Item No. 2 on the Clár is the Electoral (Special Voters) Bill, 1986, Committee Stage, and I want to bring to the notice of Senators that in the list of amendments there is a printing error in that the heading "Section 2" should have appeared before amendments Nos. 1 and 2.
Electoral (Special Voters) Bill, 1986: Committee Stage.
Amendments Nos. 1 and 2 are related and the purpose of them is to make it clear that the special voting arrangements for disabled electors can be brought into operation in relation to the register of electors now in force. During Second Stage debate several Senators — in fact, I believe every Senator — expressed the view that these arrangements should be brought into effect for the present register and I fully accept this view, but I explained that the Bill was originally drafted with a view to coming into force in conjunction with next April's register. I take the Senators' view that it should, particularly for the disabled, come into force now and the amendments are designed to make this possible.
I understood from the Second Stage debate that this list would not come into effect until 14 April and that there would be a special voters' list prepared in addition to the ordinary register of electors. I would like the Minister to say if there is to be a separate list prepared and will it be in the form of a smaller register that will be in circulation and in the possession of candidates and their agents? Will the public have access to such a list? I understood we could not have a voters' list after 14 April because of its publication and its compiling and that people would not be in a position to apply for a vote until an election was declared. I would like the Minister to give us more information on this special list. Do I take it that when this Bill is passed and signed by the President, any incapacitated voter may apply to the county registrar within his area for a postal vote and that at that time a decision on whether or not he is entitled to a vote will come into play? Or, must an election be called before this special voters' list is prepared?
No, it will start immediately. There will be a special list compiled for a separate register as we assume that most of these disabled voters are on the register anyway. To ensure that disabled people have access to postal voting it is the intention that a special list will be set up. People will apply for a postal vote. Obviously the position will be checked out and when it is established that they are disabled persons and eligible to go on the list, that list will be compiled and it will be a separate list from the actual main register.
It will come into effect as soon as this Bill is passed?
One can then apply for a vote as a disabled person. In the event of that person ceasing to be disabled when he goes on to the special voting list, will his name be deleted from the ordinary register? If at any time an election arises and he is then not incapacitated can he go back and vote on the ordinary list of electors in the ordinary way? I see in the Bill that, if you apply for a vote and you are accepted on the special voters' list, you are then debarred even if your health improves from going back onto the ordinary register of electors and voting in the ordinary way. That could be a hindrance where there is a temporary rather than permanent disablement, that people would opt to vote in the ordinary way rather than in the presence of a garda síochána or a presiding officer calling at his home.
No, it is not intended that it would be for temporary disablement. It is intended that when somebody would apply there would be a certificate from a medical person indicating that in his or her opinion the applicant would be a disabled person during the course of that register. In other words, the register would run for a year. If somebody applies and is accepted it is taken that he is accepted for the duration of that register and if for whatever reason his health improved, he would still be voting by way of postal vote. He was accepted on the special register of postal voters because it was quite clear on the evidence submitted that he would be incapacitated for the particular period of that register.
I will be surprised if Fianna Fáil do not have him voting both ways. Unfortunately, in attempts by two previous Ministers to introduce postal votes in an effort to facilitate disabled and other persons, the absolute abuses of those attempts by the Opposition party were despicable.
I object. It is disgraceful of Senator Loughrey to introduce a subject like that into this debate when we are sincerely trying to facilitate incapacitated people. He has no interest whatever in incapacitated people judging by the attitude he is adopting here today and he is disappointing me very much.
Before Senator O'Toole got to his feet I was going to ask the Senators to stick to the amendment. We had this on Second Stage last week and it was an excellent debate. It would be nice if we continued in that tone in fairness to all parties.
Section 2 says: "The registration authority shall prepare as part of the register of electors a separate list..." and there is a proposed amendment. I would like to speak for a moment about the preparation of the register of electors before we talk about the disabled aspect of it or the special list. I have been concerned for a number of years about the preparation of the register of electors in my own constituency. I am not being politically biased when I say it has been shabbily done for a number of years. People are being included in the register of electors in my constituency who are long since gone from this country. I have written to the Minister's office on a number of occasions pointing this out. Each time I got courteous but vague replies pointing out that it was a matter for the local authority in the preparation of the registers and that they were investigating it at local authority level. Invariably, the local authority put it on a semi-long finger and it has happened again and again.
I do not want to interrupt Senator Loughrey again and I want to be fair to every one of my colleagues in the House. If I could clear the Minister's amendment Senator Loughrey could then speak on the section. What Senator Loughrey is saying is more relevant to the section. If we take the Minister's amendments Nos. 1 and 2 we may then discuss the section. Is amendment No. 1 agreed?
The section says that the registration authority "shall prepare as part of the register of electors a separate list (in this Act referred to as the `special voters list') of persons... entitled to vote at an election in accordance with the provisions of this Act without removing the names of the special voters from any other part of the register". We are working on the assumption that they are already on the register in the first instance which brings me back to the point I want to make about the preparation of that register.
Lest I give a wrong impression I am totally in favour of providing votes to persons who are unable to be present for one reason or another at the polling station on the day. I would have thought that we might have gone a little further by providing for persons whose jobs necessitate being away from home within the country. I am concerned about the method of the preparation for register in the first instance.
If Senator Loughrey reads section 2 of the Electoral (Special Voters) Bill, he will see we are talking about the special separate list. We are not talking about the total register.
What I was referring to was "without removing the names of the special voters from any other part of the register". If they are coming from the register it would only be right for me to talk about the compilation of a register.
No, the register does not come up under section 2. I shall come back to you again.
I agree with the remarks made by Senator O'Toole at the outset. It is far too serious a matter to be batting it back and forward to see who scores off whom. Anybody interested in democracy welcomes this Bill and it should be addressed as such. I am worried about something the Minister of State said, in so far as initially I thought the reasoning behind this was to afford people who are permanently disabled the opportunity to register their vote. The Minister of State said it is intended that that status could be changed from one electoral register year to another. It is temporary. In that sense what Senator Loughrey said about the compilation comes very much into account. How will that be governed? How will it be regularised in any way if in year one you can be on the register and in year two you are off it? It seems to be a very loose arrangement and will add to the confusion rather than lessen it.
I hope the point I want to make falls within the terms of reference of section 2 in the sense of the special voters' list. The category I wish to refer to are special in the sense that they are postal voters. I refer to the Garda Síochána who, when their names are published in the various public places where the lists of electors are carried, carry a "P" after their names. I wonder if the Minister would be good enough to give a reaction to the point I want to make that, to the extent that gardaí have "P" after their names which are posted in public places, this is a means of identification of the people concerned. We live in unusual times. I refer, of course, in particular to subversive activity. The names of gardaí, through the "P" after their names, can be identified in public places. I wonder, therefore, would the Minister consider dropping postal ballots in the case of gardaí and treating members of the force in the ordinary way?
I take the point the Senator has just made. I did not get an opportunity to speak on the previous occasion but I will not dwell on that. I welcome the Bill because it gives an opportunity to permanently disabled or even temporarily disabled people to cast their votes on election day. Perhaps the problem more often applies to some of the younger people in our midst at the moment. I realise that the Minister has a difficulty here. As Senator O'Toole mentioned, somebody may apply and get the postal vote and then perhaps on the day of an election be physically fit to vote. I do not think any Minister could legislate for these types of people at all. We can only hope that all of the people who are physically disabled will be capable of voting on election day. Apart altogether from their vote, it is something we would all love to see. In relation to Senator Loughrey's point about the register and certain people who are, for example, on the register and who may have left the country years ago, I find this crops up every time we get an opportunity to sit in with the county registrar to object to, include or exclude, as the case may be, people from the register. We find county registrars interpret these things in a different way. Their approach is often one which is acceptable to me, that perhaps it is somebody who is out of the country for most of the year.
