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Seanad Éireann debate -
Thursday, 15 Dec 1960

Vol. 53 No. 6

Electoral Bill, 1960 : Second and Subsequent Stages.

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

The main purpose of this Bill is to give effect to the recommendations contains in the Interim Report of the Joint Committee on Electoral Law which was presented to the Dáil on 26th October and to this House on the 9th November, 1960. Advantage is being taken of the Bill also to continue two temporary electoral enactments which would otherwise expire at the end of the present year and to extend the maximum period between a dissolution of Dáil Éireann or the issue of a writ for a bye-elction and the holding of the poll.

The Acts of 1868 and 1869 mentioned in Section 2 of the Bill deal, respectively, with petitions against the election of candidates to parliament and with the costs of certain types of parliamentary inquiries. They are temporary statutes and, in the past, have been continued by Expiring Laws Acts; the last such Act, passed in 1952, extended their life up to 31st December, 1960. It is considered to be appropriate to continue them by this Electoral Bill until such time as their provisions can be brought into relationship with modern conditions and assimilated into our general electoral code.

The statutory prohibition on the registration of Gardaí as Dáil electors is being repealed under Section 3 of the Bill and section 6 provides that all members of the Garda Síochána and of the Defence Forces will, in future, be registered as postal voters. To preserve a right which soldiers already possess, the Bill proposes to give members of the Defence Forces the option of choosing to be registered in the constituency where they would be ordinarily resident but for their services with the Forces.

A move to simplify the procedure in postal voting is made in Section 8, which provides for the substitution of a simple receipt for the formal declaration of identity which, up to this, had to accompany each postal ballot paper sent to voters at election time.

An important change is being made by Section 4 in regard to the minimum age at which a person may be registered as an elector. Heretofore, a person could not be registered unless he had attained the age of 21 years on or before 15th September in the year preceding the publication of the register. In effect, this has meant that a minimum age of 21 years and 7 months on the date on which the register comes into force has been necessary to secure registration. The Bill proposes that the register now being compiled and future registers should include the names of all persons, otherwise qualified, who will have reached the age of 21 years by the 15th April on which the register comes into operation. It is estimated that this provision should admit up to 25,000 additional young electors on to the register now being prepared.

An extension of the maximum period which may elapse between the proclamation dissolving Dáil Éireann or the receipt by a returning officer of a writ for a bye-election and the polling day is proposed by section 7. The purpose of the change is to enable a sufficiently long period to be fixed between nomination and polling to allow ballot papers to be sent to postal voters who may be serving abroad and to be returned by them in time to be counted at an election. It is also proposed that the Minister for Local Government rather than the returning officer should fix the polling day at a bye-election.

The only recommendations of the Joint Committee which I found myself unable to accept without any qualification were certain of those relating to voting by blind and incapacitated electors. Briefly, I consider that a companion should be allowed to assist one or two blind or incapacitated voters to mark their ballot papers instead of only one such voter as recommended by the Joint Committee, and I have not adopted their recommendation that a companion should be required to complete a declaration of secrecy. On the other hand, the Bill contains a condition, additional to those suggested by the Joint Committee, requiring companions assisting such voters to be at least 16 years of age.

As the law stands at present, a presiding officer may refuse to accede to a request by a blind or incapacitated voter that his ballot paper be marked for him where the request is made within four hours of the close of the poll and the officer considers that it would unduly obstruct the voting of other electors to comply with the request. This discretion to refuse will remain in cases where the presiding officer is himself requested, under the existing procedure, to mark a ballot paper in the presence of the agents of candidates, for a blind or incapacitated voter, but it will not apply where such a voter wishes to have his paper marked for him by a companion.

In proposing these slight departures from the recommendations of the Joint Committee and the introduction of the new provisions I am acceding to pressing representations which were made to me by a deputation from the National League of the Blind shortly after the Interim Report was published. I feel that the changes are reasonable and that they should be accepted.

