I want to ask the Minister about the instructions given to presiding officers. In the booklet which is sent from the Minister's Department I understand that the instruction says that when an illiterate voter enters a polling station to cast his vote the presiding officer has to make sure that certain persons are not present in the polling station and he clears the polling station. The instruction says that the only person entitled to be present is the presiding officer. If that is so what is the status of the poll clerk and what is the status of a member of the Garda Síochána who is present in the polling station for the purpose of maintaining the peace?
Referendum (Amendment) Bill, 1984 Committee and Final Stages.
Under section 75 of the Electoral Act, 1963, the provisions are as follows:
...the presiding officer shall, in the presence of the personation agents (if any) and no other person, cause the vote of the voter to be marked on a ballot paper in the manner directed by the voter and shall forthwith place the ballot paper so marked in the ballot box.
That has been read outad nauseam and the interpretation any ordinary person will put on that is that the poll clerk is not entitled to be present in the polling station and has to leave. I have asked these questions and the Minister has not answered them yet. What is the role of the Garda Sióchána? Can the presiding officer instruct a member of the Garda Sióchána to leave the polling station? Does he put his clerk outside the door?
They have to move from the voting area. That may mean in a very large hall where there are several booths that they move to an area where the conversation is not overheard. The agents from the various political parties would be allowed to remain and listen to the presiding officer asking the illiterate voter what he requires done.
I am not talking about a large hall. I am talking about a country school-house where they are in the room. There is a polling station there. The presiding officer and the poll clerk are appointed by the returning officer and I take it that they have some standing in law. The member of the Garda Síochána is there for his purposes and each candidate is entitled to have an agent present. As the instruction is written, if an illiterate voter comes in to vote the presiding officer must instruct the poll clerk and the member of the Garda Sióchána to leave the polling station. What is the point in having poll clerks if they are not allowed to remain in the polling station when the vote is being cast?
Section 75 of the Electoral Act, 1963, states that no person other than the presiding officer and the agents for the parties may be in the polling station when the vote is cast for an illiterate voter. If that is adhered to strictly, they will be the only people allowed to remain in the polling station.
Does the Minister think that instruction is reasonable? This has been causing some concern in my constituency where a large number of illiterate voters participate in the election process. There is also a problem with regard to language because a large part of the constituency is in the Gaeltacht and it is not always the case that the presiding officer is fluent in the language. Problems can arise in regard to that matter. For whatever reason, there is a high percentage of illiterate voting — or "shout" voting, as it is called. If that rule is to be applied rigidly I could see a situation arising where it might not be possible to carry out the poll. If that procedure were adopted it could take five or ten minutes for each illiterate voter to cast his vote and this could lead to a large queue of voters. If a number of illiterate voters came to the polling station at 6 p.m. there would be no hope of all of them casting their vote. To my mind, the instruction is not reasonable: to tell the truth, it is daft.
To my knowledge it was never applied up to the time of a recent election in County Galway where it caused consternation. When the returning officer was called from his office in Galway to the polling station where the rule was being interpreted and applied in the fashion as enunciated, he was surprised at the interpretation put on it by the presiding officer. He consulted the Department and was told that what was in the instructions was in the instructions and he was told to interpret them for himself. He could not get a clear indication from the officials or the Minister as to whether the presiding officer was within his rights. The instruction, as read by the Minister to the House, cannot be intrepreted in any way other than the presiding officer must remove the poll clerk and the member of the Garda Síochána. Only the presiding officer may be present. If that is to be applied rigidly in every polling station in my constituency on the next occasion it will cause absolute havoc, as it did previously in the polling station I mentioned.
There is more to this than meets the eye. It was used by members of a political party in that area who had very little support. It was used as a device by their election agent to disrupt the voting of people whom it was well known would not vote for that party. It was a device that was employed to try to intimidate those people from casting their vote and in some cases it intimidated them to the extent that people were reluctant to cast their vote because of the attitude that was adopted. I am amazed the Minister is standing over the instruction and I ask him to change it.
I wish to support Deputy Molloy. A poll clerk has duties and obligations laid down which are known to him. Is there anything in the Act or in the instructions deriving from the Act that states how these duties are to be performed in the absence of the poll clerk? It is simple enough if there is only one individual involved but in the circumstances mentioned by Deputy Molloy there could be five or six such people one after another, thus delaying the proceedings. In those circumstances who performs the duties and obligations of the poll clerk in his absence?
The instruction is clear under the Act. If objections are raised the presiding officer has to clear the polling area, whether it be a single room or a larger area, of all but the agents for the parties. They are the only people allowed by law to remain.
Who carries out the duties of the poll clerk?
He has to be removed as well as the garda.
In that event, who will carry out his duties?
The poll clerk does not have statutory duties. His job is to assist the presiding officer.
