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Dáil Éireann debate -
Thursday, 7 Apr 2022

Vol. 1020 No. 7

Electoral Reform Bill 2022: Second Stage (Resumed)

Question again proposed: "That the Bill be now read a Second Time."

I am glad the Minister is here. I compliment him again on his industriousness since he became Minister. He has piled really constructive Bills into the House and passed them. He has been flexible in accepting meaningful and sensible amendments and suggestions when they come forward, either from his own side or from the Opposition. I can spend an hour speaking on this, as I am sure any Deputy could, so I will narrow the focus.

There is a lovely council official called Sean McNally who used to call to my door in pre-Covid days, usually during the summer, after working hours, to check the register. As the Minister knows, that has not happened in a few years. I was in touch with the local residents' association in the last months. It had formed a new executive and checked the register. This is for the officials who are listening. Five of the six people newly elected to the executive, who wanted to work on behalf of the residents' association, were not registered. They would not have had the opportunity and there was not a register check over the preceding period. We are dealing, as the Minister knows from the Custom House, with a seriously outdated electoral register. That is the first point I want to make and reinforce, which has probably been made already. That happened through no fault of their own. There was a significant change and turnover in houses in that estate over the three-year period.

How will we tackle apartments and access to apartments? I would say to the officials who are taking notes and to the Minister that canvassing is part and parcel of the electoral process here. The more gated and sealed-off developments we have, the more inaccessible they are, and it becomes impossible to reach constituents. How do census enumerators in Dublin get in to check these apartments and obtain the information that is so valuable for planning? Many of these developments are managed and pay maintenance fees. There is very little recourse to the local authority, but they have recourse to the national Government. It is simply impossible to reach these people in these closed, electronically gated apartment complexes. We need to find some way to enable politicians of all hues to exercise their democratic right in seeking the votes of the public and to enable these people to have their democratic right to exercise their franchise at election time.

We take many things for granted. There is a term that I use in the warmest possible sense, though I know some people use it pejoratively, "foreigners". I notice in local elections that a substantial number of central and eastern European and non-European residents in Ireland who are entitled to vote in local elections are simply not aware of that right, because the State keeps them in the dark. It never makes any effort to inform them that they are entitled to cast a vote, at least locally, which we need to change. A couple of thousand people in my constituency do not even recognise that they have the franchise. That is a big job for the electoral commission. Language is clearly an issue there. Information needs to be produced in multilingual formats. It is also a matter of just bothering to let people know that they can cast a vote and have a say in the locality.

We take voting for granted here. A Russian friend of mine came here in the 2000s, settled, became a citizen and was very excited to cast their first vote. My friend expressed surprise after filling out the ballot paper that we use a pencil, which is provided to mark the register. It took a second for the penny to drop with me. The implication was that if you marked the numbers 1, 2 and 3, down to 10 or 12, with a pencil, it was possible to erase that. That was the culture from which my friend had come. That would never have struck an Irish person. It could be an off-putting thing for non-Irish people who become citizens here as part of the new Irish. Someone told me that when others exercise their franchise on the ballot paper, if they just vote 1, 2 and 3, they fill all the other boxes with an X to ensure that no one else can interfere with the preferences in those boxes. We take many things for granted. We live in a liberal democracy, which has been protected so well. That is why we did not embrace electronic voting. Are we not glad, in light of interference with elections across the globe by Russia, that we did not embrace electronic voting? I wonder where we would be now.

These are simple things that we take for granted. I hope there has been outreach to different communities to get their views on what it is like for them to vote or not vote in Ireland, or what their experience of the democratic process is and their suggestions about it. The Electoral Reform Bill 2022 is vital. I remember watching the movie "Brexit" on a Saturday.

I recall watching it the following day again, when all the allegations, facts and evidence provided at that time - and the different rules and laws - indicated that campaign organisers were harvesting massive amounts of people's personal data and utilising it to target them to vote in particular ways. I cannot prove it, but I have a sense from the last election that the harvesting of data is not unknown in Ireland. The targeting of voters based on that harvested data is certainly not unknown, but it was not regulated against.

When we were in opposition, our party leader and I used to have the odd robust exchange about electoral posters, corrugated board and all that kind of thing. He is very convinced of the need for postering as part of the electoral process. I agree that people need to know who they are voting for. I do not favour the continental approach of having a billboard in every town on which everybody slaps up posters and it just becomes a blancmange of stuff, but we need to restrict the numbers and look at those rules.

Our colleague, Deputy Lawless, drafted a very good Bill on transparency, not French-style censorship, when we were in opposition. The entire House embraced it. The adoption of much of its content would be a very useful thing to consider as part of this debate on the Bill before the House.

There is a broad consensus across this House that this Bill is long overdue. My colleague, an Teachta Ó Broin, informs me there has been significant pre-legislative scrutiny of it at committee level. This is important legislation. It is clear that our electoral system, and the register of electors, is in dire need of modernisation.

This Bill will see the creation of an independent electoral commission and better regulation of online advertising and the use of online platforms during elections. This Bill provides an opportunity to create a fairer electoral system and to have an electoral register that accurately reflects the electorate. However, it is a missed opportunity to lower the voting age to 16 for local and European elections. The establishment of the electoral commission is a positive step, but it is too restrictive that the chairperson of this new body must be a former judge. While the chairperson may need legal expertise, it need not necessarily be judicial experience.

Like much of our work in this House, the success of this legislation will depend on the availability of funding to underpin its intentions. I ask the Minister to set out plans to ensure this legislation is successful. We must ensure that the needs of those who feel most excluded from our electoral process are addressed. We all have areas in our constituencies where voter turnout is below 20%. We have all met people on the doors whose first language is not Irish or English and who do not know whether they are entitled to vote. We all know people with different abilities who may not know they can apply for postal votes or move to a more accessible polling station. We must engage proactively with marginalised groups including, but not limited to, women, people of colour, lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender and intersex, LGBTI+ people, members of the Traveller and Roma communities, migrants, young people, people with disabilities and people from disadvantaged socioeconomic backgrounds. Our current postal and proxy voting system is too restrictive. We should look to other European countries and bring ourselves more in line with them.

I will raise the matter of the recent Seanad by-election. Voting in the constituency was limited to just under 68,000 graduates of Trinity College Dublin. The total number of ballots returned was 13,500, which amounts to a turnout of just under 20%. In 2013, the Irish people voted to keep the Seanad. Many were lured by vague promises of reform. It is almost ten years on and nothing has been done. Reform is possible, even without constitutional change. The current system is undemocratic and needs to be addressed.

For the benefit of Members listening, we are moving very quickly through this debate. I know that some Members were very keen to speak on this matter. They will miss their opportunity to do so if they do not show up.

It is very important to recognise the significant work that has been undertaken by the Minister, the Department and the committee as regards the drafting of this Bill. It is wide-ranging and challenging area, given the level of structural change. That is why it is such important legislation.

There have been many calls for many years for real, substantive change that delivers a much more efficient approach to the basis of our democracy, which is our electoral system. It is important we do that but it is also important we get it right. One of the major factors is the need for a pathway to electoral inclusion for those most disenfranchised from our electoral process, including addressing the barriers to participating in the electoral system and safeguarding equality of access and outcome. Our forms of decision-making need to better reflect the population they represent. This means equal diversity of men and women throughout the country from various backgrounds, including those form marginalised communities. It includes young people, disabled people and people from ethnic minority backgrounds. I am concerned that there appears to be a lack of acknowledgement of the importance of that inclusion in this Bill.

It has been a long-standing Sinn Féin commitment to lower the voting age to 16, as has been tried and tested in other jurisdictions. Not only will that be a positive influence on the political system, it will also encourage young people of all backgrounds to get active and get voting as early as possible. Representation of women in politics remains unacceptably low. The under-representation of women at any level, and the lack of women's voices at decision-making tables, results in a democratic deficit. Women's experiences and participation are vital to political life and democracy. We cannot afford election cycles to pass us by before we see greater parity in representation.

Some unease has also been expressed by NGOs involved in policy advocacy. They are concerned that the definition of "political purposes" might be too restrictive. While I agree that there need to be strong rules regarding external influences on our electoral processes, we must also balance robust protection and not limiting the ability of NGOs and others to do legitimate policy advocacy work

Would the Minister like to take his chat outside? I can hear him talking and it is very disruptive.

I ask the Deputy to go through the Chair.

I also note the committee, in its pre-legislative scrutiny report, recommended that the electoral commission be funded through non-voted expenditure to maintain its independence and autonomy, with an increased budget to be made available in election years. This is important, as is local authorities being adequately funded, resourced and staffed to allow them to carry out any additional requirements.

As I said, it is important that we get this right. It is also important to recognise the work that has gone into this Bill, but we cannot allow under-resourcing to be the reason that much-needed overhaul and change do not happen.

The Deputy can give me a copy of her script if she likes, if she thinks I missed any of it.

No. We will conduct the business with dignity and through the Chair.

This is exciting and reforming legislation that will bring about the most significant development in Irish electoral law since 1997. The Bill has the potential to transform our electoral registration process. It will modernise our register of electors and, more importantly, will empower more people to become more active participants in democracy. The Joint Committee on Housing, Local Government and Heritage, of which I am a member, spent a significant amount of time discussing and debating this Bill. During the committee's pre-legislative scrutiny, we heard from many different witnesses, from academics and political scientists to political strategists and social media companies, as well as those who hold social media platforms to account, and interest groups that encourage better diversity in politics. I thank all those witnesses for their very informed and expert contributions. I also commend the Minister, the Minister of State, Deputy Noonan, and their officials on all the work and consideration that has gone into this Bill.