The changes which are proposed in relation to the Dáil electoral code under Parts I and II of the Bill will, where appropriate, be made also in the codes dealing with presidential elections, referenda and local elections under Parts III, IV and V of the Bill.

In conclusion, I would like to place on record my appreciation of the work which is being done by the Joint Committee on Electoral Law and, in particular, for the expeditious manner in which they completed and presented the Interim Report which has formed the basis for the major part of this Bill. The law which they have under examination is voluminous and extremely complex and we all look forward to a large measure of rationalisation and consolidation as a result of their deliberations. Because it is essential that certain changes provided for in this Bill should be given legislative effect in the current parliamentary session the scope of the measure is necessarily restricted. I would suggest, however, that any ideas on electoral matters which occur to Senators and which do not directly relate to the provisions of the Bill might appropriately be submitted by them for consideration by the Joint Committee.

The two most important provisions I can see in the Bill are the giving of votes to the Garda and the extension of the age position to cover people who will be 21 on 15th April in each year which, the Minister said, means that voters hitherto required to be a minimum of 21 years and seven months before they were entitled to vote, will be entitled to vote. The register is being compiled on that basis. If we do not give effect to all Stages of this Bill, it will not be possible for this desirable improvement in the law to take place. In saying this, I am not looking for any information on the closely-guarded secret of when the general election is to take place. A voter, who did not reach 21 years of age until 15th April last may well have to wait a month or seven months before he has an opportunity of casting his vote. Be that as it may, it suffices for the Seanad to allow this measure to pass so that the Gardaí and Ban Gardaí may register their votes. I suppose the Ban Gardaí will have to be brought in as otherwise they would have to be excluded if the Minister did not take the precaution of allowing them to retain their votes when they joined the Force as also, the people who would not be 21 years of age until 15th April.

I also welcome this Bill. I realise that it is as the Minister said, the result of an interim report. Therefore I think we may look forward as he says to a further rationalisation of the present code which is highly complicated. It is obvious to all of us that the provisions of this Bill are sensible and some are long overdue.

The provision in relation to the age of the voter is an obviously necessary amendment. I am glad the Government has accepted it, and also the voting by members of the Defence Forces and the Garda. But there are a number of other points which I should like to see in any electoral Bill purporting to simplify, clarify and rationalise. I would ask the Minister to take these into account. Presumably this is in a sense an interim Bill, and the Minister will be preparing a second and perhaps a third Bill to come before us.

There are a number of anomalies in our electoral system which could well be removed and which would be difficult to defend. One is that on a ballot paper which may contain as many as 30 names, the political affiliations of the candidate are not allowed. You are allowed to say he is a company director, or a dustman, or a teacher, and so on, but you are not allowed to say he is a member of Fianna Fáil, Fine Gael, the Labour Party or whatever party he may belong to. I do not know what is the implication—whether it is deemed disgraceful or disreputable to belong to a political party. I see no justification, however, for this failure to place this information on the ballot paper, and thus make it easy for the voter to know what he is doing. In the old days, when there were only two or three candidates for a one-seat constituency, there was no confusion. You knew whether they were Sinn Féin, Nationalist or Unionist. Nowadays when we have got a little beyond these primitive electoral systems and may have as many as five seats in our constituencies, we may have as many as 30 or 40 candidates on the list. You would need a good memory to remember exactly all the political affiliations of every candidate on such a list. You must remember the initials as well. The same surname may appear twice on the ballot paper for members of different Parties.

It ought to be a question of pushing an open door to suggest that a candidate should be allowed to put in brackets after his name his political affiliation, which would make things far simpler for the voter. My second point is the question of the deposit. We have a monetary deposit required which we inherited from the British system. I suggest there are here two amendments to be made. The first is that the deposit should be considerably lower. It is far too big a sum.