He has statutory duties. What is he doing there otherwise?
He is assisting the presiding officer.
His duties must be laid down.
They are not. His job is to assist the presiding officer and this has been accepted for many years.
It is being challenged now.
The only way it can be rectified is to amend the 1963 Act.
It looks like that.
The provisions of that Act have been accepted in many general elections. I accept some of the criticisms made about the situation. There was an easement in the Act to allow companions to vote for people who were incapacitated or who had bad sight and this was a considerable help. However, for the illiterate voter there remains the qualification that the presiding officer must clear the polling area of all but the agents.
It does not make sense. In the case of a physically incapacitated person, a companion can go with him or her and mark the ballot paper but this cannot be done for an illiterate voter. The instructions as laid down in the booklet from which the Minister read——
I read from the Act.
The instructions are interpreting what the Act says, that only the presiding officer can remain. If a candidate does not have an election agent present there is nobody to observe what the presiding officer is doing. Even the garda cannot remain to ensure that the ballot paper is marked according to the intention of the illiterate voter.
That was never the job of the garda.
The job of the garda is to ensure that what he observes is the law being complied with in all cases. What other purpose could he have in being there?
That is the job of the presiding officer.
I cannot accept as reasonable that the presiding officer would have the authority to instruct the poll clerk and the officer of the Garda Síochána to leave. I am sure that in his heart the Minister must be very surprised that this is so. I doubt if he was fully aware of the implications until I brought them out now.
I was not aware of them.
If the Minister would indicate that this is news to him, as it was to many of us when it happened at the last election, and if he will give an assurance that he will make the necessary changes to ensure this will not happen in future we will be quite pleased to let the matter go and move to the next item. However, unless we get some positive response from the Minister it will be very difficult for us in a lot of the western constituencies to face the next election now that this device is being used.
I should like to tell the Deputy that he is right. It is not because I am sitting on this side of the House as Minister for the Environment that I have every section of the electoral Acts in my head but I accept that it is the practice in most polling stations that the presiding officer and the poll clerk remain when illiterate voters are casting their votes. The position is that if somebody challenges that situation under the law then only the agents and the presiding officer must remain. I have never heard of it happening in my constituency but that is the law. I will consider what the position of the poll clerk should be. In the Act his position is to assist the presiding officer but whether the poll clerk should have a statutory position in the polling station is a matter for consideration.
What is the role of the Garda officer?
The role of the Garda officer is to come to the assistance of the presiding officer if the presiding officer feels he needs such assistance. If a problem arises or if there is some truculence in the polling station and the presiding officer feels he cannot handle it he is entitled to call on the member of the Garda to assist him in carrying out his duties in the polling station. We all accept that a garda of his own volition cannot interfere in the carrying out of the poll or the marking of ballot papers, it must be the presiding officer who requires and requests his assistance.
If the presiding officer is a political animal he can ensure that his action will not be observed by the member of the Garda Síochána because he has the authority to tell the garda to leave the polling station. As we now see, he also has the power to tell the poll clerk to leave the polling station. In fact, he can proceed to do the devil and all while he has those two people outside the door. There is nobody to observe him except an agent but agents are not always present. Surely the electoral system here operated by the Government of the day should not be dependent on the presence of a candidate's agent to ensure that the procedures are proper and correct and are adhered to in all cases. It would seem to make sense that the necessity for having two persons in an official capacity at the polling station is to ensure that one can observe what the other is doing, and that one can report if the other is acting improperly.
While those two people are outside the room with an illiterate voter inside the polling station I can visualise a situation where large numbers of the ballot papers would be drifting down into the ballot box at a hell of a rate. That would not be observed by anybody other than an illiterate voter who in many cases might not be quick enough to understand what was going on. The Irish voting system can be seen now to be open to all sorts of hookey carry-on. Now that this has come to light the Minister should give an assurance to the House that he is concerned about this. It is an extraordinary admission for the Minister to have to make — I recognise that he was honest enough in making it — that it seems that many of the votes cast by illiterate voters here in the past were illegally cast because the provisions of the law were not adhered to if the law states that the poll clerk was not entitled to be present. The Minister has admitted that to his knowledge the poll clerk has remained in almost all cases where an illiterate person was casting his or her vote. Now we see that that is illegal and that the official should not have remained. What is the status of the votes cast on behalf of such illiterate people by presiding officers? We are getting into an extraordinary contortion if one follows the strict interpretation of the instructions and the Act.
The Minister is correct in saying that this idea of having these officials removed from the polling stations was never implemented. I have been participating and helping in elections for the last 25 years and it was only on the occasion of the last general election that I observed this provision being availed of. It was availed of for a very vindictive reason. It was part of an organised campaign by the Fine Gael Party in the Galway West constituency to create difficulty for elderly illiterate voters who were known not to be of their persuasion that this device was thought up and used rigidly. It brought the presence of the Superintendent of the Garda and the returning officer to the area. It was the cause of many phone calls to Dublin and general confusion was created.