The one thing all the witnesses and all the Oireachtas committee members have in common is that we value living in a free, fair democracy and we want to keep it that way. Before I was a Deputy, I spent my annual leave travelling around with my backpack on my shoulder. I found myself in Fiji during a military coup, in Palestine during heightened conflict and in Kosovo when it was building up a brand new democracy.

I saw real-life experiences of other countries fighting for a free and fair political system and for just governance. It ingrained in me considerable respect for our own democracy and a real sense of responsibility to help protect it and never to take it for granted. That is why it is so important that we protect our democracy from outside interference, be that foreign money or foreign technologies, such as bots, which can create undue influence.

An issue which I have concerns about is that this Bill regulates online political advertising only in the run-up to the election. It only applies to that three-week period of the election cycle, which is a small window. I do not believe that provision goes far enough. I believe we need to regulate online political advertising year round. Politics has changed in recent decades. Social media platforms have replaced makeshift platforms on the back of trucks that used to be outside church gates. The media and social media now play significant roles in political campaigns. Gone are the days when campaigning would stop when you became elected. All of us in this Chamber know all too well that we have transitioned to a continuous campaign cycle. Social media is a constant tool in political offices. That is why it is so important that we regulate online political advertising year round. We need to do that because not to do it represents too big a threat to our democracy. I do not believe there is any place in a free or fair democracy for online bots, for politically motivated anonymous online accounts, for data brokers to be used by political parties or for illegal data harvesting by politicians. These issues need to be addressed.

It was very disappointing that when we invited the general secretaries of political parties to discuss issues that were relevant to this legislation before our committee, not all parties co-operated. Political parties receive State funding and should, at the very least, engage in these political matters in an entirely appropriate way. I previously put my feelings about that on the record and I want to do so again.

In terms of voter education, which this legislation commits to, there is a good opportunity for an education or information campaign about the single transferable vote system. Many people still struggle with our system and this is a good opportunity for us and our commission to carry out an information campaign not just in schools but also in the media on what exactly the single transferable vote system is. It is a complex system but it is something we should all be aware of because, after all, we only have one vote. That vote is one of the most important powers that each of us has as a citizen of Ireland. It is important that everybody knows exactly how they are casting their vote and how the system works. I welcome the educational aspect of the legislation.

I also support the provisions to modernise the register of electors and to simplify the registration process. The proposal is to simplify the forms and create an online option for registration. I know that is something on which South Dublin County Council has been leading the way. Creating a rolling, continuously updated electoral register and a single national electoral register database would completely streamline the process. A move to a system of identification verification using personal public service numbers would provide transparency and security. Reform of the system of electoral registration has been on the agenda of Governments, political parties and other stakeholders for more than a decade. It has been advocated for by many experts. It is important that this legislation takes the steps to achieve that reform. Future-proofing is important and it is great to see that has been baked into the legislation.

This Bill has great potential to transform our electoral system. It is vital that we are legislating in a way that is forward looking and that we create legislation that can flex and adapt as we, as a society, continue to modernise.

On a final and somewhat nerdy note, and as someone who has spent many a long, cold day in a count centre, the excitement of a tally is something that is unique to us in Ireland. Tallymen not only bring their experience in terms of transparency but can actually catalyse a recount. The information that our tally people are providing can become the reason for a recount and the reason errors are rectified. We want to make sure we minimise errors. There is no provision in law for tallying. From the perspective of transparency, I urge the Minister to ask the electoral commission to provide a set of rules around tallying to allow a certain amount of tally people into each count so we can harvest that data and ensure the open and transparent democracy we have spoken about. If the commission did that, the Minister would have the power to bring in a statutory instrument to give us the regulation that we, our parties and our volunteers need.

I am grateful for the opportunity to speak on this important Bill. There is no doubt that this Bill is long awaited. Establishing an electoral commission has been on the policy agenda since 2007. I support its establishment and I know there has been broad support for its establishment. However, despite this, legislation must not be rushed through the House and we must allow for thorough and adequate scrutiny of this Bill. I recognise the urgency of addressing the issues that are addressed in this Bill but we have to make sure we get this right.

We all know that the electoral register is incomplete and completely inaccurate. There is no doubt that there are serious issues with duplication. It has been established that the electoral register is inflated and this needs to be addressed. The amount of duplication on the electoral register at the moment is incredible, so much so that the number of names on the register actually exceeds the population eligible to vote due to duplication as well as due to double counting and counting those who are no longer at their previous addresses. Much of that is a result of the abolition of revenue collectors from local authorities because in the past, those collectors prepared the register and knew everybody in the area. They knew who people were and knew their families. They did the business. They have not been available for the past eight or nine years because their jobs have been done away with and the register has suffered as a result. I know there have been some attempts to recover what has been lost in that regard but it is a difficult situation and needs to be addressed. The role of the councils in preparing the register needs to be maintained and the councils need to be supported to ensure the right staff are available to make it happen.

The duplication is not only a serious problem in itself but it also contributes to inaccurate turnout reporting with turnout being under-reported due to the inflated register. If the electorate does not reflect the general population, there is a risk that politicians will pay greater attention to the policy needs of those who have voted rather than those who have abstained. That is an issue that is plain to be seen.

Other problems that have been identified include a complex registration process, poor maintenance of the register and voters being turned away from polling stations due to not being on the register. The establishment of an electoral commission to address these issues would be very welcome in order to ensure fair and accurate elections.

There is also a major problem in the fact that there has been no comprehensive research conducted into the extent of the problem at a national level. I hope the new electoral commission will have a research role in properly looking into the extent of the issues with the electoral register.

There is also an issue around conduct at elections. Perhaps there is a role for the commission in investigating conduct. The report stated there have been very few prosecutions in Ireland for electoral fraud. That is true because it is very difficult to gather evidence. It is not that fraud does not exist; it is just difficult to get the evidence to pursue a prosecution. I could outline ten or 15 different examples off the top of my head. I know of one electoral booth where five minutes after a vote had opened, 15 or 20 people had voted. No one had gone into the booth. Those votes were cast on behalf of people who were not available to vote on the day. The local people knew that, marked their papers and voted on their behalf. I know of a litany of other issues relating to postal votes and so forth. There are issues with what happens in that regard. The problem is the difficulty in pursuing accusations of voter fraud. That needs to be addressed because overall faith in the electoral system must be supported and strengthened.

I sometimes wonder whether the things parties do around postal votes and other things in the run-up to elections are necessary. A lot of is intended to make party operatives feel important and that something is happening, whether it makes a difference to an election or not. At local election level, where ten or 12 votes can have an impact, it could make a difference. When I was first elected in 1999, 14 more votes would have re-elected a Fianna Fáil candidate, meaning I would not have been elected.

I am not sure how I feel about that.

Maybe the Minister is thinking that is something that should be addressed.

The system works, though.

That is how fine it was - 14 votes. Fraud can make a very big difference in these kinds of things. Maybe it should have been 114 votes in reality but we will never know now.

The most important thing is that the Deputy is here now.

That is it. I am here to stay. Regarding the management of the register, research has shown that there is public confidence in local authorities managing the register due to the practical benefits of local knowledge. I would agree with that. The committee recommended an oversight role for the electoral commission in the management of the electoral register and I agree that an oversight role of local authorities' management would be sufficient. The councils have the role now and they should continue with it. However, what is required to properly manage and address the issues with the register is a centralised voter registration process. I hope that how to go about establishing a centralised voter registration process will be the main focus of the electoral commission following its establishment.

The Bill aims to address these challenges by providing for a rolling register and the use of PPS numbers to verify the identity of electors in the registration process. I welcome the introduction of a rolling register that can be updated throughout the year. That will go a long way towards dealing with some of the problems with the existing register. I recall instances where council staff were locked out of Garda stations during registration courts. That is happening regularly too. This is stuff that cannot be pursued and it is very difficult to get a prosecution. I welcome the introduction of a rolling register rather than the current system of publishing a draft register in November and a final register in February. This would be a much better system and would ensure a more accurate register. However, I have serious concerns about requiring a PPS number to register to vote. Everyone resident in this country should be entitled to vote. As the Irish Council for Civil Liberties stated in its submission:

The right of eligible persons to participate in the democratic process through casting ballots in elections and referenda is one of the most basic fundamental democratic freedoms ... Eligibility to vote does not require a PPSN and therefore to require a PPSN in order to register to exercise this right is fundamentally undemocratic.

It must be emphasised that the sharing of PPS number data cannot be a compulsory requirement. I understand that much needs to be done in addressing duplication issues and that the requirement of a PPS number would be a quick and easy way to do this. However, this does not mean that this is the approach that should be taken. It should be the role of the electoral commission to look at different ways to tidy up the register, such as creating a list of eligible IDs and a requirement of proof of address. Tying someone's right to vote to the possession of a PPS number is undemocratic and poses potential privacy issues. As well as this, it rules out many people in this country who do not possess PPS numbers, particularly members of marginalised groups.

I also support the ICCL’s position that individuals should not be forced to prove or disclose their personal illness or disability in order to justify access to postal voting. This requirement should be removed and everyone should be entitled to a postal vote if they can prove they need it.

