My colleague has stolen my line. The white smoke is the smoke of truth and, while we may not burn ballot papers on this occasion, we will mark them with a pencil because of the mess this Government has made of the system and the €50 million it wasted on e-voting. This time, we want democracy to be followed openly, transparently and with the maximum involvement of the people. However, the Government is holding back on dissolving the Dáil until the very last minute in the hope that something will happen to help it win the people's favour and has turned its face away from holding the election on a day that would allow the maximum numbers to vote. This Bill, together with the motion being discussed in the Seanad tomorrow night, seeks to compel the Government to hold the election on a day that benefits democracy rather than one which suits its purposes.
The Taoiseach said he favours Thursday voting for the general election, yet he did not explain why he fears Friday voting when it is clear that it benefits voters. In 1999, the European and local elections were held on a Thursday and had a turnout of 50%. However, when the 2004 European and local elections were held on a Friday, turnout rose dramatically to 58.58%. Given that the number of voters increases by one sixth when polling is held on a Friday, it is clear that a return to Thursday voting is motivated by party political concerns and an attempt to disenfranchise thousands.
Fine Gael is committed to ensuring that all those entitled to vote are given the maximum opportunity to do so. The Electoral (Amendment) (No. 2) Bill which we are bringing before the Dáil tonight will help to do this by only allowing national elections to be held on Fridays, Saturdays or Sundays. This Bill forces all parties, especially those on the Government benches, to put up or shut up by either supporting our Bill or explaining why they want to effectively disenfranchise thousands.
The Taoiseach has already signalled that weekend voting is preferable for young people by holding the second Nice referendum on a Saturday. It would be beyond hypocrisy for him and his Fianna Fáil colleagues to now consider Thursday voting, especially when he said at the time that Saturday brings students home from the enormous number of third level colleges in the country and many other people around the country who work all week and return to their constituencies at the weekend. When pressed on whether young people were apathetic and if it was beneficial to have a Saturday election he stated:
This should help them. Young people, particularly the students' unions, and others have continually said that they need to be facilitated [...] By giving them a Saturday, it gives people an opportunity to come out.
The Taoiseach should listen to his own words. Saturday voting gives young people and those who work all week an opportunity to vote. Thursday voting will deny thousands of students and young professionals who must travel home to their constituencies that opportunity. Fine Gael is committed to ensuring this does not happen.
In discussing this Bill, Fianna Fáil and the Progressive Democrats should look to our European partners. A 2004 report from the Electoral Reform Society revealed that weekend voting takes place in Austria, Belgium, Finland, Greece, Luxembourg, Portugal, Spain and Sweden and France. Does the Minister honestly believe the massive 85% turnout in last weekend's presidential election in France would have been replicated if it had been held last Thursday?
There are 650,000 people in Ireland aged between 19 and 28, and we must ensure that each of these voters is actively encouraged to vote and given the opportunity to do so. With 37% of our population under the age of 25, compared to the EU average of 25%, Ireland has one of the youngest populations in the EU. We have only had one general election in the past decade, which means that most people under the age of 30 have, at most, voted in only one general election.
Unfortunately the records show that in 2002 many potential young first-time voters either chose not to vote or were not able to vote on election day. Some 40% of young people who failed to vote cited being away from home on polling day or not being registered as a reason.
The problem for so many young people of not being able to come home to their constituency on polling day is something we can do something about immediately. Changing polling day from a weekday to the weekend would have a significant impact on voter turnout. Fine Gael believes that voting on Saturday instead of Friday would result in increased turnout at all age levels.
The overriding priority when choosing a suitable day for voting should be facilitating voters to maximise turnout. Approximately 400,000 people between the ages of 18 and 24 will have the opportunity to participate in choosing a Government for the first time in May. They are the decision-makers of the future, and holding the election at the weekend would give them the greatest opportunity to partake in the political process and have their voices heard.
The issue is that thousands of young people, not just students, live away from home, as well as others who are not so young, including those who must travel to work. There is a cycle in the working week, and it is very clear that it ends on a Friday. People go home on that day. If one works in the city, one returns to the countryside. Friday is a critical day in everyone's life, and that is true not only for students but for commuters. Hundreds of thousands must get up at 6 a.m. to travel to the cities to work. Many of them, thousands more than five years ago, do not return home until late at night. Many, because of congestion, a lack of proper planning and poor spatial strategy, will not return home until 8 p.m. or 9 p.m.
