I move: "That the Bill be now read a Second Time."
One of the great strengths of our Constitution is its powerful democratic base. The Constitution acknowledges that all powers of Government derive from the people whose right it is to designate the rulers of the State and, in final appeal, to decide all questions of national policy. At the refenda on 3 December the people will exercise this prerogative in relation to the three vital issues which this House has been debating. The purpose of this Bill is to contribute in a modest way towards ensuring that the decision of the people will be informed and effective.
The Bill proposes to assist voters at the referenda on the Twelfth, Thirteenth and Fourteenth Amendments of the Constitution by making available to them a statement relating to the proposals which are the subject of the referenda and by providing for headings on the ballot papers in order to help distinguish between them.
The explanatory memorandum sets out the purpose and contents of the Bill. Briefly, section 1 provides that a special polling card, containing the statement set out in the Appendix to that section, will be sent to every elector. There will be a single polling card relating to all three referenda. A copy of the statement will also be sent to each postal and special voter. The statement will be displayed in and in the precincts of polling stations. Presiding officers will be authorised to assist blind, incapacitated and illiterate voters by reading out this statement to them, where necessary, and marking the ballot papers in accordance with the voters' instructions.
The statement for the information of voters which is contained in the Appendix to section 1 of the Bill sets out, in terms which are as clear, simple and direct as possible, the proposals which are the subject of the referenda. The statement, in Irish and in English, simply quotes the words which the three Constitution Bills propose to insert in the Constitution with the minimum of associated wording. I am sure the House will agree that this is the correct approach and that it would be inappropriate to attempt to paraphrase or interpret the proposed constitutional amendments.
The arrangements proposed in section 1 are the same as those made in relation to the referendum in June of this year and, indeed, at all previous referenda.
A further step to aid voters in distinguishing between the ballot papers at the forthcoming referenda is proposed at section 3 of the Bill. This section provides that a heading be printed on each ballot paper indicating the proposal to which the ballot paper relates.
Experience has shown that where two or more polls are taken on the same day, the proportion of spoilt ballot papers tends to increase sharply. One of the reasons for this is probably that some electors may have difficulty in distinguishing between the separate proposals. In a single nationwide poll the proportion of rejected papers is normally somewhat less than 1 per cent.
Where two or more ballot papers are involved the proportion tends to increase quite substantially to 2 or 3 per cent or even higher. This is particularly so in the case of referenda where there is nothing other than the short title of the relevant Constitution Bill together with the colour of the paper to distinguish one ballot paper from another.
On this occasion there will be three separate ballot papers. In order to reduce the risk of a high number of spoilt papers the Government decided that a further distinguishing feature should be included on the ballot papers. I am sure the House will agree that it is proper to do so and that the inclusion of a descriptive heading on each paper, as proposed by section 3, is the most appropriate arrangement.
I would have to say that this is not a novel proposal. In 1979 when two proposals to amend the Constitution were put to the people on the same day provision was made for the inclusion of distinguishing headings on the ballot papers. In section 3 we are following this precedent.
The provision, along with the measures I have already mentioned, will help electors distinguish between the three separate proposals and should ensure that the number of spoilt ballot papers will be kept to the minimum.
The purpose of the headings is to distinguish between the ballot papers and to provide a signpost to the subject matter to which each relates. I believe the headings proposed fulfil this purpose. The headings have no significance other than as an aid to electors in distinguishing between the three ballot papers. The actual questions on which the electors will be invited to vote are the proposals contained in the Constitution Bills as passed by both Houses.
Section 2 of the Referendum (Amendment) Act, 1992, provided that a statement for the information of voters at a referendum may be prescribed by resolution of both Houses of the Oireachtas. The statement prescribed in section 1 of this Bill could, therefore, be so prescribed. However, it was considered appropriate to include it in this Bill, which is required in any event in order to provide for the descriptive headings on the ballot papers. Section 2 of the Bill, therefore, provides that section 2 of the Referendum (Amendment) Act, 1992, shall not apply in relation to these referenda.
The Bill is a brief technical measure, following the general pattern of corresponding measures at previous referenda. It fulfils a useful function in providing the electorate with objective, factual information which will assist them in making a rational and informed decision on these important questions. It further assists them by providing for clear, easily understood headings and labels on the ballot papers in order to distinguish between them. I commend the Bill to the House.