This, of course, is a monetary barrier. The small man who has not got these money resources, and is not backed by the big Party political machines, cannot become a candidate. He cannot put down the £100 or the £150 for the deposit and that is a judgement, if you like, on the adequacy of a candidate on purely financial grounds. I suggest you might have another test, whether he could be nominated by a certain number of voters for instance, or if that test is not feasible, then let us make the deposit lower. The only people who derive advantage from keeping the deposit high are the big Parties, but of course we realise that they are more concerned with justice than with mere Party advantage. Therefore, I appeal to the Minister to lower the amount of the deposit.

Furthermore, there is the forfeiting of the deposit because the candidate has not secured one-sixth of the quota. It is a rather high percentage, because you might get quite a lot of votes and still not secure one-sixth of the quota. In other words, you can receive quite a considerable amount of support in a constituency and yet forfeit your deposit. I would plead that it should be changed from one-sixth to one-tenth, or something of that kind.

May I suggest that the Senator's references to these matters would more appropriately arise on the second Bill which we hope will come in due course? May I suggest that they have no reference to the Bill under consideration?

An Leas-Chathaoirleach

If I might say so, I did think the Senator was going outside the scope of this Bill, but I thought the Senator was entitled to mention the matters. I do not think he should deal with them at length.

I do not intend to expand them at length. My hope is that before the other Bill comes before us, the Minister will have devoted some thought to what I have mentioned. On the Second Stage, I think one can shed tears for what is not contained in the Bill, and might have been contained in it.

As long as the Senator does not cause a flood.

There are one or two other points I should like to mention. One of them is the question which I think disturbs a lot of us, that is, the election propaganda which is pasted up on public buildings at election time. I am sure the Minister is aware that in continental countries every candidate is allotted four or five places in his constituency where an individual propaganda board is chained to some immovable object, and he is allowed to paste up his propaganda there, but nowhere else. If any of his propaganda appears anywhere else, he is liable to prosecution. I suggest it is a simple thing which might be enshrined——

That would come up in relation to derelict sites.

Derelict sites are used extensively for that, and, in fact, some sites have become derelict by reason of the Party propaganda which has been put up there.

The last point I want to make is in relation to polling. On the Continent, you frequently have polling day on a Sunday. Here we have it on a weekday from 9 o'clock in the morning to 9 p.m., with the result that large sections of the working classes find it difficult to get to the polling stations. Nine o'clock in the morning is not early enough for them to get there before going to work and by the time their working day is over, and they have returned home, changed and had a meal, they may well find that at about 8.30 p.m. there is an enormous crowd at the polling booths. I do not think the hours are good and I do not think offence would be taken by anybody if we had our polling day on a Sunday afternoon, say, from 12 noon until 10 o'clock at night. That would facilitate voting, and I think we are in favour of voting and polling in this country.

In conclusion, I would plead with the Minister that we should make things easier not alone for blind voters but for all voters to cast their votes with open eyes, and with as full knowledge as they can have in relation to the candidates and their names and political affiliations on the ballot paper and so on. We should also remove any unnecessary obstacles in the path of would-be candidates, and remove or lower the money test as a test of the fitness or otherwise of the candidate. I would plead, therefore for a second Bill which would make for even greater simplification and clarification of the code, and make it easier for both candidates and voters.

There is a division bell ringing.

The Minister withdrew.

On a point of order—I say this without any particular reference to the present Minister—it seems to me that this House should not too readily accept the fact that when in full session and dealing with a Bill, we can lose the Minister in this way and have a void in our proceedings. I feel the voting in the other House is not all that close, and perhaps on future occasions Ministers might agree to remain with us.

I think the procedure heretofore was to arrange pairing.

No; that was not the procedure heretofore. The procedure has been to let the debate go ahead, even though the Minister is not here. I have been here on several occasions when the Minister had to leave the House to be present at voting in the other House and the debate proceeded.

An Leas-Chathaoirleach

The House could adopt either solution.

Last evening when I was speaking, I preferred to go on speaking when the Minister for Health withdrew, rather than leave a gap, but it is not really satisfactory to speak in the absence of the Minister and it is apparent now that we do not intend to go on.

An Leas-Chathaoirleach

It should be possible to arrange a pair.

I propose to speak.

