Referendum (Amendment) Bill, 1984: Second Stage.

I move: "That the Bill be now read a Second Time."

This Bill proposes to assist voters at the referendum by making available to them a statement explaining the issue on which they are being asked to vote. It also proposes that the poll at the referendum be taken on the basis of counties and county boroughs instead of Dáil constituencies to facilitate the taking of the Assembly elections on the same day.

The explanatory memorandum circulated with the Bill has dealt fairly fully with the purposes and content of this measure and it does not appear necessary for me to make a lengthy statement on the matter. Briefly, section 1 provides that a polling card, containing the statement set out in the appendix to that section must be sent to every elector, including postal voters. The statement will also be displayed on posters in and in the precincts of polling stations. Presiding officers will be authorised to assist blind, incapacitated and illiterate voters by reading out the statement to them, where necessary, and asking whether they wish to vote in favour of or against the proposal and then marking the ballot paper in accordance with the voters' answers. These arrangements are identical with those made in relation to previous referenda on Bills to amend the Constitution.

Section 2 of the Bill provides for the taking of the poll at the referendum on the basis of counties and county boroughs instead of Dáil constituencies. This change will apply only to the forthcoming referendum and is being made because the referendum is to be held on the same day as the European Assembly election which is being organised on a county and county borough basis. Having the two polls taken by reference to the same area will facilitate the work of the returning officers.

The information arrangements provided for in this Bill are additional to the permanent provisions of the referendum law under which copies of Bills to amend the Constitution are made available in post offices for inspection, free of charge, and for sale at a price not exceeding two-and-a-half pence.

The Bill is a technical one, identical in form with previous similar measures. The important part of the content is the statement set out in the appendix to section 1. I am sure Deputies will find this a reasonable description of the proposal contained in the Ninth Amendment of the Constitution

I commend the Bill to the House.

This Bill deals with matters of long standing practice, one being the issue of polling cards. Another section refers to arrangements for the taking of the poll in county and county boroughs instead of Dáil constituencies which have different boundaries.

On the question of polling cards I am pleased that the Minister is making arrangements to ensure that every voter receives one, but in view of the fact that the European Parliamentary elections will be held on the same day I ask the Minister whether he intends to issue two separate polling cards. To do so would be to involve the State in unnecessary expense. Surely the instructions could be printed on one polling card and delivered on one postal delivery rather than duplicating the effort.

The provision regarding presiding officers is something which is of great interest to me. On a number of occasions I have sought to establish the exact rights of presiding officers when dealing with illiterate voters. I have raised questions previously in the Dáil and have had correspondence with the Department concerned and with the returning officer in the Galway West constituency but have failed to establish the legal position. I would like the Minister to set out in detail the procedures to be followed by presiding officers when an illiterate voter enters the polling booth to cast his vote.

What amount of money will be allocated to the returning officer in each constituency to enable him to carry out the poll in an effective and efficient manner? It has been brought to my notice on a number of occasions that the reason the results are slow in appearing following an election is due to the inadequate number of staff employed by returning officers to carry out the count. The reason for the lack of staff is that the Department do not provide sufficient money to the returning officer to enable him to make adequate provision for a speedy and efficient count. I think it would be in the interest of democracy if the Minister would take a personal interest in this. This might have greater relevance in the event of a general election where the full complexity of the proportional representation system comes into play with the subsequent transferring of votes involving inevitable delays. Where there is only a small counting staff employed the delays will obviously be longer. It surprises me that certain constituencies can produce results much more quickly than others, and there is a need for tidying-up in this area.

Everyone is impressed with election systems in other countries where results are announced almost as soon as the poll is over. We have had occasions in my time in the House where results have still not been received seven days after election day. That was the famous long count in Longford-Westmeath. I am not talking about that in particular because it was exceptional, but it is not exceptional to have counts going on for two days. This should not be allowed to continue, especially when one considers the rigours of an election campaign and the time and effort involved by the personnel concerned. It is not right that once the poll is over and the counting starts it will take another 48 hours before the work is completed. This does not make sense. If it is not possible to have a mechanical voting system, which obviously will not be possible for some years, we do have a sufficient number of unemployed who could be available to count votes. They would be very pleased to have a day's work counting votes. As it is, a small staff are involved in a long count over an extended period of time and when they become tired the returning officer is obliged to adjourn the count. It would make more sense if a larger number of staff were employed initially and in this way the results would be known earlier. We would also be seen to be capable of providing quick and efficient results.

In the forthcoming European elections which will take place over the same period other member countries will be holding their elections at the same time. It will look strange to them if the Irish votes take longer to be counted. It is not beyond our capacity to have the votes counted quickly but the underfinancing of this important aspect of the election process is the cause of the slow returns. The niggardly attitude which has prevailed in the Department of Finance or in the Minister's own Department is the cause. It is wrong and there should be a rethink from those concerned.

