At all previous referenda the Oireachtas has seen fit to enact a brief technical Bill to provide the electorate with objective factual information designed to assist them in making a rational and informed decision on the proposals dealt with at the referenda. The present measure represents a continuation of that practice.
The Bill proposes to assist voters at the referenda on the Twelfth, Thirteenth and Fourteenth Amendments of the Constitution by making available to them a statement relating to the proposals which are the subject of the referenda and by providing for headings on the ballot papers in order to help distinguish between them.
Section 1 of the Bill provides that a special polling card, containing the statement set out in the Appendix to that section, will be sent to electors generally. A copy of the statement will also be sent to each postal and special voter. The statement will be displayed on posters in and in the precincts of polling stations. Presiding officers will be authorised to assist blind and incapacitated voters and those unable to read and write by reading out this statement to them, where necessary, and marking the ballot papers in accordance with the instructions of the voter.
The statement for the information of voters is contained in the Appendix to section 1. The statement, which is prescribed in Irish and in English, set out as clearly and concisely as possible, the proposals which are the subject of the referenda. Quite properly, the statement does not attempt to paraphrase, summarise or interpret the proposed constitutional amendments. It simply quotes the words which the three Constitution Bills propose to insert in the Constitution with the minimum of associated wording.
The task of spelling out for the electorate the purpose of the proposed amendments and the implications of voting one way or the other will be a matter for the political parties and groups who are advocating a particular result in relation to one or all of the proposals.
The arrangements proposed in section 1 are the same as those made in relation to the referendum in June of this year and, indeed, at all previous referenda.
A further step to aid voters at the forthcoming referenda is proposed at section 3 of the Bill. This section provides that a heading will be printed on each ballot paper to indicate the proposal to which the paper relates with a view to assisting voters in distinguishing betwen the separate papers.
Experience has shown that where two or more polls are taken on the same day, the proportion of spoilt ballot papers tends to increase substantially. One of the likely reasons for this is that some electors may have difficulty in distinguishing between the separate proposals. In a single nationwide poll the proportion of rejected papers is normally somewhat less than 1 per cent. Where two or more ballot papers are involved the proportion tends to increase to 2 or 3 per cent or, on occasion, even higher.
At a referendum the ballot paper is, and must be, a formal document and not a particularly informative one. The question asked is "Do you approve of the proposal to amend the Constitution contained in the undermentioned Bill" and the Short Title of the Bill is then given. Thus, where there are two or more referenda there is nothing other than the Short Title of the relevant Constitution Bill together with the colour of the paper to distinguish one ballot paper from another.
On this occasion there will be three separate ballot papers. In order to reduce the risk of a high number of spoilt papers, it is clearly desirable that a further distinguishing feature should be included on the ballot papers. The simplest and most effective way of doing this is to include a descriptive heading on each paper which will indicate clearly which of the three separate issues a particular ballot paper relates to. This is proposed by section 3 of the Bill.
The arrangement is not new. In 1979, when two proposals to amend the Constitution were put to the people on the same day, provision was made for the inclusion of distinguishing headings on the ballot papers. In section 3 we are following this precedent. The provision, with the measures I have already mentioned, will help electors distinguish between the three separate proposals and will help in ensuring that the number of spoilt ballot papers will be kept to the minimum.
The purpose of the headings is to distingish between the ballot papers and to provide a signpost to the subject matter to which each relates. The headings have no significance other than as an aid to electors in distinguishing between the three papers. The headings are not part of the proposed amendments to the Constitution; they will not be written into the Constitution; the electors will not be asked to vote on the headings or to approve or disapprove of them. The matters on which the electorate will vote are the proposals contained in the Constitution Bills as passed by both Houses. The ballot paper headings proposed seem to me to be suitable and sensible. They are brief, clear and relevant and will leave the elector in no doubt as to which is dealt with in each paper.
In relation to section 2 of the Bill, I would like to explain that a statement for the information of voters could be prescribed by resolution of both Houses of the Oireachtas under section 2 of the Referendum (Amendment) Act, 1992. However, since a Bill was required in any event in order to provide for the descriptive headings on the ballot papers, it was considered appropriate to deal with both questions in a single instrument. Section 2, therefore, provides that the relevant section of the Referendum (Amendment) Act, 1992, shall not apply in relation to the present referenda.
I believe that this Bill will fulfil a useful function in providing the electorate with objective, factual information to assist them in making an informed decision at the referenda. The inclusion of clear, easily understood headings or labels on the ballot papers will provide practical assistance to voters in distinguishing between the different papers.
I am sure the Seanad will agree that the Bill is a worthwhile and practical measure.