I have taken Senator Loughrey to task about that. I am asking all Senators to stick to the legislation before us. I accept that it is very hard to distinguish the total register from the register of special people the Minister sees fit to add and rightly so. I do not want to hassle the House but I cannot let the debate go on to the total register. I am not protecting anyone. I want everybody to understand that. I must stick to the legislation before me as Leas-Chathaoirleach.
In fact, I was trying to make that point. I was merely agreeing with Senator Loughrey about the rest of the register — that every county registrar has a different way of approaching it. Perhaps we all have our opportunities when those revision courts are held to make our points in relation to people who should be included or excluded from the register. Perhaps they differ from county to county. We all have some input to that on revision court day.
On the point Senator Hillery made with regard to the Garda Síochána I wonder if it is absolutely necessary for the "P" to be included after their name. During a recent election I came across certain members of the Garda Síochána. I knew them to be members of the Garda Síochána but "P" was not after their names. As Senator Hillery said, for security reasons they did not want to be pinpointed. I discussed this with one member and he told me he had a postal vote despite the fact that there was no "P" after his name. I do not know if this is the general rule, or if it is obligatory for anybody who has a postal vote to have the letter "P" after his name. Can they have a postal vote without the letter "P" being after their names?
I will let that go. You can take that again under section 11, Senator Belton.
I will try to stay within the section. Section 2 says:
The registration authority shall prepare as part of the register of electors a separate list...
We have deleted "as part of the register of electors" in the amendment just accepted. That has been taken out of section 2 and the section must now be read without it.
Sorry, a Leas-Chathaoirligh. I take it from what the Minister of State said that a special voters' list will be prepared at the same time as the ordinary register but not on this occasion because he indicated that this special voters' list will come into operation as soon as this Bill passes through the two Houses of the Oireachtas and is signed by the President. An incapacitated voter or a disabled voter can then apply and get on a special voters' list which will be operative from now until 14 April, and that voters' list will recur every year and will run alongside the ordinary register of electors. Do I take it that we will have two registers, one with the special voters' list and the ordinary register of electors that we had heretofore, and that will be compiled in the same way and at the same time — after this year — as the ordinary register of electors? I would like to have that question answered first and then I have some other questions to ask.
To go back to the point I was making the section now reads:
The registration authority shall prepare a separate list... of persons. ...entitled to vote at an election in accordance with the provisions of this Act without removing the names of the special voters from the register of electors.
I am in total support of this Minister's — and indeed the previous Minister's — efforts to give votes to these categories of people. I am trying at the same time to protect us from the abuses which did happen in the last election. We will not make any reference to any side as I am sure all sides had some part in them. I saw the most blatant abuses. If somebody should suggest that I am being abusive about other Members of the House, I am not. I am certainly not as abusive of Members of the House as Members outside of this House have been of disabled persons. I refer again specifically to my own constituency where there were hundreds of attempts at defrauding as a result of the efforts of the Minister at that time, Deputy Kavanagh, to introduce postal voting. I cannot understand why prosecutions have not been taken as a result.
If I talk about the compilation of the register it is to ensure that the register will be compiled in such a way as to ensure that postal voting will not then be used as a way of abusing that very thing which it intends to protect, the right of the disabled to vote. That is exactly what happened the last time. The Minister and his Department should give some thought to how the register is being compiled at the moment. Can it be improved? Are errors being made? Persons are being included in the register at the moment who are long since gone. We have the right to object to them but once persons are included on the original register it is difficult and not nice for anybody to have to object to those persons. Some of these persons may be disabled and this is where it connects with the section. They may also be outside that area at that time. There is a better chance of the votes of disabled persons being used at some subsequent election. I would welcome the Minister's response to some of the suggestions I have made. If the registers were compiled properly the onus would not be on us as active politicians to try to protect them.
Such a myriad of questions have been raised, some relevant to the section and others not so relevant, that it is difficult to try to address the answers. Senator O'Toole asked for clarification in relation to the special voters' list. The special voters' list will be compiled and will contain the names of the people deemed eligible to vote under the special voting provisions outlined in later sections of the Bill. However, their names will also remain on the general register of electors. It is intended that their names would have a distinguishing mark on the general register to denote the fact that they are not entitled to vote in the normal way at that polling station because of the fact that they are on the special voters' list and would have arrangements made to vote under the other provisions of later sections of this Bill.
That also answers a question raised by another Senator as to what might happen if a person with a temporary disablement recovered during the lifetime of the register and sought to vote in the normal way at the local polling station. As I have outlined, such persons would not be afforded a vote at the polling station because of the fact that they would already have been visited at home by the special presiding officer and a member of the Garda Síochána and allowed to vote at home under the provisions for the special voter. The fact that the person might have recovered in what, unfortunately, will be a minority of cases and be in a position to go to vote could not easily be comprehended within the scheme as outlined.
When the appropriate period for applying to be registered as a special voter in the subsequent year comes around the temporarily disabled voter who has recovered would not have any inclination to go through the procedure of being registered as a special voter. That person's name will then be entered on the general register without any distinguishing mark. This will entitle such a person to vote with other electors at his or her local polling station. It is intended that the special voter would apply and that a medical certificate would be issued on an annual basis, indicating that the medical practitioner believes that for the period to be covered by the register in question the person involved would not be in a position to vote in the normal way at a polling station.
Some other questions were raised which are a little extraneous to the section and I do not want to pursue them too diligently. The question of the distinguishing mark which identifies postal voters, such as members of the Garda Síochána and the Defence Forces, has been raised by one or two Senators. If that creates a problem I will be prepared to look at it. I am sure Senators will recall my remarks here last week when I said this Bill provides specifically for disabled voters and diplomats serving abroad, but that it is my intention to introduce further legislation dealing with changes in the Electoral Act generally. In that context, inter alia, it is my intention to introduce changes regarding the method of compilation of the electoral registers and the most appropriate time of the year to have the register compiled to allow people to make observations or to enter appeals against their omission or exclusion from the electoral register. That aspect, among others, will be dealt with in a general Bill updating the provisions in the Electoral Acts.
I welcome the intention of the Minister to introduce further legislation. I gathered, from what the Minister said, that the disabled person must register each year. It is not right that a long term disabled person should have to reapply each year. I respect what Senator O'Toole said and, therefore, the procedure should be reversed. Once a person is deemed suitable to be on the special list they should remain thereon until such time as he or she asks to be removed from it. That would be a fairer system.
Does the special voters' list being compiled as a result of the passing of this Bill only come into operation after 14 April this year as in the case of the ordinary register being compiled at the moment? If a voter has an accident during the period of the special voters' list being in operation and is unable to go to a polling booth at any given election, will he or she be unable to get a postal vote? I understand from the Minister's reply that if a person is not on the special voters' list and becomes incapacitated during the year after the list is compiled he or she will be unable to vote. I support Senator Loughrey's view that a long term disabled person should not have to apply every year for a medical certificate.
Heretofore, since the State was founded, rate collectors prepared, updated and organised the register of electors. The system has changed radically in the past couple of years and rate collectors have become scarce. Have the Department made uniform recommendations to local authorities about whose responsibility the compilation of the register will be from here on?
We are back again to the total register and not to the special voters' list.
It applies to the special voters' list and who will compile it. It is very important. Every Member of this House sees, working from county to county, the different standard of accuracy of the registers which was obvious even during the last local elections. It is not improving even though we have computers and every modern aid. It is most frustrating for a politician to find that people who had been on the register for years are, for some extraordinary reason, now left out. Who is charged with the responsibility of compiling this special voters' list?