I am sure the Minister finds in his constituency that party workers cannot start canvassing at 7 p.m. as they used to, since they are not home. Even if they knocked on doors at that time, many people would not be in. In particular to facilitate commuters and acknowledge their work cycle, the weekend is the time to encourage them to vote, regardless of the outcome — Fianna Fáil, Fine Gael or whatever — since as a group such people have no party political affiliation. We need a majority of people to come out and vote on election day for the new Government. We must facilitate that, and the Government cannot be allowed to renege on what it did for the Nice referendum and the last election held in this State, which was on a Friday.
While we are dealing specifically with weekend voting, much more needs to be done to make the electoral process smoother. Many voters are deeply concerned that their right to participate in the upcoming general election might be denied, as they are likely to be away at some stage during the months of May and June. The principle of allowing citizens to exercise their franchise by way of postal votes is now well recognised. It already exists for gardaí, the diplomatic service, and members of the Defence Forces. It is interesting to note that recent legislation passed by the Oireachtas allows prisoners the right to vote by way of postal ballot, something with which we all agree. Since the principle of postal voting exists for prisoners, why should others be excluded if they have a genuine reason and can prove that they will be out of the country at the time?
Where voters can show a local authority that they have purchased aircraft tickets or must travel, the right of voting by way of a postal vote could easily be extended to them. Alternatively, the voter could vote before the date of the poll at a designated centre or local authority building in his or her constituency. Imagination is required, and given the flexibility that other EU states show in allowing people to vote by post, we should make it easier for people to participate fully in the democratic process.
I congratulate the organisers of the Rock the Vote campaign, who have done much to encourage young people to vote. That campaign was inspired by the shambolic handling of the electoral register by the Government parties. Fine Gael believes that automatic registration of all citizens on their 18th birthday through the PPS system is the best way to ensure everyone who wants to vote has a chance to do so. We are totally committed to an electoral commission and a rolling register updated each month so that any changes are automatically included and our turnout is much more credible.
I remind everyone of the findings of the Democracy Commission in its recent report. Over a 25-year period, turnout in Irish general elections has dropped from 76% in 1977 to around 63% in 2002. In Ireland just over 40% of young adult respondents aged 18 to 19, and only 53% of those aged 20 to 24, indicated they had voted in the 2002 general election. In the 1999 local and European elections, almost 67% of young people did not vote. I will quote the Commission:
It would be wrong...to assume that apathy and a lack of interest lie behind low youth turnout. The Commission's findings show that of non voters in the 20-24 age category, 47% didn't vote because of procedural obstacles (‘not registered', ‘away' ‘no polling card') as opposed to the 39% who didn't vote due to ‘no interest', ‘disillusionment', ‘lack of information/knowledge' and ‘my vote would make no difference'.
The Government is directly responsible for the low turn-out among young people, and the decision to hold the next election on a Thursday only adds to the problem.
My colleague Senator McHugh recently forwarded a petition on the issue to the Taoiseach's office. An election held on a Thursday will disenfranchise many people, but particularly students attending universities in the North, who are not eligible for a postal vote, and Senator McHugh's petition highlights the substantial level of support against the move.
One of the best barometers of inclusiveness in a society is turnout on election day. However, thousands of young people attending college, along with those who live away from home but would still prefer to vote in the place of their upbringing, will effectively be disqualified from casting their ballot if the Fianna Fáil leader fulfils his pledge to hold the election on a Thursday. It is especially grievous for young people attending universities in Northern Ireland, who are not entitled to a postal vote.
I remind the Government that Fianna Fáil's Senator O'Rourke stated in the Seanad this week that she would urge the Fianna Fáil parliamentary party to oppose Thursday voting. I wish her more power and success. If the Taoiseach is serious about democracy, he must ensure that all those entitled to vote enjoy the right and opportunity to do so.
This is likely to be the last Private Members' business of this Dáil. It is a great shame that this issue is even the subject of such discussion. The Government is running away from encouraging young people to vote. It is unacceptable that we should operate under a system whereby a Government may manipulate the date and day of an election to bolster its faltering prospects. We do not expect Government support for this Bill, but relish the opportunity to enact it when the people have had their say and we have the chance to serve them. That the Government will be driven from office is a fact.
There is a very strong view outside this House in favour of change. We want the vast majority of people to be given the opportunity to cast their ballot to change the Government. By frustrating the precedent of Friday voting set by the last election held in the State, the Government shows that it is afraid to face the music. However, it cannot dodge the inevitable, and the Taoiseach cannot get out of naming an election day. When the pinn luaidhe come out, we will wish to ensure the young people of this State have a major say in what happens.