An extremely important aspect that should be included in this Bill is the protection of the right to freedom of association and expression for civil society groups. Everyone in this Chamber has engaged and worked closely with advocacy groups and we all know how incredibly important they are. I have worked with many community groups and civil society organisations in my many years as a politician. The work they undertake is extensive. The role they play in our society cannot be overstated. Unfortunately, as a consequence of the extension of the Electoral Act 1997, advocacy groups have been faced with the unintended consequence of their advocacy work being classed as having "political purposes". The term "political purposes" is hugely problematic as has a very wide interpretation. This definition does not efficiently distinguish between the campaigns of politicians and the everyday work of advocacy groups. I cannot emphasise enough that this must be addressed in the legislation going forward. I ask the Minister to look at that and see if something can be done. "Political purposes" is taken to mean having an opinion on any political policies or engaging on policy issues, which encompasses many community and civil society groups. I understand that the purpose of the Electoral Act was to protect the integrity of elections but this definition has prohibited many advocacy groups from accepting any substantial domestic donations or grants to assist their work and has prohibited any international funding. This Bill is a clear opportunity to amend the incredibly problematic definition of "political purposes" and we must grab this opportunity to do so. The Electoral Act seriously compromises Ireland’s democratic values. Advocacy must be supported at all costs and we must do all we can to protect the rights of advocacy groups to continue their work.

I take this opportunity to commend the Civil Engagement Group in the Seanad, and particularly Senator Lynn Ruane, who addressed this issue in her Electoral (Civil Society Freedom) (Amendment) Bill in 2019. That Bill sought to amend section 22 of the Electoral Act and provided for a new definition of "political purposes". When contributing on the Bill in 2020, Senator Higgins said she had hoped the new electoral reform Bill would address this very important definition issue and that it would not get lost when addressing all the other issues. Unfortunately, it seems that is just what happened. I urge the Government to address this issue as a matter of urgency. It should have been taken into consideration when drafting the legislation. Community groups should be able to engage on important issues without fear of compromising their ability to fundraise.

I strongly welcome the introduction of a pending electors list for 16- and 17-year-olds. Last year I introduced a simple constitutional amendment Bill that would allow people to register to vote from the age of 16 years and to vote in all elections, including referendums. It is very important that we give young people a voice. Having a pending electors list will certainly help with a lot of registration issues that young people come across when turning 18 and moving away from home. It might also build their interest in the electoral system. Ultimately, the goal should be to extend the vote to them as well. I again have concerns about the compulsory requirement of PPS number as an identifier for young people and this is something that needs to be addressed further.

I welcome that the Bill creates a new regulatory regime for online political advertising during election periods. This is very important in this age of growing technology. That said, should this be confined only to election periods? Over the last number of elections, because they were very defined spending periods, there was a massive amount of spending in the run-up and then it collapsed or fell off. This should be extended to reflect what is actually happening across the board. I also welcome that the Bill includes direction on facilitating elections during a pandemic or Covid-19. However, this should also be extended. We should be looking at strategies for holding elections in all national emergencies, including pandemics, natural disasters and cyberattacks. That should be looked at.

Overall, I welcome parts of this Bill and I strongly welcome the establishment of an electoral commission. There is no doubt that this is overdue. I hope it will contribute to much fairer and more accurate democratic elections in this country. However, I seriously hope the democratic concerns I have outlined today are taken into account, especially with regard to PPS numbers and the definition of "political purposes". As I said, this legislation is important and urgent, but it is absolutely vital that we get it right at this stage because we cannot do it retrospectively.

I welcome the opportunity to contribute to this debate, which touches on some of the most important and core aspects of our country, how we run our elections and how we protect and enhance our very democracy. As we are all too aware, particularly during the last decade, democracy and the very notion of free and fair elections is not something we can take for granted. A great number of factors have been pressing on this in recent years, both domestically and internationally. In this context, we must recognise that we are not exempt from the serious threats of misinformation and the other methods of electoral interference that have faced countries across the globe in recent years. For seven of my 11 years in this House, I was head of the Irish delegation to the Organization for Security and Co-operation in Europe and I oversaw nine elections in eastern Europe and the United States. We take our democracy for granted, particularly in comparison with countries like Ukraine, Kyrgyzstan and quite a number of others. There are many things we can learn. I would like to think the electoral commission that is to be established by this Bill will facilitate a learning process and a general improvement to the process. We are, and have, a very proud democracy. I am pleased to have the opportunity today to review and attempt to enhance the protections of our democracy and ensure that erosion does not encroach on what most of us in this House hold dear.

This Bill provides for some fundamental changes that will strengthen our democratic processes.

This includes the increased transparency in how our election campaigns are run and increased transparency with regard to political advertising. This is an important step in tackling the hidden actors and interests that, in the advent of social media and the Internet, will continue to pose a threat to our public discourse and our electoral campaigns, in conjunction with other measures in the online sphere outside of this Bill.

I particularly welcome the modernisation of systems that is long overdue, namely, the opening up of the registration process. This Bill allows for the introduction of online registration, the integrity of which is of paramount importance, in tandem with a simplified application process, which I believe will increase the accessibility of our voting system to thousands of people, particularly young people, who increasingly engage with systems and processes through the prism of the digital world. I hope that when this Bill is passed, we will see other Departments engage with these changes, for example, in schools where students who are on the brink of the voting age can be encouraged to explore politics and to register to vote.

There are, however, further ways in which we can advance the cause of our democracy and electoral system. As my colleague mentioned earlier, the tally process in elections should be formalised and introduced on statutory basis. I understand that during the Seanad campaign in 2020 the returning officer, Mr. Martin Groves, was unable to facilitate persons being able to tally due to Covid-19. My colleague, Deputy Joe Carey's office was informed that there was no requirement for the returning officer to facilitate tallies because it was not in law. That needs to be reviewed. Tallies play a vital role during the counting of votes and informs important understanding of constituencies and our communities. However, as it stands, tallies are wholly at the discretion of the returning officer and this has led to some incidents in recent elections, albeit thankfully in a limited respect, where political parties or individuals were not permitted to perform this vital function. If we were to introduce tallies in a more regulated and formalised manner, we can enhance the integrity of their collection and their use.

I would also like to highlight the role of postal voting. Currently our electoral system offers a limited avenue of access for the use of postal voting, which to date has been largely limited to the diplomatic corps and our Defence Forces. By expanding this right to other cohorts of the population, we can enhance turnout in elections and make it easier for people to vote, not harder. That includes registration which often takes place weeks in advance of a general election with many people having already made arrangements in their lives. It could be a holiday. Any person who is entitled to a vote does not suddenly lose that right because they choose to get on a plane or ferry. On that basis, we should be able to facilitate a more robust system for individuals who may wish to vote in absentia. That is something which is very common in other jurisdictions but is quite constrained in Ireland.

The ultimate goal of this Bill is to expand access to voting and to make it easier so some of my remarks hold water. Importantly, these steps would allow for a greater degree of flexibility in our elections. In February 2020, we narrowly avoided major disruption to the general election as the Covid pandemic turned our lives upside down, just a month later. What if the election had been scheduled for March or April? Those are things that the committee, the Department and Minister have spent time considering. However, the lessons of this potential disaster must be taken on board. Not only would a delayed or hindered election pose significant constitutional questions but it would also harm public confidence in the electoral process and lead some to question the validity of the results. This is a scenario I hope that we will never see in our country but if we are to be sure that this does not come to pass, we must ensure that we have a system that is flexible and able to respond to unprecedented crises or public emergencies such as a pandemic. By doing this now, we can future-proof our elections for forthcoming generations.

Finally, I would also like to take the opportunity to briefly mention the role of election dates and the impact they can have. I have long believed, since the beginning of my parliamentary career, that general elections should take place on a weekend. This, I believe, complements the spirit of this Bill, again increasing the inclusivity and access of as many people as possible in our electoral process. I served on the Joint Committee on Investigations, Oversight and Petitions back in 2012. Professor Michael Marsh came before the committee and spoke at length on the pros and cons of weekend voting in relation to the turnout and those who would be facilitated or not by a weekend vote. If I recall correctly, the findings, by someone who is considered an expert on elections and statistics, were that it would facilitate and discommode people in equal measure. We held the children's referendum on a Saturday in 2012 and many people across civil society blamed the poor turnout, which I think was about 30%, on that. However, we all know that it was because of the subject matter which people did not consider a controversial item. The polls all suggested it would pass, so the turnout was low. The House should facilitate more people to vote and to do so at the weekend. Most importantly, we close 1,400 schools every time we have an election. I do not think that is right. We are discommoding children, parents and teachers and the bottom line is that those kids have to make it up somehow. We should have a mature debate on that. By introducing such a measure, we could remove yet more barriers to individuals and their ability to cast their ballot.

I commend the Minister on the introduction of this Bill and the commitment of the Government to introduce real reform in our electoral process and to expand the role of people across Ireland in the most sacred and cherished of civic duties.

I commend the Minister and the staff in his Department on producing this very fine piece of work. Trying to put together a large piece of legislation is no easy task. Not only must one set out in a coherent format for what you want to achieve but you also have to do that by making sure that it is consistent with the law that already exists. I am surprised the Minister has managed to get it onto the floor of the Dáil so quickly. As it is such a huge piece of work, we need to give it careful scrutiny. A great deal of work will be done on Committee Stage. The most important thing is to get it right rather than get it enacted immediately. However, I would like to see it enacted this year.