At page 40 in our Standing Orders, it says that when Ministers from the Dáil expect to be engaged in the Seanad, it is suggested that they should arrange to pair.

I should like to support this strongly. I think it is only lowering the dignity of the House if we carry on in the absence of a Minister. Surely, when making a contribution, the purpose is to make points and suggestions on the Bill to the Minister and how can these be conveyed if the Minister is not here?

I do not at all agree with the last speaker. If the debate goes on, there is no doubt that the points which will be made will be conveyed to the Minister. There are ways and means of having this done.

An Leas-Chathaoirleach

This is a useful discussion, at any rate.

The constitutional position is that the Minister has right of audience in this House and while it is desirable that the Minister should attend, I think this House is well able to discharge its business, whether the Minister is present or not. We must have regard to the fact that Ministers must be in the Dáil on particular occasions, such as for divisions.

Not if they are paired.

It may not always be possible to do that.

If there is a reasonable Opposition, it should be possible.

An Leas-Chathaoirleach

It might be a practical solution of the difficulty.

I can assure the House that there is no question of discourtesy on our part in reminding the Minister that there is a division but we have found that what works, works well. By agreement on all sides of the House, we have been able to keep the business of the House going in a very satisfactory manner up to now. I do not think that little incidents such as this which occur very rarely should give rise to any fears or tremors on the part of Senator Sheehy Skeffington about the dignity of the House.

An Leas-Chathaoirleach

I do not think it is incorrect to remind the Minister that there is a Division. It is only right and proper.

Senator Ó Maoláin talked about fears and tremors on my part about the dignity of the House, which I did not mention. Quite simply, I think a better debate would be conducted in the presence of the Minister. I was referring to the fact that sometimes we carry on business, as I did, in the absence of the Minister. Now apparently we are folding up, wasting our time and twiddling our thumbs—all of which is a waste of public money.

I had intended to speak when the Minister left.

An Leas-Chathaoirleach

I call on Senator Ó Maoláin then to make his contribution to the debate. I would say that on the whole he would speak in favour of the measure.

This Bill, as Senators are aware, is a Bill based on the interim report of the Joint Committee and I should like to say that, in my opinion, as a member of that Joint Committee, the thanks which the Minister expressed are well deserved. I never had experience of a committee with such varying opinions which got down to the job in such a satisfactory manner and was able to get through its business as expeditiously as this Joint Committee has done. The fact that we have an interim report, which forms the basis of this Bill, in such a short time since the Committee was established, is an indication that they are doing a satisfactory job and that they will continue to do that job until such time as they have finished the work given them to do within the terms of reference.

This Bill, as the Minister explained, provides for certain things which must be brought into operation, if we are to achieve the desirable result of incorporating new names on the register which will come into operation on 15th April next—the names of those who will reach the age of 21 and who, but for this Bill, would not be entitled to a vote for two years more. The fact that some 25,000 new young people will be given a vote as a consequence of this Bill is a most satisfactory outcome of the deliberations of the Committee.

I should like to point out also that, before the Committee met, the Minister for Local Government had already announced in the Dáil his decision to give the Garda Síochána the right to vote, and I should like to reassure Senator Sheehy Skeffington, and other members of the House who may have ideas on the same line, that the Committee has anticipated practically every suggestion the Senator made.

And has, in fact, taken a decision—quite a number of them—which we hope to submit to the Government in a second interim report and which, we hope, will be implemented in the shortest possible time. Amongst those decisions, it might be of interest to Senators to know that we have given very careful consideration to the question of designating the political affiliations of a candidate on the ballot paper and the Senator need have no fears that this Committee is not taking into account every possible improvement that could be thought of by people experienced in regard to the electoral law.

It is a very satisfactory Bill, but it is a limited Bill. It has limited objectives. The next Bill, we hope, will go much further than this one and will clean up all the anomalies which exist in the Acts under which our elections were organised up to now. It is a very heavy undertaking. There is a lot of material to be read. We have got—and I should like to say this publicly—the greatest possible assistance from the Department of Local Government and the officials who are dealing with us in regard to the reform of the electoral law. The mass of material which we have got is certainly such as to require quite a lot of study to get an idea of all the little difficulties and the absurdities, too, which have crept into our existing electoral laws.