In relation to the applications of disabled people year after year, because the register itself is the bedrock of our democratic system, there should be a positive annual application — I know it may involve difficulties but we must take great care over this — from the people on that list. I take Senator O'Toole's point about temporary illness but we should not broaden this so much that it creates a charter for abuses which nobody in this House will be able to prevent. We must exercise some rationale in relation to the people we allow on it, how they get on it and, more important, how they stay on it. I suggest caution in that regard.
To a large extent, Senator Magner has answered a number of the questions raised in the latest contributions and also in earlier ones. When one comes to address the topic of postal voting there is, of course, a great temptation to include all sorts of groups for what ostensibly appear to be good reasons. Again, as I outlined to the House last week, the limited experiments that took place in relation to postal voting in local elections in 1974 and again in 1985, the system was largely defeated due to the ingenuity of the Irish. The cumbersome procedure which has now been introduced is an effort to be a little more ingenious than the Irish. Consequently, the system has to be very restricted in the groups to whom it might apply. The Senator is also correct in his assumption that, because of the paramount importance of the register in determining who is eligible to vote, it is considered appropriate that persons who wish to be registered on a special voters' list must apply annually as, indeed, there is an annual revision of the electoral registers generally.
Experience in other countries has shown that where persons or categories who are allowed on to a postal voting list, for example, are allowed to do so without the need for annual review, the postal voting list accretes until it becomes, in some cases, such a substantial proportion of the total register of eligible electors as to arrive at a situation which would be regarded by most practising politicians as a distortion of the electoral process. The system that has been outlined here has been confined to special groups. The method whereby they determine their eligibility is clearly outlined to ensure that only those groups are included who, during the currency of the register, can clearly show their inability to vote in the normal way and can show that that is on medical evidence in the case of the disabled or on evidence of their being posted abroad and likely to continue to be posted abroad in the case of diplomats. On those bases they shall be entitled to be entered on the special voters' list.
I am hesitant to pursue Senators into areas outside the scope of section 2 of the Bill, but Senator McDonald is not correct in saying that, heretofore, it has been the responsibility of rate collectors to compile electoral registers. It was traditionally the responsibility of rate collectors but it was removed from them in recent years with the diminution in the number of rate collectors. The responsibility for the compiling of this special voters' list is, as the section outlines clearly, placed upon the registration authority.
I asked two questions. The Minister partly answered the question about the totally disabled when he said that another application should be made every year. The Minister did not say when the register now being compiled will come into effect.
I beg the Senator's pardon. The effect of the two amendments to which the House has just agreed will be that through those drafting changes the registration authorities may now commence immediately to prepare a special voters' list in respect of the disabled. That special voters' list, within whatever administrative length of time we determine is necessary in order to advertise the availability of the special voters' list and to receive applications and adjudicate upon them and compile the special voters' list, would mean that the special voting list for the disabled will come into effect at the end of that time.
These amendments were introduced on foot of requests made by Senators, including to my recollection Senator O'Toole, during the Second Stage debate last week when Senators suggested that they were anxious that this provision should be introduced immediately. I should mention that it will not be possible to do that in the case of diplomats whose names are not registered on the ordinary current register, whereas in the case of the special voters, their names would be registered already but the obligation would be placed upon them to visit their local polling station. From that point of view it has been found possible to do this in response to the request from Senators in relation to disabled people who are currently registered on the normal register but not in relation to diplomats already posted abroad and who are not registered on their local register.
As soon as this Bill is passed and a special voters' list is compiled and published will it be operative from that day on and for the duration of the period until the next special voters' list will be put into operation?
Yes, it is intended that the same application and adjudication process in relation to compiling a list which would come into force at the end of that period will be used to establish a special voters' list in relation to the disabled which will also be effective from 14 April next. The period will approximate to the same period as the appeal period for voters in relation to the draft electoral register in connection with the compilation of the register to come into effect from mid-April 1987.
This amendment is consequential on amendments Nos. 1 and 2 which have been adopted by the House in relation to section 2.
In connection with the provision of information within seven days, the subsection reads:
the application form, duly completed, and the certificate referred to in section 4 of this Act shall be delivered, or sent by post, so as to be received by the registration authority not later than the prescribed date.
No particular time is mentioned — this will be raised again in a later section — but a short period would not be suitable for people dwelling on islands off our coast.
Is that not on section 4?
Senator O'Toole has just read subsection (2) (d) of section 3 and I presume that is the section he is on.
We are on section 3 as amended. I did not realise how closely I have to follow the discussion at the moment.
Is the prescribed date the date the presiding office will decide on? That is somewhat confusing and I would like it clarified.
I am not sure whether the reply will suit the Senator but the Minister for the Environment prescribes the date. I appreciate the difficulty which the Chair and others have in following discussions on these sections. As I explained to the House last week, there are a number of topics on which various Members of each House see themselves as having particular expertise, but there is only one topic on which all 60 Members of this House and 166 Members of the other House know that they are the knowledged experts and that is the topic which we are discussing at the moment.
Section 4 (a) reads: "the nature and extent of the physical illness or physical disability suffered by such applicant,". Under the Postal Voting (Amendment) Regulations, 1985, medical certificates supplied at that time read:
I hereby certify that the above named applicant who is under my care is suffering from... and for that reason will be unable to attend at the polling station.
Quite a number of applications were refused on the grounds that the medical practitioner was not specific in his or her statement of what the person was suffering from. I am not very familiar with medical jargon but there are some general terms which can be used to cover almost all physical disabilities. How specific would the Minister require the information to be?
Section 4 (b) reads: "an estimate of the duration of such physical illness or physical disability,". Why should it be necessary to give an extent or duration and to have it repeated annually if it is very obvious to everybody concerned that the person is suffering from a long term physical disability from which he or she is unlikely to recover? This seems to be a waste of time. If it is obvious that the person is suffering from a long term disability, one certificate should suffice for every election.
The questions asked in that section would seem to apply to a general medical practitioner except in the case of (c) which states "that the applicant is of sound mind and understanding and is capable of comprehending the act of voting". There is a procedure laid down, for instance, for committing people to mental institutions — there is a case before the courts at the moment. I can understand the GP's decision vis-àvis incapacitation from injury or disability but is the Minister satisfied that he will not involve the area of psychiatry as well as general medical practice given that there is already a procedure for deciding, for instance, that a person is not of sound mind and, therefore, should be confined somewhere else? Is there a conflict there and, if not, could the Minister explain why?
I was going to raise the same point for clarification because most of us will have in interest in the operation of this very worthwhile legislation which the Minister is introducing. Senator Magner touched on an aspect of what I wanted to say. Will a person who suffers a stroke and is paralysed but able to talk be able to vote with the mobile returning officer? However, if a person cannot speak, will the returning officer be likely to say that it is not possible to have a conversation with them and that, therefore, they are not of sound mind? Will that person be able to vote? A facility already exists for assisted voting for disabled persons and, while the terms of section 4 are very wide, it should be possible to facilitate as many people as possible. Could the Minister say what he and the draftsman had in mind in framing this section in its present fashion?
I have no problems with paragraphs (a) or (b) because the medical profession is highly reputable and will only authenticate certificates to applicants who wish to get on this voters' list. However, I, too, would like more clarification on paragraph (c) which refers to a person of sound mind. I take it that if a person is mentally disturbed, either temporarily or permanently, that person would not be of sound mind and, therefore, could not be declared as eligible for the special voters' list. That is what I would determine as a person of unsound mind but, as Senator McDonald said, numerous people as a result of a stroke will have their accuracy or reasoning impaired and may need assistance in voting. I ask the Minister to clarify this and, while we may be asking technical questions, we are only trying to help in ensuring that this legislation is the best possible to do away with the systems to which I referred on Second Stage.