It is important that we are aware of the purpose of the legislation. It is not simply to try to reformulate or represent our electoral laws but to defend our democracy. We need to really focus on that when we talk about the principles and the sections of the Bill today and on Committee Stage. When you think of democracy, it is a very young form of governance throughout the world. Some 150 years ago, very few places around the world had democracy. We assume that democracy will be prevalent throughout the world in years to come but that is not the case. We can see there are huge numbers of powerful and significant countries around the world that do not exercise or operate democracy. We see countries such as China and countries such as Russia, which purports to exercise democracy, but we know that it does not exercise democracy in the same way as we understand it in this country. There are many countries where there are still absolute rulers who inherit their role from family members. We do not want that form of governance in Ireland. The way people of Ireland want to ensure their government and politics operates is that they want the ability to vote in governments and to vote them out. We need to appreciate that in recent times there have been very significant threats to democracies in countries that we assume democracy is safe. We all had an opportunity to apprise what happened during Brexit. We do not really understand the full forces that were at play there but we know for certain that outside parties exerted significant influence in the United Kingdom in the lead-up to that vote. We saw the same in the United States where online activity and interference from outside and other countries can have a significant impact.

I suppose the biggest threat to democracy in the world today does not come specifically from other countries but from the mediums and the technology that is available to people who want to influence democracy in their own direction to their own benefit.

If you think about it, when you look at what can now be done online, huge numbers of people can be affected and swayed to think or to vote in certain ways as a result of online activity. Many people, I regret to say it, outsource their thinking now to what they see and hear online. It is a hugely powerful medium. The online activity, when it comes to the political realm, really needs to be regulated. I commend the Minister on including a section in this legislation that will deal with the regulation of online advertising.

I want the electoral commission when established to be a vibrant, active body that really recognises that its primary function is to protect and to enhance Irish democracy. I welcome the fact that the Minister has indicated that the chairperson of the electoral commission is going to be a judge. I do not say that out of any deference to judges, but I think that in Ireland that the public has a level of trust in the Judiciary which may not exist with other sectors of society. If they see that the electoral commission is to be chaired by a sitting or a retired judge, that will give a general sense of confidence to the Irish public that this is an independent and impartial body.

I have also looked at section 9, which talks about the recommendations that could be made for membership of the ordinary members of the commission. I hope that we will have people on that commission who have a practical understanding of politics. I am not necessarily saying that they have to be professors of politics in universities or other third level institutions, although that would help. I also think that we should not downplay the expertise that exists in this House and in the Seanad. Sometimes we are very hesitant about putting forward politicians or former politicians to play important, independent roles. Obviously, when we are in this House, and when we are members of political parties, or even if we are purportedly Independent, we do not come with the level of independence that is required for objective assessment of the operation of the electoral commission. Yet, I have no doubt that once Members leave this House, they have that ability to exercise independence and they would be able to do so in the knowledge of how politics operates practically on the ground.

There are a number of other matters in it as well, which I thought were interesting. There is a provision in it for anonymous electors. Maybe I need to read the explanatory memo more, but I could not understand at the outset what type of application would justify a person being able to be granted the status of an anonymous elector. It may be the case that there are people who have very sensitive jobs, or who do not want to have their details recorded on the register, but I know the Minister will explain that in due course as the Bill goes through Committee Stage.

The electoral register itself is in a significantly bad condition. In my constituency, and it may be the case in the Minister’s constituency, there is a huge number of people who have flats and then they move on. They do not necessarily take their names off the electoral register. That is why I believe that the turnout for elections in my constituency sometimes looks pretty low. In fact, I suspect the reason for it is that there are many people on the register who are just not there anymore and who are not voting. We need to clean up the electoral register so that we can get a proper appraisal of the actual turnout in elections.

Part of the reason apathy can spread in politics is when people think that people are not bothering to vote. That is a terrible thing to hear somebody say, that they are not going to bother to vote because they look and see that a significant body of people is not voting. If we have a system whereby the electoral register does not accurately record turnout, that will just breed that level of apathy. I also welcome the fact that we are going to have a provision whereby people are going to get onto a stepping stone register. People aged 16 and 17 will know that when they get to the age of 18, they will be on the register. Many people in the House have spoken about how we should give the vote to people who are 16 years of age. I remain open to having a discussion about that. The Constitution says that we have to be 18 to vote, so we would have to have a referendum in respect of that. If we want to go down that route, we should first try it in local elections, rather than working immediately into seeing whether we should change the Constitution.

I also want to deal with the issue of advocacy work and with the definition of political purposes. I saw the Minister earlier nodding that he would give consideration to this matter on Committee Stage. It is a difficult issue but we need to appreciate that there are many bodies in Irish society and groups of residents who come together to advocate for a particular issue. They do not believe that they are involved in political activity. They do not believe that they are involved in something that will require regulation by the electoral commission. It may be the case that if they are involved in something that comes broadly within the definition of political purposes, that they then need to register. We need to be sure that we do not completely over-regulate this sphere, because that would have a negative impact on what we are trying to do, which is to protect and to enhance democracy.

I was listening to Deputy Alan Farrell talking about whether we should be closing schools for the purposes of elections. There is no reason, of course, we cannot have elections on a Saturday. We had it the last time and I think it worked. It did not appear to increase turnout that much. Similarly, however, it did not appear to reduce it that much. If possible, maybe we should do what they do in other countries, such as in France this weekend, and have elections at a weekend so that we do not interfere with the schooling of children.

We should also note that under the Constitution there is a seven-year electoral cycle and legislation provides that there must be an election every five years. That is an issue that the electoral commission will have to deal with as well and whether it thinks it is appropriate or necessary that we would amend our Constitution so that it expressly states that there must be an election every five years.

Finally, there are a couple of difficult issues from which I do not think the Minister can shy away. I think he is going to have to deal with them. Obviously, we operate on an island where there are two jurisdictions. We have funding of political parties in the southern jurisdiction that is different to the northern jurisdiction. It is now going to be increasingly the case that parties in both jurisdictions will engage in political activity on both sides. Hopefully, that is something that our own party will do in due course. I think we need to ensure that there is some consistency and protection there when it comes to the regulation of political funding. If you are going to contest an election in Dáil Éireann, I think that all aspects of your political funding have to be disclosed and should be available for public inspection. I do not make that comment about any one political party; it applies to all of us here. If you are raising money in a different jurisdiction and you are running in an election here, that information must be disclosed. What will protect our democracy is information. If you look at the information that we can provide already, there are details of donations that have been made and there are details about expenditure. We all have to put in electoral reforms after an election. All of that information is very useful and I do not think that it inconveniences Members of the House. It does provide the public with confidence that our political system is operating above board. If we do not do that, we will find ourselves in the situation where there will be parts of our political system that the public may incorrectly perceive are being hidden from them.

Finally, it is a fantastic piece of work but I want to put another piece of work on the Minister's plate as well. The electoral Acts are all over the place. I am referring to the 1997 Act and others. At some stage we will have compile them all together for the sake not just of the Members of this House, but members of the public so that they can pick up the one Bible, which will be their electoral Act and electoral reform Act together and find out from A to Z what is and is not permitted when it comes to contesting elections in Ireland.

We have a great democracy in this country. People fought and died for it. We should value it and we should ensure that we preserve it. Once again, I commend the Minister and the people in his Department on preparing this legislation.

Ag fanacht leis an Rialtas, glaoim ar an Teachta Lawless. This is a 20-minute slot and the Deputy is sharing time with Deputy McAuliffe.

I also welcome this Bill, which will bring about the major modernisation of the electoral system. I commend the Minister, Deputy Darragh O’Brien, for his sterling work on this matter since he took office. He has progressed this at pace with the Minister of State in his Department, Deputy Noonan, as well as members of his teams, including Kevin Dillon and others who have contributed significantly in the backroom to putting this legislation together. It is necessary legislation to modernise and reform the entire tapestry of electoral rules and electoral laws with which we as politicians are quite familiar but which the public needs to be more familiar with in the pursuit and participation in our democracy.

I want to pick up on a point that Deputy Jim O'Callaghan made about how democracy can be taken for granted. I believe firmly that it cannot. If we look around the world, there is a threat to democracy emerging. It is interesting that the recent call between President Biden and President Xi Jinping of China on the Ukraine crisis did not touch so much on the immediate events in Europe. They spoke about whether autocracies or democracies would prevail at a global level. It is very much the Chinese view, and possibly the Russian view as well, that autocracies and technocracies will become the predominant form of governance over and above democracies. That is a reality check to all of us in the democratic world. We need to protect freedom and protect democracy. Democracy begins at home and we are doing it today in this Bill.

It is something that we cannot take for granted.

I recently read a great book, Guns, Germans and Steel, which is in the same category as Sapiens: A Brief History of Mankind and similar books about the development of civilisation. A warning is sounded by the author, Jared Diamond, who looked at how technology evolved and at why the Incas, the Aztecs, and the South Sea Islanders lost out and at why the British and Mongolian empires, among others, eventually crumbled. Empires were like a Colossus, conquering all before them but ultimately they collapsed because superior technology came along, whether that technology was steel, shipbuilding, communications technology or the power to vaccinate against infectious disease. In the modern era, data technology is that secret weapon which has been recognised, unfortunately, by hostile actors in many states. We must remain alert to that threat and respond to it and again I commend the Minister and his team for doing so through this Bill. One hunts or one is hunted. Democracy is not about to be hunted out of existence on this Government's watch and I will certainly do all I can to prevent that.

