(Cavan-Monaghan): I move amendment No. 19:
In page 29, to delete lines 43 to 45, 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 aforesaid.".
These three amendments propose to have the first count in the election conducted locally at a local centre in each county. The Minister, Deputy Kavanagh and I have already had a fairly extensive debate on this. The Minister's proposal is that the entire count, including the opening of the boxes, the checking of the ballot papers against the ballot paper account, and the first count, should take place in a centre in each constituency. This would involve transport of up to a couple of thousand ballot boxes from all over a constituency into one huge counting centre and the recruiting and transport of a greatly augmented staff to the central counting place.
I am not too clear why the Minister insists the entire count should be conducted in a central place, rather than having the first count conducted locally, and then conveying the ballot papers, sorted in bundles under the name of each candidate, in a few boxes to the central place. I cannot understand why the Minister insists on this new departure, because new departure it is. There is no precedent for it in this State.
At a Presidential election the votes are counted in the local constituency and then the ballot papers are brought to Dublin. The first count is conducted in each of the local constituencies and then the ballot papers are brought to the city where the second and subsequent counts, if there are such, are conducted. In the past, on one occasion there was a second count in a Presidential election and it was held in the city of Dublin. The first count was held throughout the country.
The same procedure is followed in referenda. The votes are counted in the local constituencies and the total sent to Dublin with the ballot papers. The ballot papers are sent under an Army escort. That has been the procedure in the past and it has worked well. So far as I am aware there were no complaints about it.
The Minister says he has considered the method in the Bill, that is, to have one counting centre in each constituency, and he has considered the method put forward by me, and supported by Deputy Kavanagh, that is, that the first count should be conducted in each local constituency and the papers forwarded to the centre in each constituency, sorted under the names of the candidates. The Minister concedes either system would work. That is the worst he had to say about it. His information is that his system would work and that the old system worked. My advice is that the Minister's system would work but it would work inefficiently. It would lead to difficulties and possible dangers because it involves rounding up all ballot boxes for the constituency of Connacht-Ulster into one place and then the transfer of about 2,000 boxes to one central place. There may be more than 2,000 boxes in one centre; I am averaging them. A fairly formidable Army escort will have to be provided for those boxes and at the same time a similar escort will have to be found for Dublin city and county, and for the remainder of Leinster and for all Munster. A huge building will have to be found at some centre in each constituency. We know how difficult it is to find a building sufficiently commodious and comfortable in which to conduct the count when there is only a local constituency involved. In this case there will be the greatest difficulty, when the security difficulty has been overcome, of accommodating the count in a suitable building.
There will be the additional difficulty of augmenting the staff by several times to carry out the counting. Staff will have to be recruited from outside constituencies, conveyed to the centre and kept overnight. That cost will have to be borne. As I said, and as emerged from our discussion here today, broadly speaking, within the rules, different returning officers apply the rules in different ways but get the end results right. The same applies to counting. Different returning officers have different approaches; some have two checkers on a box when it is opened; some have three and some four. Some facilitate agents in seeing boxes being opened and checked; others are not so accommodating. There will be a mixed staff with varied experience and different interpretations of the broad rules. Will they be brought in a couple of days beforehand and instructed by the constituency returning officer as to his understanding of how the count should be conducted? If so, will that not lead to further trouble and expense and take people away from their full-time jobs in other counties?
I also made the case earlier—a very real one—about the difficulty in adjudicating on doubtful votes. Usually, there are 200 or 300 spoiled votes in a normal constituency but doubtful votes usually number several times that figure and I suggest there would be at least a couple of thousand in a local constituency. When you multiply that by eight or 11 you find that a huge number of doubtful votes will have to be adjudicated on and investigated. I repeat that only one man can do that. I do not accept that you can have one mind determining what is a valid vote in one county and another deciding what is a valid vote in another county in the same election. One person in the central counting place will have to adjudicate on each doubtful vote, an enormous task which will slow down the count. When the count is over, although there is no great urgency, the ballot boxes will have to be returned, involving more time and money. Therefore, the overall cost of conducting the count in one place will be considerably more than in conducting it locally.
Apart from the difficulties and inefficiency that a central count will involve it is another major step towards centralisation and another major blow at local democracy. Before each election we hear lip service paid to the necessity for people to exercise the franchise. That is made possible by the full co-operation of political parties.