I am quite satisfied, as a member of the Committee, that every effort is being made to do a really worthwhile job in presenting reports to the Minister which will enable a Bill or Bills to be framed that will make our electoral laws as foolproof as possible.

With regard to the departure from the recommendations of the Committee in this Bill, that is, in regard to blind voters, I find myself more or less inclined to agree that the Minister is taking the right line in the amendment. I should like Senators, however, to know that, when the organisation representing the blind made strong representations to the Minister contrary to the decision at which we had arrived, I think it was right and proper, since they were the parties directly interested, that he should accept those recommendations and embody them in the Bill.

I entirely agree with the remarks which Senator Ó Maoláin made in his able ex tempore speech. This is the end-product of the first of a series of deliberations of the Joint Committee. The Committee has been notable for its almost unanimity of views upon a wide variety of subjects. The Minister has shown great promptitude— very commendable promptitude—in introducing, within such a short space of time, this Bill to implement, almost without exception, the recommendations of the Joint Committee.

Apart from the Department of Local Government which gave the greatest assistance to the Committee in their deliberations, members of the public, too, submitted quite a number of observations and also members of the Oireachtas. I should like to make this point. It is not late yet for anybody, who has any ideas on the reforms that are necessary in the present electoral system, to submit these ideas to the Committee. It is quite true to say that all the suggestions made are not just perfunctorily dealt with but are argued out at considerable length. The result is that you have— and I think we are likely to have— another Bill upon which there will be almost complete unanimity. The Joint Committee on Electoral Law held their meetings very frequently and the atmosphere was the kind of atmosphere that one would expect to find among people interested in elections and who know a great deal about the difficulties which voters and candidates are up against at the time of general elections.

There is little, apart from what may have been said while I was absent, that really demands any comment from me, except to say, as has been said by a number of speakers, that it is not the matters that are in this Bill we really want to discuss, for the very good reason that this is but an instalment of the legislation we hope will be coming forward as a result of the deliberations of the Joint Committee on Electoral Law.

I would put it even more clearly than that. If I were to discuss the recommendations which I, as Minister, have had submitted to me and the recommendations which were submitted direct to the committee, I would probably take at least three hours. The electoral laws have been under review in my Department for a considerable length of time, in very great detail, in advance of the decision to set up the Joint Committee. We were not just thinking of the interim report. The investigations which have been made, have continued and will continue to be made in the future, and will be referred, for what they are worth, to the Joint Committee for their consideration and their ultimate recommendation to the Houses of the Oireachtas for implementation by me in further electoral Bills.

It is natural, I suppose, that each person who rises to speak on this measure should discuss what is missing from it because each person un-doubtedly—we are all in politics and we are all interested in a political sense in these matters, and in a personal way—has his own personal views on several matters he feels should be remedied, changed, amended or deleted. It is only natural that each person should observe what is not to his satisfaction.

As we have said, this is really a first instalment of the new electoral laws. We hope to deal with them in the not too distant future with the same expedition as the interim report was dealt with. It is the intention of the Department and the Government to deal with the subsequent reports of the committee with the same expedition, if at all possible, because we know that the laws are very much out of date. They do not really conform with modern conditions in many respects, and we know that the sooner we get a clear electoral code suited to our every-day and present-day lives, the better for all concerned, and for democracy as it operates here.

For these reasons, I am sure I will be excused if I do not even attempt to comment on some of the matters which were raised. I again assure those who raised them that the matters dealt with in this Bill are undoubtedly being dealt with by the Joint Committee and will be fully dealt with in their deliberations in future. That being so, and with the general atmosphere of welcome for the Bill, it is not really necessary for me to make any comment whatsoever.

Question put and agreed to.
Bill put through Committee, reported without amendment, received for Final Consideration and passed.