Moving on to the provisions of the Bill, the electoral register has been mentioned several times in the debate already. Anyone who is familiar with the register, which includes most of us in this Chamber, knows of the difficulties with it. In my constituency of Kildare North, which is in the commuter belt, people tend to come and go. They often spend a couple of years in my constituency and then either move back home to other parts of the country or move closer to Dublin and for that reason there are huge anomalies in the electoral register. When people are moving, I often caution them not to de-register at their old address because it is better to have two entries on the register than none. Our registers are not based on reality and we all know that. God love the local authorities, which try their best. They usually have one person in the franchise department who has hundreds of other tasks, trying to manage the register and make it work but struggling badly. The proposal to have an online, centrally maintained register with an authentication system makes huge sense.

Returning to the threats out there, recent elections overseas have brought home the scale of the problem. We saw in the recent UK Brexit referendum the role played by social media and hostile actors, both state and individual. An analysis by the Westminster communications committee of participants in social media debates on Brexit found that two of the top ten most influential Twitter accounts during the course of the Brexit campaign were Russian bots. Two of the entities that were most forensically driving that electoral cycle and debate belonged to a hostile actor outside of the State which certainly did not have the country's best interests at heart.

It is a threat that I flagged in this Chamber in 2017 when I introduced my own Online Advertising and Social Media (Transparency) Bill, which remains before the Oireachtas Joint Committee on Transport and Communications. I intend to progress that Bill. There is some overlap with this Bill but there are also some stand-alone provisions in it. At the time, the threat was not taken seriously by all sides of the House but we have all seen now that Russian state actors have moved beyond the online space and very much into the physical space. President Zelenskyy told us all about that in the House yesterday and if we needed any further warning, we saw Russian activities off our own coast, in our exclusive economic zone of late. We do not need any reminders of the dangers and the warning I sounded in 2017 is as relevant, if not more so, today. It is not just Russians, of course; threats can come from much closer to home. Every participant in the electoral cycle does not necessarily come with clean hands and it is a threat that we have to be live to in order to protect our democracies.

When I first raised these issues, people asked why Ireland would be threatened. There was talk of little old Ireland, in the corner of Europe, not doing any harm to anybody but that is an outdated and naive idea. Why would somebody want to attack Ireland? There are many reasons. First, we are in the EU and are quite a pivotal state within the Union as we are English speaking. Ireland is a base for many multinational corporations, which goes to the heart of our economic and fiscal policy. Ireland is host to 40% of the EU's data sets and is also positioned in the maritime and aviation approaches to the EU. We are also pivotal in EU-US relations and communications. There are many reasons somebody might want to interfere, not just with our cyber capacity but with our democratic system. Often the approach can be opportunistic, with entities causing mischief because they can. It is not so difficult to do it and those that want to disrupt an EU member state can do so using social media and so on.

Several speakers talked about the position of NGOs. The argument was made that small residents' groups or small campaign groups should not be subject to the provisions of the Bill but I am not sure I fully agree. While I am sympathetic to the arguments made about small groups, and I work with many as a politician, I believe that if any bodies, big or small, with motives that are pure or otherwise, want to engage in the political process, we deserve to know who they are and what they are about. If it is a residents' association for or against a particular development, or for or against a vote at local authority level, in this Chamber or at the European Parliament, we should know. We need to take a broad brush. Who is afraid of transparency? People need to put their best foot forward, let us know who they are and what they have to say and then the electorate can make up their own minds. That said, I do agree that it should not be overly burdensome but I would not exclude certain groups altogether either just because they happen to be small or community based.

The electoral Acts have already been mentioned. When I was researching the Online Advertising and Social Media (Transparency) Bill, I found up to 40 provisions, primarily in the Electoral Act 1992, that were honoured more in the breech than in the observance and the Repeal the Eighth referendum brought this home. I refer to provisions which hold that a poster put up on a lamp post or a pamphlet put through a letter box must have the director of elections written on it. Most of us involved in elections do that automatically, but many groups do not. Some do not in all innocence, while others do not for more sinister reasons. Recently I have seen posters around the country that read "Repent". I am not sure who put them up or whether they are calling us to worship or to vote in a particular way, although I doubt it. Any communication that has a political motive is supposed to have a label. Again, this came to light during the repeal referendum. Campaigners on both sides erected posters and distributed literature but nobody knew how to make a complaint about the fact that the origins were not properly flagged and the notices which are required under the electoral Acts were not there. Some people went to Garda stations and tried to make a complaint but they were told, quite frankly, by the desk sergeant that he or she did not know what to do. At the time, the Oireachtas committee brought in a range of actors but none of them seemed to know what to do either. There is an enforcement piece and this Bill will include that and it is really important that there is follow through. If people want to make a complaint or raise an issue, it must be clear and easy for them to do so.

I have spoken about the social media piece and I note that in this Bill there is a definition of a transparency notice. It is all about transparency and nothing about censorship. That is in section 119 of this Bill and is carried over directly from my Bill, which I welcome. Perhaps there is more that can be done there and as I said, my Bill remains before the committee.

It is really important to have a rolling electoral commission. In the past, the referendum commission tended to have retired judges and people of great status in society who were extremely knowledgeable in law and matters of referendums but I do not know how knowledgeable they were in modern campaigning techniques, particularly in the black arts. In that context, a rolling agency that is permanently staffed and equipped will have that capacity and I welcome that.

One of the final points is that not all fake news is online. There was a phenomenon during the last general election, and possibly in other elections, whereby literature was put through letter boxes in my constituency and in many other constituencies in Dublin and the midlands in what were very sophisticated operations. When I was out canvassing one night, I came across boxes of black and white literature in the boot of a car. They were manufactured to look like the work of an amateur operation but were the work of what was actually quite a sophisticated and professional operation. When I saw tens of thousands of leaflets in boxes in the boot of a car, I wondered at their origin. What was set up to look like an amateur operation was quite the opposite. I know that colleagues in other constituencies reported the same. As it happens, it was anti-Fianna Fáil literature so one has to ask who benefited from that. In whose interest was it to put out a particular message? Perhaps it was people in tight races in particular constituencies but it was replicated across the country.

We also need to know who has what in terms of assets and spending power. We are all regulated as individual politicians and as candidates in elections. We have the Register of Members' Interests but we do no have a register of political parties' interests, at least to my knowledge. There are parties that have huge property portfolios and significant assets both at home and offshore, as well as huge staffing resources to call upon. We need to know that information. We need to have equality of arms and transparency. I ask the Minister to consider that as an option for this Bill. We need to know and there needs to be a level playing field. Democracy is not for sale and it is really important that we make that point.

Yesterday this Chamber was addressed by the President of a democracy that is under the threat of extinction. His address was attended by far more people than there are in the Chamber now. Deputy Higgins is right that this is a bit of a nerdy issue but it is also the bones and very core of our democracy.

I commend the Minister on bringing forward the Bill. The committee found that while the Bill is quite comprehensive, there are many areas we would love to continue to improve to make our democracy stronger. The question for Members will be how much we accept as being progress now and therefore the job of the electoral commission and how much we try to perfect here but delay overall delivery. It is a difficult task. I commend the Minister and I should acknowledge there are also Ministers of State in the Department. The Ministers of State, Deputies Noonan and Peter Burke, and the Minister, Deputy Darragh O'Brien, have all worked on the legislation. I very much appreciate the work that has been done.

I am a spokesperson on electoral reform and a member of the committee. I have had extensive opportunity to debate this. Rather than repeating its merits, which have been well flagged, I will put on the record some of the amendments I would love to see the Government bring forward. I welcome the preregistration of those aged under 18. This is very important, as is the establishment of an electoral commission, for which we have been waiting almost 30 years. I am particularly concerned about online political advertising. For the first time the Bill regulates, and in some sense gives tacit support or approval to, the process of online political advertising. Until now this has been unregulated. It will be regulated during the period of an election campaign but not outside of this. The view of the committee was that this is a fairly toothless and useless process. All of the work in building up audiences and engagement is done well in advance of an electoral period.

We have heard many concerns from social media companies. In some sense they said they wanted to operate within a European framework. I understand this because they want to use one model across all of their platforms but every democracy is different. Twitter does not allow online political advertising but Facebook does. In an era when we have trusted local media sources in the form of radio, newspapers and television, which provide good quality news that is fact-checked and so on, and we prohibit advertising on radio and television, we have to ask ourselves why we allow online political advertising on platforms that do not do any of these things and where we have major concerns about fact-checking and so on. Until we have comprehensive regulation of online political advertising, we should not permit it. Twitter as an organisation has said it will not engage in it. There should be a ban on online political advertising until we get this right. I do not oppose it in the longer term. It has a very positive role in terms of groups and bringing people together and enabling activists and new candidates to break through. However, at present we do not have enough knowledge about issues such as micro-targeting. I say this because so much of our democracy is transparent. If I put up a poster that says my priority will be young people, then older people might rightly say that if I am looking after young people they must not be my priority and they will make a calculation. Our facilitation of online political advertising allows, with very little transparency, candidates or political parties to say different things to different groups of people without the same transparency that we see in a poster or a newspaper advertisement. Politicians can tell young people they are the priority as well as telling older people they are the priority. We know everyone cannot be a priority. In a way, online political advertising is not regulated. We do not have in-depth knowledge of how algorithms and micro-targeting work to allow us to permit the activity when we do not permit it on radio or television. It is a valid argument and something the Minister should reflect on.

There are many other areas I wish to speak about. I would love to see takedown notices for things that are untrue. I would like to see a much broader code of practice for social media companies. We know that by the time something untrue that has been published is removed, it already has had an impact. The electoral commission needs to carry out continuous research and have expertise in this area. I will say no more about online political advertising but on Committee Stage we need to do a lot more. In some ways what is in the Bill facilitates what is wrong with the system rather than in any way eliminating it.