In the event of both elections being held on the same day would the Minister inform us whether two separate ballot boxes will be provided? If not, there will be confusion in separating the referendum votes from the European election votes, which will be of a different colour. Would it not be more sensible, if the referendum votes are counted in the county constituency, that arrangements be made that the vote in each county also be counted at the same centre and the results sent to the returning officer at whatever centre point this officer is located? The returning officer could then make the tot from each county rather than transfer all these votes after they have been brought to an assembly point in each county, checked, the ballot count carried out and then sent to a central point where the actual votes will be counted. It seems a cumbersome and unnecessary exercise. If the staff were all assembled under one roof with an official in charge it would make sense to proceed with the counting of the European Parliament election votes at the same location rather than having a fleet of transport travelling around huge constituencies — for example, the Connacht-Ulster constituency. It is ludicrous to think of all these little boxes from all these little polling stations being brought to a centre point in the county, being checked there and then being transferred to a counting centre. It boggles the mind to think that we cannot carry out this exercise more efficiently and speedily and I ask the Minister for his comments.

I ask the Minister whether presiding officers at polling stations on 14 June will be entitled to cast their vote at their officiating station. I understand that on a previous occasion presiding officers were denied that opportunity and were therefore obliged to leave their officiating station to travel to their home station where they were registered. It meant in effect that they were denied their personal vote. This occurred because the Department did not make the necessary provision. I trust that provision will be made in advance to ensure that the same thing does not happen at the forthcoming elections. I ask the Minister to confirm that?

I thank the Minister for making the necessary arrangements, which will assist the voters. It is very important that poll cards should be issued and we do not consider it an unnecessary expense. Unfortunately some people think that if they do not receive a poll card they are not entitled to vote. The percentage of such people is very small but it has caused some confusion over the years and therefore I suggest that when the Minister is placing advertisements covering the elections he should make it quite clear to the electorate that polling cards are merely for the guidance of registered voters and are not in themselves an entitlement to vote. The entitlement is contained in the actual registration itself. I will come back later to the role of presiding officers when dealing with illiterate voters.

I would like to thank Deputy Molloy for his helpful remarks on this very short Bill. He made a number of interesting observations. The first one was whether there would be one or two polling cards. As he suggested there will be one polling card so that there will not be any confusion and there will be a saving by having one polling card referring to the two elections. In my opening remarks I said that presiding officers will be authorised to assist blind, incapacitated and illiterate voters by reading out the statement to them where necessary and asking them whether they wish to vote in favour or against the proposal and then marking the ballot paper in accordance with the voters answers. The Deputy may wish to know the even more detailed requirements for a presiding officer when dealing with illiterate voters. If he would allow me to give him the relevant information by post I will send it to him.

That will not do because I have failed to get it by letter on so many occasions and failed to get it by parliamentary question. This is the only opportunity I have to get the Minister to state what the law on this matter is.

I assure the Deputy it is spelled out in law. I hope my officials can provide me with the law but I do not know how extensive it will be. I would like to tell him that it is part of the law and is usually part of the booklet sent out to every presiding officer in each area and this gives him his duties in carrying out the vote on that particular day. There is not any great secret about it.

I will come back to it on the section.

We know a lot of things about this. The Deputy and I have been in many elections. With regard to inadequate staff at counts there are occasions when it struck me, particularly when the count for my constituency was usually the last in. It was for many years a three-seat constituency. I have to agree with the Deputy that I often thought there was an inadequate number at the count. I find now that this is not the fault of the Minister for the Environment where finance is concerned. It is the Department of Finance who make money available for elections and in that respect the money provided has to be divided among all the various constituencies on the basis of the number of seats and the number of electors in the particular area.

We are dealing with a very complicated form of elections in the single transferable vote system. That requires a great deal of accuracy in checking. Some of us on the outside of the count often cause delays by demanding that every vote be scrutinised very closely. Obviously, with the multiplicity of figures on a voting paper there can be some problems in that respect. In recent elections the number has been increased at the count stations and the results have been a little speedier. In the past there were some very long delays basically because of an insufficient number of counters in the count centres. I accept that the single transferable votes system is a slow system to count and cannot be compared with the single vote system in Britian or the mechanical methods of voting on the Continent or in the USA.

There is the requirement to have the EEC count centre in one area in the constituency but there will be one ballot box into which all the papers will be put from the referendum and the European Assembly elections. These will be sorted out in the constituencies of the county boroughs in which the referendum votes will be counted. I said on the European Assembly Elections Bill that there will be an opportunity when this sorting process is carried out for observers to see the face of the ballot paper and to make — as they usually do — a very close assessment of what way the count is going. This will take some of the tension out of having to wait until the following Monday or Tuesday to find out what the eventual result of the European election will be. Counting for this particular referendum will obviously take place in the county boroughs the morning after the polling stations close and that result will probably interest a lot of people while they are waiting for the European election count to take place. I will see if it is possible to give the Deputy a little more information on the presiding officer situation.

Question put and agreed to.
Agreed to take remaining Stages today.