SEANAD IN COMMITTEE. - ELECTORAL BILL, 1923—SECOND STAGE.

AN CATHAOIRLEACH

The next Bill on the agenda is the Electoral Bill, 1923. That is a very long and complicated measure. It has been in the hands of Senators for a considerable time. Shall we proceed with the Second Reading of it, or is it the desire of the Seanad that it should not be proceeded with to-day.

I hope we shall take the Second Reading now. According to the Standing Orders, when a Bill of this kind, that has been before us for some time, has been put on the agenda by the Cathaoirleach, we ought to take it in the ordinary course. Afterwards it is left to the Cathaoirleach to arrange a suitable date for the Committee Stage.

I think we might take the Second reading of this measure now.

AN CATHAOIRLEACH

Very well.

Motion made and question proposed: "That this Bill be now read a Second time."

I should like to call the attention of the Minister to one or two facts that may, perhaps, arise later on. Of course, this Bill is quite necessary, and I do not think there will be any objection to the Second Reading by anybody. In Clause 41 reference is made to the fact that the elections must be all held on the one day. That is laid down in the Constitution, and, of course, it makes it very difficult for any alteration to be made now. I remember that I was down the country last year at the time the elections were being held. I was speaking to the Sub-sheriff for Co. Mayo who had charge of the elections there, and he pointed out to me how impossible it was for him to carry on the elections if there was even the slightest opposition. He said if three of four men in a motor car having revolvers went around the constituency, in which I think there were 170 polling places, it would be impossible to carry on the elections. Every schoolhouse in the area was a polling place, and if two or three people went round in a motor car with revolvers, and went to these places and took away the stamps or the ballot boxes, they would render an election for the whole country useless. When I saw the Constitution passed with that clause I foresaw that difficulties might arise. I know there are some clauses in this Bill to help to get over cases where any difficulty arises by having the polling in these places again. Interference might be very extensive, and it seems to me that it would be very difficult to carry out such an election. I suggest, and probably the matter has been already considered, that a clause might be brought in where there is serious opposition in a whole district, that different counties might hold their elections at different times. In that way troops could be sent down to enforce peace or order in a particular district. It would require 200,000 men at least to guard all the polling stations in Ireland, when then there are 170 in Mayo alone.

I think Senator Moore must not have read the Bill. I understand there is a clause in it, that if the ballot boxes are taken away it does not annul the election, and that a vote could be taken in a particular area again.

Senator MacLoughlin is correct. We made the best provision we could for the difficulty that Senator Moore referred to in Sections 33 and 34 of this Bill. If any better provision can be suggested when the Seanad is considering it in Committee there will be no opposition from the point of view of the Government. I may say with regard to this Bill that there is very little new and nothing revolutionary in it. It is confined practically to adapting the existing law to the requirements of the Constitution. It enacts adult suffrage, that every citizen 21 years of age, whether man or woman, is entitled to be registered as a voter. It makes provision for the registration of persons over 30 years of age who will be entitled to vote for the Seanad. It makes provision for Referenda. There is, of course, no provision in the existing law for holding a Referendum. This Bill makes the provision because it may happen at any moment that a petition will be presented asking for a Referendum on a particular Bill. It could not happen for some time, but it might happen this year that the Seanad might take action requiring a Referendum. There is also provision for the issue of writs and the conduct of elections to the Seanad. There are no provisions in this particular Bill with regard to corrupt practices. The whole subject is so large that a Bill dealing with the matter would be a bulky document, so that it has been divided. This Bill deals with the Dáil, the Seanad and with Referenda. Another Bill is in draft at the moment dealing with corrupt practices, and will adapt the law dealing with corrupt practices to the new conditions. A further Bill will be required dealing with Local Government generally and the Local Government franchise in particular, which this Bill does not touch.

I think there could hardly be any opposition to the general principle of the Bill, and that the Seanad should have little difficulty in passing it through its present stage. Differences of opinion that may exist in regard to it will be disclosed when we come to deal with it in detail on the Committee Stage, and to examine the individual clauses of the measure.