Another area I want to discuss is fundraising, donations and parties' interests. I would prefer to see a consolidated set of accounts for political parties, including those candidates who run for them. There is far too little transparency. There is nothing in here with regard to cryptocurrencies. What about donations made in cryptocurrencies? This will be more and more prevalent as we go on. This morning we have seen Facebook state it wants to develop its own currency. What happens when we mix donations made on Facebook with advertisements on Facebook and the custom audiences that are being created? There is a lot of work to be done on this. Cryptocurrency donations are something we need to think about, even though they do not seem so immediate.

We need to look at the identification of sources of funding for the purchase of properties. Properties give parties a reach and access to communities. We should know how these properties are purchased. We should know where the funds come from, as they provide an electoral advantage. If a company provides an office to a politician he or she must declare it in the electoral returns.

We do not permit foreign donations in this country. We do not permit legal corporate donations above €100. However, we know that because there are two jurisdictions on the island, regrettably, parties must operate within two systems where corporate donations are allowed in one and not allowed in the other. This is very tricky. If we want to protect the very important ban on illegal corporate donations above €100, we have to better regulate and strengthen control of foreign donations. It is farcical that if parties operate in two jurisdictions they may benefit from it. I agree with Deputy Jim O'Callaghan that this is not about any one party. In the Oireachtas we should always design things for any party that might run.

The Irish Council for Civil Liberties, ICCL, has raised concerns about regulation. Deputy Lawless said the same system should apply whether a party is big or small and I agree. The ICCL is raising the issue of access to funding. It is not just regulation but access to funding. By virtue of the funding being deemed to be for political purposes, the ICCL is prevented from accessing it. This is not a simple argument because one person's advocacy is another person's political campaigning. While people might be very well meaning in saying they want to support the legislation, they themselves have said they know it could be used by people who oppose what they believe are human rights. It is something we need to be very careful of but I would like to see the Minister consider it on Committee Stage.

At this point it is difficult to keep one's focus and one swings with the arguments back and forth. It has been very interesting. One of the privileges of being in the Chair is to hear all of the arguments. I thank the Department for its work and I thank the Minister and the Minister of State. It is a significant Bill. I realise it is quite difficult and I welcome the Bill and the effort. I hope that today the Minister will tell us when he hopes it will be passed. I know that is subject to the vagaries of the Dáil but I would like the Minister to state what time span he has in mind. It is clearly significant legislation. The Bill comprises 132 pages, six chapters and 145 sections. We would be misleading the Dáil if we said we read it in detail. I have tried to read the explanatory memorandum. I have looked at the Bill and all of the documents around it. I will highlight what is good in it and what is important. I also want to look at the background as to how we got here and perhaps the deficits that I hope will be sorted out, given the long gestation period. It has taken years to come to this point.

As has been set out repeatedly, a statutory independent electoral commission is to be established for the first time. I welcome that. More importantly, this is something that various organisations on the ground have been asking for. I will come back to those organisations. How independent it is to be will have to teased out on Committee Stage, as will its funding. The modernisation of the register of electors is absolutely welcome, as is the introduction of a central place where it can be checked. The regulation of online political advertising and the provision for the holding of elections during periods of Covid are also very welcome, although they are too restrictive, another point I will come back to.

Let us look at the background again. I thank the staff of the Oireachtas Library and Research Service, who do a tremendous amount of work while under pressure and under-resourced. I was going to say underfunded. They do their work under pressure. An enormous number of Bills go through the Dáil and the service's staff provide briefing material on them while always under pressure. They nearly did not have a chance to look at this Bill, although they did in the end. Most often they are under pressure and only see the heads of a Bill, which then change. I pay tribute to them.

The service has highlighted the background to this Bill. It is important to state for the record how long this has been going on for. The electoral commission has been on the agenda of various Governments since 2007. The regulation of online political advertising has been on the agenda since 2017, ten years after that previous commitment. Several reviews of the Irish electoral system between 1996 and 2013 have concluded that the electoral system should not be changed, which is significant because various Governments have thought we should change the electoral system but the people of Ireland were wiser and said "No". However, reform to the administration and operation of the electoral system is necessary. In 2010, 12 years ago, an Oireachtas joint committee concluded that there was not a sufficiently compelling case for changing the electoral system but it went on to recommend that the matter be considered by a citizens' assembly. In 2013, the Convention on the Constitution voted overwhelmingly against changing the electoral system, with 79% voting against the proposal. The Government accepted that recommendation. Both the Joint Committee on the Constitution and the Convention on the Constitution recommended the establishment of an electoral commission and improving the accuracy of the electoral register, among other reform measures. That is what we are getting today. After a long time, we are getting some of that.

To put the importance of integrity in this area in perspective, we talk about other countries where there are autocrats and no democracy. I agree with everything that has been said in that regard but there is an extra onus on us. We take pride in being a vibrant democracy and send observers to other countries to look at their electoral processes and elections and to ensure that all of the procedures are complied with. There is therefore an extra onus on us to take the mote out of our own eye and ensure that our procedures are open and accountable. We must continuously seek to review them. I will come back to that point at the end and discuss what it is proposed to review in two or three years' time under this Bill because it is only certain segments.

I cannot put it any better than the Kofi Annan Foundation did back in 2016. It said:

For elections to be the legitimate instrument at the heart of the democratic process, they need to be carried out with integrity.

Elections with integrity are based on the democratic principles of universal suffrage [as a woman, I realise that universal suffrage was dearly won and does not exist in many countries] and political equality and are professional, impartial, and transparent in preparation and administration throughout the electoral cycle.

Their outcome is not just legally beyond reproach but the process and its outcome are also perceived as legitimate by the electorate.

That last point is important because not only should justice be done, but it must be seen to be done and it is the same for the electoral process. It is very important because, without wishing to be too political, there was a time when a certain party's motto was "Vote early and vote often". That was Irish humour and an Irish way of coping with something that was going on. We know that was facilitated by a register that was completely unsuited to its purpose. I make my comments in full admiration for the local authorities and as someone who has been involved in many elections. One was particularly painful, not so much for me but for the team that worked with me, because I missed out by 17 votes. I felt a sense of relief in 2011 that I was not coming up to this august establishment. I had mixed feelings but missing out by 17 votes brought home to me in the most acute way how important the integrity of this system is and how important it is to watch it. For various reasons, I was not keeping a close eye on the spoiled votes. I learned a very valuable lesson but that did not take from the integrity of the process. The fault was mine, for many reasons. I did not look at the 500 spoiled votes in the box. However, the experience brought home to me the importance of the process being above board and my team and the other teams being able to watch it.

That was in 2011. It was only two years earlier that we finally said that we were not doing electronic voting, which had been mooted in 1999 and introduced in 2002. I can still see the picture of a former Minister as she lost her seat, which was appalling. It was not appalling that she lost her seat but the manner in which she learned that she had was. More importantly, the judge who looked at that system said that, in the time allowed to him, he could not vouch for its integrity. We spent, at a conservative estimate, €60 million on this system. There was then the issue of their storage and so on. Many people today do not even have a memory of that but it was all done with comments suggesting we were too attached to the pencil and so on. I actually find the pencil very useful, even in the 21st century. It is actually much easier to write with a pencil. I raise that because no importance was attached to analysis or the integrity of the process. That is why I mention it.

I again thank the Library and Research Service for its digest, which shows different research telling us that the level of trust in our electoral system is quite high notwithstanding the state of the electoral register. It is interesting. Trust is high in the electoral system but what jumped out at me was the data for Ireland from the European Social Survey in 2019 quoted by Dr. Shana Cohen, director of TASC, in a recent article in The Irish Times. This is more of a reflection on politicians. Some 40% of people had relatively high levels of trust in the Dáil while just over one quarter had relatively high trust in politicians or political parties, which is a damning statistic, is it not? More had trust in An Garda Síochána, which is extraordinary. This is testament to our experience of An Garda Síochána on the ground and certainly not the behaviour of management and the decisions made which were investigated by an endless list of tribunals, including the Morris tribunal. Despite this, there is more trust in An Garda Síochána than in politicians, and rightly so because we need trust in An Garda Síochána for a democratic system. However, there is certainly a big question here for politicians with regard to what we are doing. Some 50% had relatively high levels of trust in the legal system, which goes back to a point Deputy Jim O'Callaghan made earlier on with regard to trust when appointing a High Court judge. Over 10% said they had no trust at all in politicians or political parties.

That is somewhat of an aside when discussing the electoral process but it is interesting that politicians are held in such low esteem. That is seriously problematic for democracy. I know many of my colleagues, especially the Ceann Comhairle, are tired of listening to me talking about the importance of making language mean something. Language has to be mean something. Whether we agree with each other or not, it is very important for people, and particularly young people, who can spot hypocrisy and pretension a mile off, that we make language mean something. There is doublespeak on climate change, housing and all of that all of the time. I say that as an aside with regard to trust in the electoral system.

As I said, I welcome that there is to be a commission on a permanent statutory basis and this commission will have oversight of the register but that the actual operation and management of the register and local election will remain with local authorities.

I support that 100%. However, local authorities are top-heavy with management. They are not heavy with staff, who are constantly being shoved from office to office as a result. When they gain experience, they are shoved off. There is a lack of staff on the ground. That is a serious problem. I have seen staff overworked and underpaid. I criticise management and a corporate governance model not suited to delivering a service that the city and county councils are there to deliver.