The medical certificate will require the medical practitioner to outline, as section 4 (a) says, the nature and extent of the physical illness or disability of the applicant and in accordance with paragraph (b), the length of time the doctor feels that disability or illness is likely to continue and the doctor should certify that the person is of sound mind and is capable of comprehending the act of voting.
There is no provision contained within this Bill for the system which is known as companion voting which was referred to by Senator McDonald and which obtains in polling stations generally. Because of the procedures which are being outlined whereby a special presiding officer will visit the special voters' place of residence with their ballot paper and make the ballot paper available to them, it is important that the special voters are clearly capable of comprehending the act of voting and that they are in a position to indicate their voting preference either physically by marking the ballot paper, or by indicating to the special presiding officer their preference and allowing the special officer to carry out that function on their behalf.
One of the difficulties which arises in relation to the suggestion, for example, of having companion voting occurring in a situation like this is that, in particular circumstances which Senators have alluded to, it would be very difficult for the special presiding officer to ascertain that the voter had conveyed the particular instruction to the companion which the companion was seen to carry out. In an effort to eliminate abuse to the greatest extent possible, it is important that special voters are in a position either themselves to mark the paper or to indicate their voting preference clearly to the special presiding officer in a way which enables that presiding officer to complete the ballot paper on behalf of the special voter.
With regard to section 4 (b) which states: "an estimate of the duration of such physical illness or physical disability", my understanding is that we agreed that this list would be compiled on a positive basis i.e., the person would actually apply for each new register. So long as the person is incapacitated when the register is being compiled, that should be sufficient. I wonder why we need this section having agreed what we have just agreed. It seems to be nonsense.
The problem with "sound mind and understanding" is that heretofore if one took a person to the polling station, the presiding officer decided whether the person involved was capable of understanding what he or she was going to do but in this case it is part of a certificate. This is quite a quantum leap away from the traditional way in which we have done our business. If it were simply the physical disability or ailment of the person that is one thing, but there is in situ in law a method whereby one determines whether or not a person is suffering from mental illness. That does not come under a normal GP type of visit. With regard to section 4(c) does the Minister not foresee some difficulties? Does he not think section 4 (b) is superfluous?
I certainly do not think section 4 (b) is superfluous because at the time of compiling a special voters' list when the person is eligible to apply they might well have an illness which could, in the case of some people, continue for some months and, in the case of other people, might be of a much shorter duration. An extreme example would be where somebody was suffering from a continuing flu now, they might find a medical practitioner who is prepared to say that, in the nature of this flu, they were likely to suffer from it for the next 12 months. Where somebody is suffering from a broken limb now, at the time the register is being compiled, it is reasonable to assume that they will have returned to full health or be ambulant again by the time the register would come into force which, in the normal way, would be in April next.
It is important that the practitioner be asked to indicate whether the period of physical illness or disability is likely to continue over the duration in force of the register for which the application is being made, in other words, whether it is likely, as the time scale stands at present, to continue in force for a period of some 15 or 16 months. If it is not, or if the medical practitioner does not indicate that it is likely to continue for that period of time, the registration authority is then in a position either to take the matter up immediately with the applicant voters or to decide to refuse to register them.
On the other hand if the suggestion were to be pursued of having a medical practitioner's certificate indicating that a person's disability is so long term as to be permanent, if that person were to be included on a permanent basis in the special voters' list, it would be somewhat at variance with the point made earlier by Senator Magner. It could also result in a variation with the objection voiced by Senator Loughrey earlier in that it would then mean that the special voters' list over a period of time would unfortunately come to contain more and more the names of people who are deceased.
Could the Minister clarify section 4 (c) with regard to "sound mind"?
In relation to section 4 (c) it is felt that to give a guidance to the registration authority that the special voters are eligible to have this procedure put in place for them and to have a special presiding officer visit them together with a Garda officer with the special voting papers and then the voters are in a position to indicate their voting preference to the special presiding officer. The procedure does not envisage companion voting nor does it envisage, for instance, the presence of personation agents on behalf of the candidates. The system which might normally apply at polling stations where, if a personation agent feels a voter is not capable of clearly indicating his or her preference may well challenge the voter or request that the voter be sworn, is not being provided for in this case for the reasons I outlined to the House last week.
One reason, among others, is the desire to keep to a minimum the numbers of people who will actually arrive in the voter's place of residence if it happens to be his home. It is also to keep the pressure on the special voter at a minimum at the time of voting so that those physically present in the room would be the special voter, the special presiding officer, the Garda officer and nobody else. The special presiding officer then has an obligation upon him to ensure that, if he is acting on behalf of the special voter in marking the paper, he clearly has an indication given to him by the special voter of his voting preference. There is, in a preliminary way in the compilation of this special voters' list, an obligation on the registration authority to feel satisfied, based on the certificate of a medical practitioner, that the voter whilst being disabled in the physical sense has the mental capacity and will continue to have the mental capacity to be able clearly to indicate a voting choice.
If a person's health has deteriorated from the date of application to the time of the arrival of the presiding officer, can the presiding officer refuse that person a vote or does he have to consult with anybody at that stage? That is a very important question because cases like this will arise. On the other hand the incapacitated or disabled person might be well at the time of arrival but can deteriorate and be unable to vote. Is it the sole right of the presiding officer to decide that that person is unable to vote?
It will be the right and the obligation on that presiding officer to make that decision based on his assessment of the voters at the time when he visits them at their places of residence. I want to mention also, of course, that if a vote is challenged on similar grounds at a normal polling station at present by, say, a personation agent and the presiding officer then puts questions to the voter or asks him to swear, the decision then will also be the decision falling on the special presiding officer. It falls on all presiding officers to make that decision based upon the answers given to them by the statutory questions and by the swearing process.
If, for any reason, perhaps this is not under this section but you can correct me if it is not, when the presiding officer arrives the voter is not present, is notice given of the time of arrival? What happens if the voter is in town, on holidays, or away for any given reason? Even with regard to a disabled voter, do they return for the vote at a later date, or do they give notice of arrival beforehand by registered letter? In what way will the voter know of the presiding officer's arrival to give him this opportunity to vote?
The intention is that arrangements will be made for the returning officer to have notice sent in advance to the registered special voters as to the time at which it is expected the special presiding officer will visit them at their places of residence with the ballot paper. If the special voter is not at home, it is not intended that the special presiding officer will return. If the Senator reflects upon it, this is perhaps reasonable because if the voters have indicated that they are incapable of visiting a polling station it is fairly unlikely that they will be away on a casual basis from the normal places of residence.
Unless they were in hospital.
If that is the case, of course, the special voter will be able to indicate to the returning officer that because of medical or other pre-arranged circumstances the time suggested is not convenient and another time will be arranged. I pointed out to the House last week that it is not intended that all of this procedure will take place on the actual normal polling day, but will take place over a period of some days in advance of polling day. Where a special voter indicates that the pre-suggested time is not suitable, it will be possible to arrange another time which will be at the convenience of the special voter.
I want to ask the Minister about the nature and extent of the physical illness. Some general practitioners, during the implementation of the 1985 regulations, certified as follows: "I hereby certify that the above applicant who is under my care is suffering from" and wrote in the word "disability". That was not accepted by the returning officer. To what degree would the nature and extent of the physical illness or disability have to be written into the certificate? How much detail is required? Some medical practitioners refuse to divulge the extent of disability to persons to whom, so far as they are concerned, is not their concern.
There is very little way of providing for a situation where persons who believe they have a physical disability which is such as to allow them to be registered on the special voters' list for this purpose can be accommodated if they go to their local medical practitioner who refuses, at their request, to complete the certificate to enable them to make the application to the registration authority. The Act does not require that the medical practitioner has to be the normal general practitioner who is attending the special voter although it is, of course, envisaged that in the vast majority of cases that would be the position. If a medical practitioner refuses, or whatever their own definition of the medical ethics is, to give details at the request of the applicant and their patient for the purpose of facilitating the patient in being able to avail of the fundamental right to exercise their franchise, unless the patient chooses to call upon the service of another medical practitioner, there is very little further that the Legislature or the registration authority could be expected to do.
