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.