I welcome the rolling and pending registers. They are very good. I also welcome the provision in the legislation for anonymous registration. I hope this issue will be teased out a bit more on Committee Stage. I have read the report of the joint committee. What was the Government was proposing originally was much more strict. It has relaxed on that a little in respect of the various reasons that a person might want to register as an anonymous voter, including being the victim of domestic violence. I welcome all of that.

I also welcome that provision has been made for elections in the time of emergencies such as Covid. However, perhaps we should pay more attention to the ICCL on this matter. Among other concerns, the ICCL specifically raised the fact that no provision has been made at all for other disasters or problems. That is a matter of concern to me. Perhaps the Ceann Comhairle might have a different view, but I had the privilege of sitting on the Business Committee for two weeks when Covid originally broke out. As it happens, my colleague was not available. The ease with which it was proposed to adjourn the Dáil never left me. There was almost a flippant attitude to the Dáil that in order to protect ourselves, human safety and human health, it should not sit. I understand the concerns of staff, but that we would get rid of our democratic institution so easily or propose to do so during Covid was a wake-up call for me in terms of how we protect democracy. If we have learned anything from Covid, it is to set out in legislation that democracy must be protected at all costs, and we should anticipate further pandemics and disasters, unfortunately.

The ICCL makes very good, expert recommendations. I am no expert in this area, but I think the Government should consider the recommendations of the ICCL, according to which:

...Part 5 of the General Scheme of the Bill be amended to include provision for the development of “all of government” strategies for the holding of electoral events in the context of national emergencies. This would include provisions for, inter-alia, the conducting of electoral events in the context of pandemics, natural disasters, terrorist outrages, cyber-attacks, extreme weather events, and so on.

The council goes on to make practical suggestions in relation to the national risk assessment, including how we could make provision and then copper-fasten it in legislation. It would be a wasted opportunity not to do that.

The ICCL has also raised serious concerns, as has been mentioned already, regarding the definition of "political purposes". I find the ICCL to be moderate in its press releases. It was certainly very moderate and considered in its various publications during Covid, when it was extremely worried about the draconian legislation. The council may not have used that phrase; those are my words. It was concerned about the serious restriction of human rights without a human rights analysis being done. It raised those concerns repeatedly and pointed out, over and over, that it was pro-vaccine in case anything was alleged against the organisation. I find the ICCL to be extremely moderate in its approach. It published a press release on the publication of this Bill on 30 March 2022 in which it stated: "The government has knowingly missed an opportunity to fix an anomaly in Irish law which means community groups or volunteer organisations could be prosecuted for normal fundraising work." The executive director of the organisation described the Bill as a "wasted opportunity", and stated:

We are in the bizarre situation where a community group set up to oppose, for example, the building of an oil refinery, could find themselves brought to court for seeking donations above a certain amount, but the company building the refinery can spend as much as it wants to influence the government. The government could have fixed this critical issue, which they have been aware of for years, while developing this Bill but have instead wasted the opportunity.

Those are not my words; they are the words of the ICCL.

The ICCL also referred to the Electoral Act 1997, which, I understand, was amended in 2001. I appeal to the Minister of State to look at that. Serious concerns have been raised by the Data Protection Commissioner on the use of PPS numbers. I understand that it was recommended that an analysis of be published before the Bill came before us, or certainly before we are asked to pass it. That has not been done, as far as I understand it. Perhaps it has. The joint committee recommended that a data protection impact assessment be carried out "to ensure full compliance with GDPR".

The digest goes through the joint committee's report and the recommendations and outlines which ones have been taken on board. If I have some constructive criticism, it would be for the Department to be more specific in where it has taken on or not taken on the recommendations of a cross-party committee. It would be very helpful as we struggle through the documents. That has not happened.

The Standards in Public Office Commission, SIPO, has made a very interesting submission in relation to the Bill. It also published an annual report in 2020. It is well worth looking at in the context of SIPO's concerns about independence and the source of the budget. I gather that it would not come from the vote. Concerns were raised about independence and resources to ensure that the organisation can carry out its work. Looking at SIPO's experience, it simply cannot do what it is being asked to do. There is no provision on the time span in which the work of SIPO will be transferred to the new electoral commission. It is not clear why the CEO is going to be appointed by the Government, without going through any process first, and with the provision for the appointment to be renewed for five years. In other words, the CEO of the new electoral commission will be appointed by the Government for a period of ten years. Perhaps the Minister of State can explain that.

Concerns have been raised in relation to the number of members of the electoral commission and the fact that members will be ex officio, because it is just too hard. I think of SIPO and the people who are on the board of SIPO. I have the greatest of respect for them. They are ex officio members and they are dealing with many other jobs at the same time. These concerns have been raised previously, and now it is happening again with this electoral commission.

The Irish Human Rights and Equality Commission, IHREC, talked about the Electoral Act 2001, which I have already referred to, as having "a chilling effect on the funding and activities of civil society organisations involved in legitimate advocacy". I am doubling back to that point. IHREC has raised concerns at least since 2003 that the wide scope of the legislation intended to ban large anonymous foreign donations in elections could be hindering the work of civil society organisations. In its annual report in 2020, SIPO stated, "It is understood that a legislative review is proposed as a function of a new electoral commission", and recommended that this take place "as a matter of urgency". SIPO has said many other things.

I welcome the Bill. I hope that Committee Stage will be used to look at the significant gaps. For a democracy to be strong, we need an electoral system that is above reproach, but we also need the active involvement of our citizens - otherwise, we do not have it. Deputy Alan Farrell suggested that perhaps we should not close the schools. I cannot think of a better way to educate our students in the ways of democracy, or the lack of it, than by using schools, but I have an open mind on the issue.

I did not intend to speak on this particular subject, but, like the Minister of State, having a fair amount of experience of the vicissitudes of the electorate and the electoral system, I think one should always avail of the opportunity to speak on it. First, the proposals always need to reflect through democracy. I note that Deputy Connolly referred to draconian measures. Nobody ever refers to what preceded the legislation and what it was like before the draconian measures that we often now talk about on a regular basis were introduced.

The answer is that they were appalling. Short and simple, they were just appalling. They were also far from democratic. Far be it from me to mention the matter at this particular time, but it needs to be mentioned. We need to retain the essentials of democracy at all times. No matter what we are doing with the system, how to achieve the democratic process should never be lost.

It was decided some years ago that we would change the system and that we would modernise it. Modernising democracy, as the Ceann Comhairle knows, has been attempted many times on the basis that it needed to be more accessible, it needed to be improved and the rough edges needed to be taken from it. There is no way that can be done without interfering with democracy itself. The rawness of democracy has always stood the test of time. In the final analysis, it has always come through. The basis of its survival so far, to my mind, is that it has been in operation in various shapes and forms for, let us say, 1,000 years, although some may differ on that. It is the basis of our existence. If we forfeit any part of the democratic process, we would be making a serious mistake.

When we reform something, my concern is always that we might tip off something that was not intended, that we round a corner that should not have been rounded in the first place and that we ignore the basic fundamentals of the democratic process. That democratic process has stood us well over the past 100 years, and it is no harm to comment on that now. In that time, it has stood the test of time extremely well in different circumstances, in challenging circumstances and in situations that were not anticipated. The important thing is that from here on, going forward - in that appalling phrase, which I am not sure is democratically based - we need to recognise there are different countries throughout Europe, some of which have a true democracy and some of which do not. If one enters the House of Commons, for instance, one gets a sense of the permanence of a democratic process that has evolved over the years and has essentially remained the same. I know it has its faults, and we were the recipients of some of its faults for many long years, but the fact of the matter is that it has a permanence about it that we need to aspire to in one form or another. The way we need to aspire to it is to be sure that it is based in such a way as to be fair to the people.

The electoral system is, of course, subject to our Constitution as well. As we proceed into the future, this will always be a trying issue because there will always be people who will suggest that it is old-fashioned and that we should change it and improve it, and make it more efficient and transparent. When we do some of those things, we tend to change it but we sometimes miss out on some vital points. We should be loath to do that. We should keep in mind the necessity to maintain that element of democracy throughout. From A to Z, in any shape or form, any legislation in regard to electoral reform should reflect that scene throughout, so democracy is to the fore at all times, the citizen is important and the citizen’s participation is important. The need to modernise it has to be measured against the need to ensure we maintain the element of authenticity that is needed in a democracy.

The Ceann Comhairle and I both have a fair amount of experience. I cannot remember how many electoral jousts in which we were involved in various forms in the same constituency, or in a different constituency from time to time, but they were many. I would like to think that one learns from that. I learned and I hope I continue to learn for a while longer, depending on the goodwill of the electorate and the great master above. A basic element of our electoral system is that the people decide to change, as they will from time to time, and that they have the power to do so and they do not have to go through any particular process other than an election. I know various speakers have already made reference to elections, how they should be run and how they should not be run, and how they can be tilted in one direction or another, and we have to bear that in mind. However, the essential issue is the effect what we propose might have on the outcome of an election in different circumstances. The circumstances will not always be the same; they will change from time to time. There will be threats to democracy and there will be threats to the electoral system. There will always be people who will say: “You are old-fashioned. This whole system has been here for so many years and it is old-fashioned now.” It could go on for another 1,000 years but the basic element must still remain, and that basic element is the power in the hands of the people and, whenever it is regulated that they so do, they can support, they can withdraw their support and they can change and change again, as they see fit within the electoral system.