I accept absolutely the Minister's intent and the intent of the Legislature in general to provide for disabled persons. I refer to them again because of abuses in my constituency among others where the returning officer had to be more strict in his interpretation of the completion of the application form as outlined in the 1985 regulations. One of the reasons for refusing could be that the general practitioner was not specific enough but if the general practitioner simply says he certifies that the person is disabled, will that enable him to vote?
The Minister says it will not be necessary for the family GP to issue the certificate. Nonetheless it is unlikely that a stranger, a new doctor, would be able to give an estimate of the duration of a physical illness or disability without seeing the record of the patient. Therefore, will the Minister consider having some discussions with the representatives of the medical profession because it is in their interest — they live in this democracy although sometimes I doubt it — to ensure that the system works well and works fairly? They have a very important role to play. Would he consider discussing with them some general guidelines regarding the issue of certificates so that the point raised by Senator Loughrey does not arise again?
The point raised by Senator Loughrey is one where a doctor for the most part merely certified that, in his view, the applicant was disabled and the registration authority correctly did not accept that as adequate medical evidence of the eligibility of the voter to the postal voting system that was then being made available. Under the provisions of this Bill the medical practitioner would be asked to specify the nature and extent of the physical disability and to specify in writing the extent and type of that disability. If the registration authority are not satisfied with the definition given, it is open to them either to refuse the application or to seek further details. In relation to the Senator's request that I should open discussions with representatives of the medical profession, the answer is no.
Given the point Senator Loughrey made that in some cases the certificate provided by the medical profession was rejected as being inadequate or whatever, what is the Minister's objection to simply stating reasonable guidelines for such certificates? His answer "no" might be very illuminating to him but it tells me absolutely nothing. Could he tell me why he would not ask the medical profession to co-operate with this very important legislation and could he do so in words of one syllable?
I have every confidence that the vast majority of doctors would qualify under section 4 (c) and would not in any way want to thwart the objective of their patients in having themselves registered as special voters. In view of the anxiety expressed by Senators in the House on Second Stage debate on this topic, that this measure should be introduced immediately and should not even wait for the normal procedure to come into effect in April next, I have no intention whatsoever of becoming involved in what is essentially the sphere of another Minister in having discussions on the question of medical ethics with the medical profession. Those discussions would certainly preclude any attempt to have this Bill introduced prior to 14 April next.
I simply do not accept that. The Minister implies that what I am suggesting is a very high level protracted list of negotiations with an agenda. He knows that is not what I am saying. What I am saying is that with the introduction of this legislation the Minister should make an appeal to the medical profession to ensure that these certificates would be filled in in such a way as to make sure that the people they are looking after will be eligible. That is all; there is no big deal.
I join with the Senator in making that appeal from this House.
Thank you very much Minister.
I am sorry for taking up the time of the House and, indeed, the Minister's time. Probably more appropriately I should have raised the matter under section 2 (3) which states: "... shall not be entitled to vote in any other manner." Somebody close to me is, unfortunately, suffering from a rare disease which, unfortunately again, is becoming more prevalent whereby the person is seriously disabled for about one week in every six or seven weeks. It is likely to continue for the duration of that person's life. That person would not like to be technically registered continually as disabled, but it would seem from this legislation that if he or she wishes to be sure he or she will have a vote, that person must apply for a vote under this special list despite the fact that that person would be anything up to 80 per cent or 90 per cent of the time quite as able as you or I. Even though we have passed the section I want to say that there are people who come down with severe bouts of arthritis or other types of disease who cannot be sure, unless they make an application for the vote, that they will be able to vote on the day. Yet if they are physically fit and well on the day they cannot dispense with the other type of vote and go ahead and vote.
I am not happy with the period of time. If further information or documentation is required, that information and documentation must be with the presiding officer within seven days. I appeal to the Minister to extend that period to 14 days because seven days is a very short period to write out to an applicant who has applied to get on the voters' list and for him to submit further information and documentary evidence to substantiate his claim for a vote. Seven days is not sufficient time to do that.
Again, I raise the question of people on islands. Fourteen days may not be sufficient time. If that information is not forthcoming and an applicant does not furnish it inside the given time, he is deemed as not being entitled to be on that special register. It is a very short period of time and I appeal to the Minister to extend that time to 14 days. That was overlooked perhaps when the draftsman was preparing a list. I do not see the urgency of rushing it through in seven days. It is not easy to have the information in that short time. I do not even know what that documentation might consist of, or what further information may be required, but whatever information it is, it is a very short period to get it to the presiding officer.
I wonder if I could invite the Senator to read the subsection again? Perhaps his point would be more relevant if line 19 had read: "being not more than seven days".
Instead it is: "not less than seven days". Is the Minister saying that if it read: "not more than seven days" it would get over the difficulty?
What I am saying is that the Senator's point would be relevant if the subsection read: "being not more than seven days" but, in fact, the subsection reads: "being not less than seven days". Seven days is the minimum period within which the registration authority could expect or require the information to be returned to them. It is not the maximum period.
The maximum is not stated.
I have not had time, unfortunately, to examine the section fully, although I should have had. Is there anything in the section to ensure that the "applicant" is always the person making the application?
The situation would be that if an application was received together with the medical certificate and the registration authority are satisfied, the name will be entered in the special voters' list. That person will not then be able to vote at the normal polling stations and will vote throught the special procedure with the special presiding officer visiting him in his place of residence. Under this procedure it is highly unlikely that another person is going to seek to have somebody's name entered on the special voters' list because when presiding officers visit houses they will seek to meet with the special voter and if there is no evidence of disability it will certainly raise their suspicions. There is a specific provision set out in section 20 of the Bill in relation to offences and penalties where it would be an offence for any person to apply in the name of another person to be entered in the special voters' list.
Because of the category of electors we are talking about, the way this information is communicated would be very important. Section 6 (c) says: "the times and places at which application forms may be obtained". I presume we are dealing with a category of people who are not mobile in many cases and, therefore, are unable in the normal way to go to a post office or whatever. What arrangements will be made to post those application forms to the people on the special voters' list?
The manner in which the information is given should be looked at very closely. For instance, we are dealing with some people who are blind and deaf. Therefore, the normal newspaper, television and radio advertising may not suffice. Could I suggest to the Minister, at the risk of incurring his wrath again, to appeal — perhaps we will do it jointly as we did to the medical profession — to associations dealing with these people who are incapacitated, to ensure that this information is disseminated. I am thinking, for instance, of talking tapes for the blind and so on which are circulated by the National Council for the Blind of Ireland and that type of methodology to communicate the information.
I want to assure Senator Magner that Senators never incur my wrath. They sometimes try my patience, but they never incur my wrath.
I have already had discussions within my Department on the most appropriate methods of informing the particular electors who may be affected by this legislation of their rights. Because of the different categories of disability to which the Senator referred, it will be necessary to seek to enlist the help and support of the many voluntary bodies who deal with the disabled and the various forms of disablement, and possibly the support of the regional health boards and the media and, perhaps in particular, the sound medium in endeavouring to ensure that especially in relation to the initial compilation of the special register as many as possible of the eligible special voters know of the arrangements and are in a position to avail of them.
Of course, if potential special voters ask to have the application form sent to them it is of course the intention that that would happen because by definition, because of their restricted mobility which would be inherent in their eligibility to be recorded in the special register, it would be important to ensure that the arrangements are easily in place whereby the application forms can be sent by post or in some other form got to the special voters.