I think it will be agreed that the Bill as it left the Dáil is an exceedingly fine document, and one on which there cannot be very much controversy. From my point of view, and from the point of view of those associated with me, there are, however, a few blemishes in the Bill that might reasonably and without injustice to anybody be removed so as to make the document even more perfect. One of these blemishes is the decision to disfranchise a policeman in regard to elections to the Dáil or Seanad, and a referendum. We, on principle, are of the opinion that no body of citizens who earn their livelihood by honest work, as policemen are supposed to do, and do, should be disfranchised. It is a blot on our political life that an important section of the community should be disfranchised in that way. After all, there are people in important Civil Service positions who exercise a far greater influence on public life than do policemen, and they have the right to vote, while a policeman is denied the right. I approve thoroughly of the advisability of keeping policemen and police officers from taking an active part in politics while they are employed at their particular calling, and particularly from taking part in elections. Personally I have a very vivid recollection of the ability of fifty or sixty members of the Civic Guard under one of their officers around polling booths at the General Election, when they were supporting their particular candidate. For that reason I have every sympathy with the provision preventing them from taking part in elections. I do not think, at the same time, that they should be denied the right to vote while that right is permitted to a Civil Servant. The policeman cannot vote, but the Civil Servant has the right to vote, while he is prohibited from taking an active part in the election. The next item I touch upon is in regard to the forfeiture of £100 paid by a candidate who is elected to the Dáil but refuses to take the oath and his seat. We all know that is a very recent innovation and that it was introduced by the House of Lords in 1918 as a blow against Sinn Fein. I am afraid this Bill was conceived in the spirit of the present day without looking particularly far into the future. We are fond of saying, with a noted personage in this country, that there is a constitutional way of resolving our differences. One of the constitutional ways would be to give anybody who desires to test the feeling of the electors on any particular question an opportunity of going forward at an election, and, if he were elected, not taking his seat. I do not think it is in that respect good tactics to penalise him to the extent of his forfeit. We are told, of course, that if he is very strongly imbued with any particular policy he will be prepared to forfeit the £100 in support of that policy. On the other hand, it may be pointed out that a person who goes for election, and does not get the quota, gets his money back while if he gets the necessary quota for the election he is penalised to the extent of £100. In view of all the circumstances of the present day, and the encouragement which should be given to constitutional action, opportunities, at all events, should be given to those who decry Parliamentary action, or at all events revert to violence rather than constitutional means, for the purpose of resolving their differences. I hope, when it comes to the Committee Stage, that the Seanad will give unprejudiced and unbiassed consideration to this view. There is another point in regard to the disqualification of soldiers, policemen, and civil servants from membership of the Dáil and Seanad. It seems particularly hard that they cannot have the right to go on for election, and, if elected, to take their seats. We hope to have something more to say when the Committee Stage is reached. I am very pleased to learn that a Corrupt Practices Bill is to be introduced, and I hope, in the interests of common decency, it will be in operation by the time of the next General Election. This particular Bill provides for a very extensive franchise. We all know in Ireland at elections "the dead arise and appear to many." Not only do they appear once, but they appear several times. I fear the difficulties of preventing personation will be great. Personation has been brought to a very fine art in Ireland, and it will be greater at the next election than ever before, seeing that every girl and boy from the age of 21 years upwards will have the right to record their votes. It will be difficult also in view of the fact that it is always a very delicate thing to ask a lady what her age is. The difficulties facing the personation agents and the returning officers will be extremely great. From the point of view of the Seanad elections, the difficulties will be even greater still, seeing that the whole of the Saorstát will be one constituency. Personally I would not like to have the task of trying to get personation agents for every polling booth throughout the 26 counties. I do not know whether the present system is cumbersome. It may be even necessary, before the election takes place, to make some alteration in the law in regard to that. At all events, the steps which might be practicable for the purpose of providing personation agents in an election for Dáil Eireann will be absolutely impracticable in the case of a Seanad election. I think no Senator, unless he has a marvellous organisation, can hope to be able to find anything like a practicable number of personation agents throughout the polling booths in the whole of Saorstát Eireann.

I rise to support the Second Reading of this Bill. I think it carries out what has been promised— namely, to give every person in Ireland a voice in the government of the country, but I regret to see omitted from it Local Government Franchise which was originally inserted in the draft of the Bill when it came before the Dáil. I learned from the Minister that it is intended to bring forward a Bill specially intended to deal with the Local Government Franchise. I do hope that such a Bill will be brought forward and passed before the forthcoming elections. Of course, there are several matters connected with that franchise which require amendment. For instance, a person who refuses to pay his rates is entitled to vote just like his neighbour who always pays them, and there is no disqualification in the existing law for depriving a person of a vote who refuses to pay rates. I suggested to the Minister when he was bringing forward this Bill to bring forward an amendment to that effect. Not alone will it do justice to the man who pays his rates, but it may have the effect of inducing people who refused to pay to come forward and do their duty. As regards Parliamentary franchise, of course everybody contributes to the indirect taxes which are levied by the Government. We all have to eat and drink, and in that way the money goes into the Government's funds. The assurance that the Minister gave us that a special Bill will be introduced to deal with the matter I have brought forward meets my views.

I wish to draw attention to Clause 28, which has reference to infringement of secrecy. Now, as regards the coming election it would be to the best interests of the country that it should be as free from intimidation from every class as is possible, and the clause here is a very drastic one with regard to the infringement of the secrecy of the election. It has been my experience in municipal elections that a certain class of intimidation has been used by unscrupulous parties trading on the ignorance or the fear of electors. Notwithstanding the secrecy of the ballot box it is possible to know and discover afterwards how certain electors have voted. In the present conditions if a ballot box is seized at the close of the election, and the Presiding Officer's documents are there, and all the ballot papers and the whole paraphernalia are seized, it will be quite possible for those who seize the ballot boxes and their contents to find out how any particular elector has voted. That point has significance in this respect. Prior to the election it is not outside the power of invention of those who wish to destroy the effect of the election and render it nugatory, to design some means whereby they can intimidate a very great number of electors not only by suggesting it would be possible some time afterwards to discover how they voted, but they can discover immediately by seizure of the ballot boxes how they have voted, and threaten to visit the consequences on that section who in their opinion are not voting in the right direction. So the secrecy of the ballot box, instead of enabling a person to give his or her independent vote, is nullified in that way. I suggest to the Minister or the Seanad, by way of an amendment, that this is a weak point of voting by ballot so far as secrecy is concerned. The weak point is that the Presiding Officer puts on the counterfoil of the ballot paper a number corresponding to the elector's number on the Register. Therefore it is a very easy matter, if hostile parties seize the ballot box, to turn up the counterfoil and Register and tell how the elector voted. That being so, I do not see what exactly useful purpose the writing in the number of the counterfoil serves. I think it has reference to a demand for a re-count or something of that sort. If some means could be devised which would not radically interfere with the carrying out of the election by ballot, whereby it would be rendered impossible for those who unlawfully seized the ballot boxes to discover how any elector would have voted, I think it would remove a very serious cause of intimidation from the election. I think it will strike at the foundation of an independent election unless something of that sort is devised.

Question: "That this Bill be now read a second time," put and agreed to.