This is sometimes over-enthusiastic, as I complained earlier but you get the people out by maintaining local interest. Fears are being expressed at present that there will not be as much interest as is desirable in the European election. The way to kill interest is to have an impersonal approach and having the count in a central position scores of miles away from parts of the constituency is bound to lead to that. We politicians know how keen is the demand among key workers and political enthusiasts for tickets for the count. They want to be there, see what goes on, see boxes opened and how one town votes as against another, one parish as against another. That will all be out of the question. You will not get people to travel the long distances involved here and if they did travel, you could not accommodate them in the central counting place. That is one of the major objections from the politicians' point of view to the central count.
Deputy Kavanagh, on Committee Stage, raised the very good point that it is quite possible that at some time you will have an Assembly election and a local or other election on the same day. If that happened it is absolutely certain that ballot papers will find their way into the wrong box, that general election papers—if there is a general election—will be put into the Assembly box and the Assembly paper into the Dáil ballot box. If that happens, and even if it is known immediately or shortly after it happens, nothing can be done about it until the boxes are opened because nobody is entitled to open boxes during the count once they have been sealed.
The ballot paper for the Dáil election or the local election, as the case may be, will be hauled miles away and if the Minister has his way the local count will begin immediately and the Assembly count may not take place for several days. When the Assembly ballot boxes are opened it may transpire that Deputy Begley from Kerry has been wrongly eliminated or that one of his county council candidates has been wrongly eliminated because a vote for him was in Cork or some place else instead of in Tralee or Dingle. That is too horrifying to think about. We may laugh about it but there is nothing so important for a person who stands as a candidate in an election as that he should get elected. It is bad enough if he is not elected, but there is nothing so frustrating as to find out a week or three days after the election that not alone was he defeated but that he was defeated when there were still enough votes left to elect him. That man will go down into his grave, decades after, bemoaning that and feeling a sense of grievance because of it.
There is no way that can be avoided if the Minister does what he intends. The Minister complained that in order to avoid that it would be necessary to postpone the local count for perhaps a couple of days because the Assembly count cannot take place until all the elections in the member states have concluded and that those elections might not conclude until the Sunday, whereas it is unlikely that out election would be held later than Thursday. If that is so, it would be much better to delay the local count for a couple of days rather than elect the wrong candidate. I believe that the election should be held here on a Saturday and that all the counts should commence on the following Monday. The Minister knows that it is politically unthinkable that we should tolerate a system here under which two elections can be held on the same day and where the result could be that the wrong candidate could be elected.
Even if the Minister agrees with me and decides to commence the count in each case at the same time but to conduct the counts in different places he will find that it will be necessary to send ballot papers hundreds of miles whereas at present if a mistake is made it is only a matter of sending the ballot paper from one room to another within a building or sending it from the town hall to the courthouse.
The Minister is on record as saying that either system will work. For the purposes of this argument I accept that, although the Minister's system will not work well. It will give rise to all sorts of difficulties. I put it to the Minister that the arguments are overwhelmingly in favour of my system—from the point of view of avoiding a mix-up when two elections are being held on the same day with disastrous results, from the point of view of security in transferring these boxes long distances, perhaps in the midst of winter, from the point of view of recruiting staff for the count and conveying this staff long distances from one end of a constituency to another to the counting place, from the point of view of the enormous task that is involved in adjudicating upon thousands of spoiled votes, and having regard to the fact that the Minister admitted that he had been advised by experienced returning officers that they were in favour of my system but against his.
The Minister argued here today for his system of appointing local returning officers, that he was adhering to his method of giving the constituency returning officer the right to appoint or not to appoint a deputy because he had been advised by an experienced cross-section of people whom he had consulted that that is the way they wanted it. On the last day the Minister admitted that the same people, presumably had advised him that they wanted the count conducted locally, but he is not prepared to accept that. It is beyond me why the Minister holds on so doggedly to this innovation. Innovations are dangerous especially when there is a considerable volume of opinion against them. The Minister is holding on to this innovation against a system that has worked. We try another system invariably to replace a system that has proved faulty or which has disclosed abuses, but we do not usually have an innovation or a new system to replace a system that has worked well. This system has worked well. I have argued in favour of my amendment at some considerable length on Second Stage and on Committee Stage and I am renewing that argument now. I have no doubt that the proper procedure is to hold on to the Presidential system of voting —the tried and approved system, the system that has given satisfaction.