion of the court, to imprisonment for a period not exceeding two years or to both such fine and such imprisonment.
Rule 85 provides for voting through a companion. A breach of that Rule by virtue of Rule 91 is regarded as a lesser offence. An offence by a companion acting in bad faith, or by a companion in whom the unfortunate illiterate or incapacitated voter places his trust, should be treated as a very serious offence and should be taken out of Rule 91 (2) and put into Rule 91 (1) where he would be treated as a person who had committed a serious offence. It seems to be regarding the offence by a companion voter as a small offence or a light offence. I do not think that should be so.
I admit the omission of the name and address of the printer and publisher from the documents, which is the offence under Rule 78, might, in normal circumstances, be regarded as a minor offence, and also the offence under Rule 88 which is the offence of handling a ballot paper which could be accidental or otherwise. I suggest to the Minister that he should bring in an amendment on Report Stage to take an offence under Rule 85 out of Rule 91 (2) and put it into Rule 91 (1) where it would be treated as what it is, a mean, comtemptible, shabby offence.
I agree that kind of offence would be mean. For instance, a companion could be charged with assisting more than two people, with assisting a third person. That offence could not really be regarded as a very serious one or not as serious, we will say, as marking the paper wrongly, in my opinion. There can still be minor offences even by the companion. I suppose we could consider putting it in the higher bracket as well. We will have a look at it.
(Cavan-Monaghan): If he marked more than two ballot papers I would regard him as a professional companion and not a companion within the ordinary sense of the word and he should be put into the category of Rule 91 (1). The District Justice hearing the case would have the discretion to deal with him as he thought he should be dealt with.
We will have a look at it.