That was the deliberate intention of the people behind the use of this device. To a certain extent they may have succeeded. Certainly, many of the voters I met felt imtimidated by this action. I appeal to the Minister, in the interests of fair play and now that this matter has been exposed, to inform the House that he will agree to amend the law and restore the position to what it has always been, that the poll clerk will remain to observe what his presiding officer is doing, to assist him and to be in a position to give evidence in the event of anything untoward happening. An officer of the Garda Síochána should, if he decides it is proper for him to do so, be allowed to remain in a polling station. Nobody should have the power to have him removed particularly when there is the anomaly whereby any citizen can go in with a physically incapacitated voter but a citizen may not go in with an illiterate voter. Why is so much made of the distinction between them? It does not make sense. It is our job to ensure that common sense is seen to apply in all cases and that if we come across such anomalies they are changed. It is better to make such changes now in the calm of a referendum which is non-contentious and a European election which is held in huge constituencies and may not raise blood temperatures to the same extent that a Dáil election may with a big number of candidates contesting in smaller constituencies. I appeal to the Minister to give an indication that he will remove this anomaly from the system.
I would not like the impression to go abroad that returning officers for constituencies are in any way slack about the people they select as presiding officers. I insist that presiding officers are usually people chosen because political parties over successive elections accept that they carry out their duties in a fair and honest manner. Presiding officers can be objected to if they are known to be politically biased one way or another or if it is suspected beforehand that they may do something in favour of one party or another which is not in keeping with the law. It would be unwise of us to say that the results of elections in the past may have been somewhat askew because of the provision referred to by Deputy Molloy. That provision is contained in the 1963 Act which was introduced by the Deputy's party and it has remained unchanged since. I will look at the problem but I do not think it will necessarily be solved by saying that the garda and the poll clerk should remain. The Deputy may feel that it would meet the problem he encountered in his area. I will look at it to see if that is necessary. It is unclear to most Deputies why poll clerks have to leave their polling areas when they are challenged.
In case the Minister may have thought I was casting a slur on any presiding officer and that I was referring to a situation in the Galway West constituency, I wish to point out that I was not casting any slur on that presiding officer who was seriously embarrassed at having to interpret the law in the strict sense, and it had never been interpreted in that way before. The presiding officer was a first-class official in the last general election. It was the election agent for the Fine Gael candidate who insisted that the presiding officer interpret the law in that way, the way in which it was written. The presiding officer then had to remove the people I am complaining of. I have said the whole thing was part of a political attempt to cause as much confusion and difficulty as possible in an area where the voting strength was strongly against Fine Gael. These tactics do not do anything for democracy and, in the long run, they did not do anything for Fine Gael in that area.
I am asking the Oireachtas, through the Minister, to make the necessary changes to ensure that that kind of interpretation will not have to be made in future so that people will not be susceptible to the whims of vindictive election agents who want to create as much difficulty as possible. This law had never been interpreted in this way previously and the validity of the votes cast by all illiterate voters in the past must come into question, even on the Minister's admission. Can I take it from what he has said that he will have a look at this and that he will take power to remove the anomalies from the instructions as they are written at present?
I will give that assurance. I will have a look at it and I am sure I will have the guidance of Deputy Molloy and others in the House.
The Minister said it is the Minister for Finance who controls the moneys made available to returning officers. From the Estimates of the Department of the Environment I understand provision is made there for payments to returning officers.
It is controlled by the Minister for Finance.
Are payments made directly by the Department of Finance to the returning officers? I understand this expenditure is shown in the Estimates of the Department of the Environment.
For local elections the local authorities raise their own moneys.
I take it that the returning officer for the referendum would be an official of the Department of the Environment.
No, it would be the county registrars. The constituency returning officers will be the registrars in each constituency but the national returning officer will be an official of my Department.
I am not sure whether the Minister is correct. Surely the Minister for Finance does not play any part in the making of arrangements for the holding of polls. The instructions are issued by the Minister for the Environment.
We have now left the financing and have gone to control and organisation. I said the financing is under the control of the Minister for Finance but the arrangements would be made by an officer of my Department.
Is the Minister saying that the Minister for Finance makes direct arrangements with the returning officers, that he makes arrangements for the payments?
The Minister for Finance makes out an order making the charge for each electoral area.
It is obvious that whatever the Minister for Finance decides in regard to money is based on requests and information made available to him by the Department of the Environment. Therefore, I urge the Minister to implement his own suggestions. I hope he will consider the criticism I made that inadequate finance is being made available to the returning officers if they are to arrange to have elections carried out quickly and efficiently, which would be to the benefit of democracy. I hope he will take some action.