At the risk of trying the patience of Senators, may I gently remind the House that there are also the quite intricate systems available to the political parties and public representatives and I feel sure many of them will also go out of their way to notify the potential special voters of their right to apply under this new system.
Section 8 (2) provides: "Where the registration authority is not satisfied that an applicant—
(c) has submitted the certificate required pursuant to section 4 of this Act, the registration authority shall — (1) rule that the application is refused and mark the application form accordingly..."
I do not think that should be done. Where an applicant makes a genuine application if time permits this applicant should be invited to complete the application by correcting any aspect he has failed to supply in the first instance.
I understand that in general terms the intention is that the system will operate as the Senator has outlined. He will appreciate that there needs to be a set period within which the special voters' list will be compiled by each registration authority. I invite the House to consider a situation where, even after the voter has been asked to supply the missing information, he or she fails to do so, or continues to do so incorrectly. There will have to come a time within the prescribed time limit when the registration authority in order to close the list will have to make decisions and it is for that reason that that particular part of the subsection is drafted in that way.
I accept that absolutely. As it is drafted would it not be a case that it would automatically and immediately have to be refuted?
No. The House will appreciate that in conjunction with this legislation being enacted and the particular rules and dates being prescribed by the Minister as apply with the implementation of the Electoral Acts generally, there will be general guidelines issued to the registration authorities and to returning officers regarding the operation of the compilation and adjudication upon the special voters' list.
The subsection reads:
Where the registration authority is not satisfied that an applicant—
(c) has submitted the certificate required pursuant to section 4 of this Act,
the registration authority shall—
rule that the application is refused...
Does this not tie the hands of the registration authority?
No, on the basis of what I have outlined I do not believe it does, but could I remind the Senator of the discussion we had already on section 5 (2) where the registration authority may require further information or documentation from an applicant? This is the subsection on which Senator O'Toole was concerned that people living on an island would have sufficient time to return any additional information which might be sought. The specific provision in that subsection would specifically allow the authority to do that rather than any mandatory initial binding which the Senator was inclined to read into section 8 (2).
I think it is a very important section. An applicant is on the current register and he applies to get on the special voters' list. He is then refused because he does not comply with the various sections that would deem him entitled to a vote. At that stage he may fall between two stools if he is not notified in great haste of the decision. He can then go back and vote in the ordinary way. But if that decision did not come to his notice before election day then, and especially in this current period, he would lose his vote. There is a need for the authority, the presiding officers, to ensure that he is notified as soon as possible after the decision is taken that he has been refused so that he can go ahead and vote in the ordinary way because he is now on the other register.
Yes, but of course the arrangement that will operate under this Bill will be that where special voters apply to have their names registered in the special voters' list, they will in the normal way already be registered on the normal voters' register. If they are deemed eligible to be entered on this special voters' register they will be entered on that register and an appropriate distinguishing mark will be put against their names on the general register if I may call it that, on the general register of electors.
If they apply to be deemed a special voter and the registration authority does not accept for whatever reason their claim to be registered as a special voter, that will not at all in any way affect the entry of their name in the general register which, in the vast majority of cases, would be already the situation in force. A special voter is a person whose name is already entered on the general register of electors. A decision to refuse an application from them to have their names entered also on the special voters' register does not in any affect their eligibility for entry on the normal general register of electors.
I am a little unsure when the Minister calls it the register proper. Is it the intention that the authority when finalising the register proper shall put a specific mark on the register indicating those who have applied for and have been sanctioned for disabled persons' votes, or is it the intention of the Minister that, when somebody has applied and been sanctioned for a special vote the register on election day at a specific polling station, prior to its arriving at that specific polling station, will have been marked that X, Y and Z and have already collected and used their votes?
There are actually two separate answers. The House was anxious last week that we would change section 2 to allow for this system to come into operation prior to the new register of electors coming into force in April next. Clearly it would not be possible to mark the existing general register of electors in that case. We have found it possible to do that, subject to the administrative length of time it may take. In that case, if it were found necessary, there would have to be notification sent to the individual presiding officer by the returning officer in time for an election day procedure, should that possibility arise.
In the normal way, the intention is that when the special voters' register is compiled, the normal general register of electors will have contained within it a distinguishing mark indicating that the voter, whose name is shown, is the voter who either qualifies to have his name placed on the special voters' list, either as a person who is suffering from a disability likely to continue over a period, or who is a diplomat or a spouse of a diplomat living abroad. It may be that other special provisions on the general register of electors may be incorporated with those voters in order to give a general distinguishing mark.
One of the immediate weaknesses I see in that system is that it covers only those who are deemed to be disabled at the time of the compilation of the register. It is possible that disabled persons may not be included in the register within that year. The disabled persons may move, if only to go to live with their in-laws, their relations, or sons, or daughters and for a full year after they arrive in a new constituency that type of person cannot be registered as a special voter.
If the person is registered as a special voter at the time the special voters' list is being compiled for the constituency in which they are living at the time and they move house to another constituency, they are then in the same position as any other voter who moves to another constituency. The system will still apply and their eligibility will still obtain in the constituency where they were eligible to vote at the time of election.
There is a special provision for people who have either a temporary disablement or who have a disability and who choose not to have their name registered on the special register of electorate regarding changing the polling station which they might use within their constituency and which they may do even after an election is called. We will discuss that on section 14.
I am afraid the case made was not clear. It is not the Minister's fault, but my own. Where somebody becomes disabled after the compilation of the register and will continue to be disabled, he may be disfranchised for a full year in the sense that he is disabled and cannot make his way to the polling station.
Technically speaking, they may for a full year of their disability continue to be eligible to vote at their normal polling station but because they were not disabled at the time when the special voters' register for their constituency was being compiled, they will not have the benefit of this special provision available to them until the next normal time when that list is being compiled. They will have their eligibility to vote at their normal polling station. If their disability is less than such as to make them totally non-ambulant, if they find a particular difficulty in using their local polling station because of difficulty of access or whatever, they will have the discretion to have their vote moved to another polling station which better facilitates their type of disability within the constituency. That is provided for in section 14.
In any situation where there are only set prescribed periods for the compiling of electoral registers that will obtain and obtains in relation to people who move house or move constituencies or, indeed, in relation to people who discover that through an error or an omission their name is not contained on the normal voters' register. As I mentioned earlier, this is one of the matters which I would like to see addressed in a general Bill revising and updating the electoral laws which I would hope to see before the House early in 1987.
Section 8 (3) states:
Whenever an application is received by a registration authority after the prescribed date, the application shall be disregarded and the applicant shall be notified accordingly.
I do not want to bring up the case of the islands continuously. This is probably the last time we will have an opportunity to do so. Will the same flexibility prevail that obtains at present where returning officers can name the day of an election, a date which can vary from island to island along the coast? It has happened that island voting did not take place on the same day due to inclement weather. If a date is fixed and the officers in charge of that election are unable to make the trip to the island, that date may have to be altered. Will the same flexibility obtain? Will the presiding officers have that flexibility, when island voters' applications — for registration on a special voters' list — arrive late in the post, through no fault of their own, to give them the benefit of the doubt? Because of the delay that has been caused and because the time prescribed has gone by, he is now ineligible to vote. Could the Minister guarantee to the Seanad that that same flexibility will obtain, or has he anything in mind whereby islanders would be exempted from the provisions of subsection (3) and of other sections of this Bill, and that it would be left to the discretion of the presiding officer.
I have to say I am very chary about responding to requests for Minister's guarantees to the Houses of the Oireachtas. The last time I responded positively to such a request from a colleague of the Senator's in another House, he immediately responded as soon as I gave the guarantee by calling a vote. I am not in a position to give a guarantee on the lines which the Senator has outlined. The prescribed period will be the period during which a person may apply to be entered on the special voters' register.