If one looks at what has happened in various other jurisdictions across the globe, there are some of them we should worry about. Some of those we would have expected to see more from, and their systems, are in trouble, to my mind. The continuity of the system we have in place here is a basic element of the strength of our democracy. By continuity, I mean that we all know what happens if a Government is changed and by whom it is changed. That is the important part of it: by whom it is changed. The people are the only people who have the right to change it. We have talked about outside influences in recent times but it is not their business. Our business is to run our show in accordance with the best rules and regulations, in the best democratic tradition, with the right of the people to change the Administration, whoever they may be, from time to time as the case may be, but to ensure at all times the retention of the basic elements of democracy in so doing.

I thank Deputy Durkan for that important intervention. I think the key message is to hasten slowly and be cautious. I note the Deputy talked about us constantly learning. I have been learning from him for nearly 37 years, and I still have a lot to learn. I call the Minister of State, Deputy Noonan, to respond, although not to that comment.

I have a lot to learn too. It is certainly appropriate that Deputy Durkan made the last contribution of the very important contributions this afternoon and in the last session. I will address a number of the points made and will then make a closing speech.

Deputy Connolly referred to the importance of data protection and acknowledged that data protection must be given the highest priority in our work in respect of electoral registration. A data protection impact assessment has been carried out and consultation with the Data Protection Commission has been undertaken throughout this process, and that engagement has been very positive and constructive. It is our intention to publish the data protection impact assessment. Provisions both in respect of the shared database and sharing data for the purposes of updating the register are clearly specified and delimited. In addition, those critical data protection tests of necessity and proportionality are applied to those provisions.

In regard to the appointment of a CEO, which was also raised by Deputy Connolly, I can confirm that the CEO will be appointed following an independent competitive process undertaken by the Public Appointments Service.

The issue of PPS numbers was raised by Deputy Pringle and a number of other Deputies. The gathering of information and limited sharing of that information is for the purpose of maintaining and ensuring the accuracy of the register of electors. The Bill is very specific in setting out the functions of registration authorities, as well as both the general and specific provisions under which they can gather data. Using PPS numbers in the process will enable a very simple process to register either online or on paper. Rather than being used as an identifier, the PPS number will enable cross-checking of the data provided with data already held by the Department of Social Protection. This will provide a vital check that information provided on forms is consistent and coherent and matches a record of a living individual.

Deputies Farrell and Higgins raised the formal tally process. It is an interesting point and, again, it is something we could ask the commission to consider, particularly in view of the fact that it could be dealt with in terms of regulations.

I welcome Deputy Jim O'Callaghan's kind comments on the Bill. He and a number of other Deputies raised the issue of the online space. Other initiatives are under way in terms of legislation on hate speech and European directives on disinformation. A number of other components would complement what we are doing here. I stress that ours is the first jurisdiction to bring in the regulation of online political advertising during electoral events at EU level.

I take on board the points Deputy Connolly made on how long this Bill has been in gestation. It has certainly been a slow train coming. I pay tribute to our team in the franchise section for the work they have done over many years to bring it to this point. It is historic in terms of the Legislature, our electoral system and the valuing of our democracy. We all share and cherish that here today.

The constructive debate was carried forward from the detailed pre-legislative scrutiny which the Joint Committee on Housing, Local Government and Heritage gave to the general scheme of the Bill last year. I appreciate the consistent support which has been expressed for both the Bill and its aims. The broad range of issues which all of the members have raised reflect the wide-ranging reform this Bill sets out. It brings far-reaching improvements to the systems and processes that underpin our democracy.

Given how fundamental these systems and processes are to our democracy, I welcome the fact the Bill is founded on political consensus and public support which have been built up over many years through reports and public consultations. I am confident that the Bill will make our electoral system stronger, more robust and more inclusive. The Minister and I are committed to harnessing the full range of perspectives from across the Oireachtas in order to strengthen this once-in-a-generation reform of our electoral system.

Deputies Ó Broin, Cairns, Cian O'Callaghan, Ó Laoghaire, Leddin and Martin Browne emphasised the need for the commission to work actively with under-represented groups, as was recommended in the pre-legislative scrutiny process. It is a testament to the work that was taking place at the committee, with organisations such as the Irish Travellers Movement, the National Women's Council of Ireland and the Immigrant Council of Ireland all taking part and making valuable contributions.

By providing that the commission may establish committees and allow flexibility to make external appointments to them, the Bill already provides a strong structure for working with stakeholders to broaden participation. The commission's research, advisory and voter education function is significant and substantive. As one of the commission's most active roles, I am determined that it will be well resourced in order that it can carry out its work. Our democratic structures are precious. We need to continue to strive to strengthen both them and participation in and engagement with them.

I also envision that the commission will place particular emphasis on increasing participation in our democratic structures among marginalised or traditionally under-represented groups. However, being mindful of the commission's independence from Government, I consider it appropriate to leave it open to the commission to decide how it fulfils its mandate in that respect. While broadening participation will be a function of the electoral commission, the implementation of the modernised electoral registration process will offer a significant opportunity to engage with all electors and potential electors.

As well as making it easier for people to register, the simplified process will enable registration authorities to focus their work on specific areas or cohorts to ensure the register is fully reflective of the population. A number of Deputies welcomed the Bill's provision for the pre-registration of 16- and 17-year-olds. I acknowledge that there have also been calls to provide for the lowering of the voting age to 16. In this regard, A Programme for Government: Our Shared Future contains a commitment to examine the Scottish experience of reducing the voting age to 17. The electoral commission will be well placed to carry out this research and make its recommendations. I know there have been different experiences in other jurisdictions.

I have spoken to the Irish Second-Level Students Union and other organisations that had an interest in this and, certainly, the case has been made this evening for reducing the voting age to 16 for the local elections. However, I am of the view the commission is best placed to examine this further and not to just use the local elections as a test bed for that. I certainly have my own views on the matter, but it is important that we make informed decisions with regard to reducing the voting age.

Deputies Ó Broin, Cian O'Callaghan and Pringle expressed disappointment that the Bill does not address civil society's concerns around the definition of "political purposes" in electoral law. A number of other Deputies also raised this matter. In reply, I must state that there is a commitment in the programme for Government to request that, when it has been established, the commission carry out research in respect of several matters. Accordingly, it is intended that the commission will carry out a comprehensive review of the Electoral Act 1997 to address, among other matters, the concerns raised by civil society. I am of the view that any review of the definition of political purposes should be comprehensive, objective and undertaken in tandem with such a wider review of the entire Electoral Act 1997.

A review of the Act in its entirety would deliver a better and more efficient outcome, having particular regard to the importance of the meaning of political purposes to all stakeholders on whom obligations arise under our political donations regime. The proposed review would be completed within a relatively short timeframe, following the commission's establishment. I take on board the press release by the ICCL. I met with it and gave assurances that the commission would be tasked with this work very early after its establishment.

Deputy Nash referred to the commission not being tasked with the running of elections. I will make two points about this matter. The first is that research and public consultations suggest that the actors, such as returning officers and polling station staff, who carry out electoral functions independently at local level enjoy a high degree of confidence among citizens. There is a strong case for this process being retained. The second point is that two models of electoral commission have emerged internationally. Some, such as the Canadian, Australian and New Zealand commissions, are responsible for running elections. Others, such as that in the UK, have a more regulatory focus and stand apart from direct involvement in the running of electoral events. Our electoral commission is being set up to operate in that regulatory space. It is worth noting that the Bill provides for the commission to carry out ex post reviews on the administration of electoral events. Such independent reviews will be a new feature for our electoral process.

Deputies Ó Broin, Mitchell, Nash and Martin Browne voiced their support for the extension of postal voting arrangements. The programme for Government contains a commitment to the effect that the electoral commission will be asked to examine postal voting with a view to expanding its provision. I expect that the commission will undertake this work as soon as possible following its establishment.

Deputies Mitchell and Phelan raised queries about the role of the commission in respect of the register of electors. The oversight function provided for in the Bill is intended to be a constructive and transparent engagement with registration authorities and one that will evolve as parties gain experience with the new registration process.

Deputy Phelan asked for more information on how online registration and, indeed, transition to a new system would work. The new shared database with unique identifiers will take some time to develop, although proposals are in preparation to ensure we can hit the ground running once the legislation is in place. In that regard, I am pleased to note that Dublin City Council, the lead local authority for the project, has today published a request for information to the market to ensure that the latest technological advances are considered as part of that process.

Upgrades to existing systems are under way to ensure that the benefits of this legislation, including rolling registration and online applications, will be available throughout the country following the enactment and commencement. This will be supported by a significant public communications campaign.

I welcome the positive supports from members for the provision of anonymous electors and for people with no fixed address. In respect of electors with no fixed address, section 104(a)(i) requires registration authorities, insofar as is practicable, to assist people making applications under this provision. The annual re-registration requirement is intended to ensure that people do not fall off the register but instead are proactively engaged with, on a regular basis, precisely for the reasons raised by Deputy Jim O'Callaghan.

Deputy Ó Cathasaigh highlighted the importance of the commission staff having proficiency in the Irish language. I assure him that the staff of the commission will be classified as civil servants under section 16 and, as such, the 20% recruitment target set in the Official Languages (Amendment) Act 2021 will apply.

I thank the all Deputies for their valuable input into this debate. The Minister and I look forward to further consideration of the Bill's provisions on Committee Stage. We need to continuously renew our commitment to and investment in our democracy. It is our view that this Bill will go some considerable way towards strengthening our democracy into the future.

Question put and agreed to.
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