In relation to the change which the House has asked me to make to have the special voters' register for the first time compiled relatively immediately, it is envisaged that that period will probably be some three weeks. In relation to the period which will be available to the special voters to apply, in normal times if the register continues to be compiled on an annual basis, the prescribed period which would be available to the special voter would be approximately six weeks to two months. Our weather has been somewhat strange of late and has been distorted from time to time by various things such as Hurricane Charlie but I doubt that he is going to plague us for as long as six weeks or two months at a time. I suspect that, even the voters in the most remote of the islands would be in a position to communicate their desire to have their names entered in the special voters' list and to have got an application form and returned it within a period as long as that.
Indeed, in relation to the initial compiling of the special voters' register, which obviously now will be next month with the intervention of Christmas, I would have thought that a period of three weeks would be sufficient even with inclement weather to allow an island voter to have sought, got and returned an application form to the registration authority. Even that period of time would be reasonable. In other years it will be of a much longer duration. I do not think that an undertaking that prescribed dates would not apply in the case of island voters is either necessary or in this case desirable.
I take it that the same flexibility will be allowed to apply. Through no intervention of the Minister the flexibility in trying to get the ballot papers to the mainland and holding an election on the islands, should obtain. I have no doubt whatever that if an election is called there will be another Hurricane Charlie of a different nature with greater force than the one we had the last time. It will be a different Charlie on this occasion.
I sincerely hope that the Senator's weather forecast does not result in the same amount of destruction and havoc being wreaked upon the countryside with the consequent obligation on the Government to pick up the tab to the extent of millions of pounds as the last one did. The flexibility in relation to the holding of an election and, indeed, the arrangements for allowing the island special voter to vote under these arrangements would of course be the same as normally apply, subject to the same proviso that the ballot papers must be returned to reach the presiding officer not later than the close of poll on the day nominated for the holding of the poll on the mainland which is the proviso which obtains at present in relation to island voters.
I can assure the Minister that the next Hurricane Charlie will be a cleaning up force rather than a destructive one. It will cost nothing. The present Government need not fear financial involvement by the passing of the next Hurricane Charlie.
I am afraid I heard that before.
I would like to ask the Minister what type of officers will be appointed? Do I take it that the same type of presiding officers we have known heretofore will be calling on the special voters? Will they work normal hours from 9 a.m. to 5 p.m.? Will they receive travelling expenses? What system will be in operation? It is important to know the type of officers and to know if these officers will be appointed in the ordinary way by the county registrar. Will the same category of people as heretofore be appointed? It will take a considerable length of time to cover the areas of all the special voters. In rural Ireland it will entail a vast amount of miles being travelled to get to the different voters. It will be a time consuming job. Will there be a number of presiding officers? Is it the Minister's intention that the work will be completed in the whole area? Will sufficient staff be appointed to carry out the work? Or will it be for a period of a fortnight or three weeks? What period will be allotted to the county registrar to carry out these duties? It will be physically hard to get round all the areas. I would like to know what method of travelling will be used. Will it be a squad car or the presiding officer's own transport? Will the presiding officer be given travelling expenses? What method of transport will be used to carry out this work?
The special presiding officer who will visit such houses will have the same authority and rights as a presiding officer in a polling station and therefore he will have certain powers available to him. The normal presiding officer performs his or her duties in the full glare of publicity and under the eyes of personation agents plus candidates and others and therefore everything is done in the light of day. The special presiding officer on the other hand is carrying out a very private, although public act, in very private circumstances. Therefore, it is very necessary that the public should be reassured as to the type of person who would be so employed. In this case it is the returning officer of the constituency who will actually appoint the presiding officer. I have some reservations that, without certain guidelines, there may be suggestions that the integrity of that particular system would be open to question.
Senator O'Toole wants to know what type of officer will be appointed. They will not be very much different from the normal presiding officers. The same standards of suitability will be required from them. It will be suggested to returning officers that the people to be chosen should have a particular sensitivity to and awareness of the difficulties of the disabled. It would be appropriate that that should be so. As to the period over which this voting procedure might take place that of course will be determined by each returning officer based upon the numbers on the special voters' list within the particular constituency for which they are responsible. It may well be that this procedure can be satisfactorily carried out in one day in a certain constituency and it may take a period of a week in another. The numbers of special presiding officers who will need to be appointed will also vary depending not only on the number of people on the special voters' list but also on the geography and topography of the constituency concerned. In view of the interest being shown in the islands I have a horrid suspicion that those constituencies which have an island electorate will need to have people with particular qualifications, which leads me to the Senator's question regarding methods of transport.
I had intended to say I would have assumed that the normal method of transport would have been by motor car but, in view of his intense interest in islands, I presume it will be by motor car and boat and whatever the local method of conveyance therein is — possibly by helicopter but only in the most extreme circumstances. In general it will be a time consuming task and particular sensitivity will be required on the part of the special presiding officers.
In relation to Senator Magner's point, it is fair to remind the House that in this instance the special presiding officers, whilst they will be visiting the voter and having the voter conduct the voting process without the normal personation agent present, will be under the supervision of an officer of the Garda Síochána at all times during those procedures.
Is the Minister saying there is an obligation on the Garda Síochána member to ensure that the system is adhered to, apart from the general obligation of a Garda officer to ensure that the law is not broken? Has he another function apart from protecting the ballot envelope, which I presume was the original intention? Is it also the intention that he is the overseer?
If someone in the house decides they do not want the person to vote at what stage can rights be overridden? Can the Garda play any role in that situation?
Has the garda to be present at all times during the carrying out of the voting? As the Minister said, it is a very sensitive area. I would go along with Senator Magner's point. I would have reservations about the type of persons who would be selected as presiding officers. They should be of the highest calibre. On section 11 we will be dealing with the fact that the only people present will be the voter, the garda and the presiding officer. If, for any reason — I do not want to be political — the presiding officer and the garda were of the same political affiliation and the voter was incapacitated to a large degree, would the Minister have any worries about that sensitive area? Would he have any worries about the conduct which would obtain during the voting?
Of course the requirements and the obligations of the Garda officer are dealt with in section 11. Essentially we are dealing here with the requirements of the obligations on the special presiding officer. My reference to a member of the Garda Síochána being present was in connection with the sanction or stricture which the House felt it would like to see placed on the special presiding officer in the exercise of his or her function. I think that is well provided for in the subsections to section 11.
Suppose a daughter-in-law or a son-in-law said to the presiding officer: "That person is too sick at the moment", because they had different political beliefs from the person who was ill. At what stage can the presiding officer insist that the person should speak for himself? What powers would there be in that event?
We have tried to provide as much as possible, through the emulation even of companion voting, against having any member of the household or staff of an institution, as the case may be, exercising undue influence over the special voter. There will be a special need for the presiding officer to exercise a particular sensitivity in approaching his or her task.
If a member of a household refuses to allow him admission it would be very difficult — perhaps wrong — for the Legislature to provide that this special presiding officer could insist upon gaining admission to a private house. I would be more inclined to believe that, if a special voter had gone to the trouble of applying for entry in the special voters' register and had submitted a medical certificate which verified his eligibility for inclusion on that special voters' list — even with the notification of the time at which the special presiding officer was to arrive at the house — the special voter would be very anxious to ensure that the presiding officer did arrive.
It would be extremely difficult for the State — if not foolhardy — to endeavour to become involved in what is, in the example put forward by the Senator, an internal family matter. To suggest that the State would take on the power to allow the returning officer total right of access to and demand entry to a private house might cause considerable difficulty and considerable cost and might create considerable acrimony. I do not think it could be provided for in this type of legislation.
In this case we are all endeavouring to facilitate people who are disabled, who cannot vote in the normal way and who have a genuine desire to exercise their franchise. To some extent we have to assume the bona fides of most of those who are associated with the disabled. Even though people have differing political views from time to time, it is probably a very extreme case to suggest that a member of the household would turn away a presiding officer with a ballot paper which is there to be filled up by a disabled member of the same household. It is a very extreme example. That is not to say it cannot or will not happen. We can only hope that it will not happen.
I agree with the Minister that quite draconian laws would have to be introduced to ensure that. One would hope that everybody would co-operate in the implementation of this legislation. Section 9 (4) states:
The provisions of the Acts relating to the right of an elector to request that his ballot paper be marked for him by a companion shall not apply...
I assume that somebody who is not in a position physically to mark the paper may request that it be marked by the special presiding officer. Is that correct?
That is correct.
I think this is the section on which we will have the greatest confrontation. This section is causing a lot of uneasiness. A garda will arrive in a rural district with a presiding officer. I take it that the presiding officers who will be appointed will be recruited from the office of the county registrar. Perhaps the most suitable people to carry out this work would be people from the county registrar's office with a garda acting as a guide for the presiding officer. A garda arrives in rural Ireland for one or two reasons, one being to deliver a summons and the other to investigate the occupant of some premises. A certain scare will be created by the visit of a garda in uniform. Is it necessary to have a uniformed garda calling on this sensitive mission of getting a disabled person to take part in an election? If he arrived without a uniform with a special presiding officer he would not frighten old people or people living alone. The sight of an officer in uniform will frighten the living daylights out of old people trying to take part in an election. The result will be that many old people will not apply to have their names registered on a special voters' list because of the fear of a visit by a member of the Garda Síochána who will be regarded by them as a stranger both to the house and the locality.
This brings me to the point where a father, daughter, son, nephew or niece will not be allowed to be present while a disabled or incapacitated person is voting. That is another weakness in the Bill. The person trying to vote will be nervous because he will be in the presence of a garda, a stranger to the house, and will not be able to concentrate properly. The Minister should consider amending this Bill either on Report Stage or in the Dáil to provide that the officer may be in plain clothes and some member of the family may be present when the person is voting. If this is not done there will be many spoiled votes. This is one reservation I have. The others were technical but this is very sensitive and will disturb people and frighten them.
I ask the Minister to consider the two points I have mentioned. Some close friend of the person should be with him when he is voting. When the two people arrive to carry out their duties the voter may not be out of bed. The presence of some member of the family will be required to ensure that the voter is presentable and is ready to vote. He should not be pushed hurriedly through a process of voting that could give a wrong result at the end of the day. This is something the Minister will have to consider on section 11 as it is a sensitive area. Some old people living alone may not even answer the door because of the fact that they have not had notice of the arrival of these people. The Minister said a special notice will be sent out. In the short days, when darkness falls very early, there may not be much light when these two people arrive. The door may not be opened to them. This may no apply as much in the cities as it will in rural areas. The Minister will have to amend this section, if not on Report Stage in this House, certainly in the other House.
I can appreciate some of the concerns expressed by Senator O'Toole but I feel he has gone overboard. My experience is that old people in particular are very jealous of their privacy in all things concerning money, land and the way they vote. They would be the first category to object if a nephew, niece, son or daughter who might be of a different political persuasion were entitled to be there. Settling an old person down or shaking up the duvet on the bed can be done prior to the arrival of the officials to take the vote. I see no problem there. The visit of the garda and the presiding officer to remote cottages would probably be a very welcome departure from the norm. The old person would be quite pleased and proud of himself for taking part in one of the most fundamental rights and privileges anyone has in a democracy — exercising his franchise. It will be a matter of pride in rural Ireland rather than one of fear or a sense of disgrace if a garda calls.
The reason I believe a garda should be in uniform, in contrast to the point made by Senator O'Toole is that one of the most reassuring uniforms in the country is that of the Garda. The chances of getting a door opened at 5 o'clock on a winter's evening to two plainclothes gardaí are zilch. The fact that the special voter is aware that these people are calling and that one of the people calling is wearing the uniform of the Garda Síochána will ensure that not only is the door opened but the person is satisfied that his safety is assured.
This section is adequate. I am against the idea of a garda officer in mufti appearing with a presiding officer similarly dressed. The Minister would be very wise not to make any alteration to the section.
Senator Magner's point is a fair one. It would be a sorry day if we came to the stage of suggesting, in one of the Houses of the Oireachtas, that voters or members of the public would become frightened by the visit to their home of a Garda officer in uniform. In the context of elections, it will be well known that this new voting procedure is in place. The fact that disabled people will have applied in advance and will have their vote brought to them by a special presiding officer, accompanied and protected by a Garda officer in uniform, is part of what I regard as one of the strengths of the system we are introducing. It is a difficult system and an expensive one. It is being done so expensively and in this manner, in order to give to incapacitated voters a facility which they do not now have, the facility to vote in the privacy of their own homes and without the influence of any other person being brought to bear upon them.
Senator Browne already suggested that we could have a situation where a member of a disabled voter's family would endeavour to turn the special presiding officer away from the door and not allow him admittance to the house. While we hope that is unlikely to occur, is it not all the more likely to occur if a member of the disabled person's family is allowed to be present in the room when the voting is taking place? They are more likely to influence the special voter by their presence.
I suggested to the House last week that in the instance where special voters may be living in long-stay institutions members of staff in those institutions do, of course, have a considerable amount of influence over patients because of the fact that those patients are so reliant upon them. It is better that the voter should conduct the exercise of his or her franchise in private — and this is the primary reason this whole procedure is being set up — with a representative of the returning officer, who is the person charged with ensuring that the election is carried out in a fair and impartial way without let or hindrance. The entire procedure is being supervised by a member of the Garda Síochána. It is entirely right that a member of the Garda Síochána ought to be in uniform. I would have thought that if persons were to have apprehensions about a Garda officer arriving at their homes — this apprehension from their own point of view or a fear as to what their neighbours might believe — they should be all the more apprehensive to have a Garda officer arrive without wearing a uniform which usually serves to indicate that it is a matter of serious criminal intent which is under investigation by members of the Garda force who serve in plain clothes.
In relation to all of the points which Senator O'Toole has made on the section, I find myself in disagreement with the views expressed by him.
Is it true that the person who indicates to the returning officer that he wishes to change his polling station does not require the medical certification that is necessary for those on the special voters' list, that is, an indication of some incapacity? Is that correct?
This section is not specifying that that person will necessarily have to provide a medical certificate but merely that he or she should satisfy the returning officer. This provision will largely be operated based upon the experience of different returning officers as to its feasibility.
It is a real improvement from the point of view of disabled people, either those who are suffering temporarily from a disability, or disabled people who, for one reason or another, do not find themselves on, or do not want to go on some special voters' register. They can nominate a polling station which is much more accessible from the point of view of their own disability, as long as that polling station is within the same Dáil constituency, local electoral area, county or county borough, as the case may be, as between Dáil elections, local elections or European Assembly elections.
I understand what the Minister says and I accept that it is a significant improvement but my concern is with the abuse of the system. If somebody indicates seven days prior to polling day that they wish to vote in a certain school as opposed to another station, there is nothing to prevent them from exercising their franchise when, in fact, they are registered at polling station No. C. Would it not be possible in this respect for the returning officer to indicate to the presiding officer of the original polling station that such a change has been made?
That is the intention. The House will note that the first line of the section specifies that not less than seven days before polling day an elector must apply. That seven day requirement enables the returning officer to make the arrangement to have the vote made available by the presiding officer in the new polling station being opted for and to notify the presiding officer in the polling station for which the voter is registered. In the case of the former, this person now has a voting eligibility at that station and, in the case of the latter, the voter while being on that register no longer has a voting entitlement at that polling station.