Other Questions. - Electoral Participation Initiative.

John Bruton


7 Mr. J. Bruton asked the Minister for the Environment and Local Government if he will give details of the electoral participation initiative to encourage maximum voter participation in elections as promised in the Programme for Prosperity and Fairness; the reason this initiative was first announced in the context of the programme rather than following consultation with the Oireachtas; and the budget available for the initiative. [9459/00]

The initiative to encourage voter participation, which was agreed as part of the discussions on a new national agreement, arose in the context of the ongoing review of electoral law in my Department and also from contact I have had with the National Youth Council of Ireland regarding its recommendations in this area. I have made reference to these matters in the House in recent times and I will now examine how best to progress this commitment over the coming months as part of the ongoing review of electoral law.

Issues which are being considered in the review include changes in the registration process and the development of an extended advertising campaign to encourage registration and voting. I will also look at the recommendations of the all-party Oireachtas committee on the Constitution arising from its examination of the institutions of State, when these are available, and I will review the provision of information at referendums. In addition, I believe that extending the use of photographs on ballot papers to the remaining polls in the light of the experience at the European elections in 1999 and the introduction of electronic voting and counting, both of which are currently under examination, also have the potential to make a positive contribution to promoting increased participation in the electoral process.

Is the Minister telling the House that the electoral participation initiative in the PPF was included purely as a flyer and that it was only after it was announced in that programme with the usual fanfare and drum rolls that real consideration was given to it? The Minister listed a number of matters including the registration process, advertising campaigns, the report of the committee on the Constitution and information on referendums. Is he not trying to pull the wool over our eyes by telling us that these things, which have been discussed in the House at various times over the last 19 years of my membership, are being dressed up as the electoral participation initiative in the PPF? Does he expect us to take that seriously?

I do not mind whether the Deputy takes it seriously, to be quite honest. This appeared in the Programme for Prosperity and Fairness. The Department has an ongoing—

How did it get there?

I presume as a result of negotiations. I was not directly party to the negotiations.

Does the Minister not think he should have been asked?

My Department officials were involved. My Department has a programme which I initiated some time ago. It is an ongoing programme within the Department and electoral laws are kept under review. These are the areas at which we are looking in relation to this commitment. Other bodies, such as the National Youth Council, ICTU, the unions and so on may have other items to put on the agenda. These are the areas we will consider as part of it.

Since this issue arose in the context of the Programme for Prosperity and Fairness, does the Minister accept that the individual worker, who has to leave home at maybe 7 a.m. or 7.30 a.m. in order to beat Dublin traffic and who perhaps does not get home until 7 p.m. or 7.30 p.m., has at most an hour or an hour and half in which they can go out to cast their vote? That is, of course, if they are not like many other workers who have to work away from home on the day of the election. Will the Minister consider introducing an arrangement for polling day, either at weekends or perhaps over two days, so that the average worker, whose taxes are keeping the State going, can exercise their democratic right to vote which they are being denied at the moment by virtue of the nature of their work?

I agree with the Deputy. We said previously in the House that the day, times and so on of elections are an important part of ensuring voter participation. That is something at which we have looked. I already indicated in the House that I have no great difficulty trying Saturday voting as an experiment. I am prepared to consider it. The committee on the environment and local government should also consider the possibility of two day voting. I am quite flexible and open about that. It can be done in this context and in the context of the ongoing work of that committee.

I have a theory about this and would like to pose a question which might be helpful to the Minister. I am sure the Minister is aware that less than 50% of people are voting in elections and less than 40% in local elections.

A brief question for the Minister. We will run out of time.

Will the Minister consider making the electoral register, as marked off in polling stations, available to elected representatives? Some 50% of people coming into my office and that of the Minister do not exercise their vote. The Minister and I would love to be able to tell them that the next time they vote, they will be entitled to come into our offices. If that information was available to public representatives, there would be a greater turnout at local elections. I know a councillor who keeps the record himself—

A question, Deputy.

I want to try to help the Minister who is struggling to try to get more people out to vote. If public representatives were able to say to people who come to their clinics and offices that they are sorry but they cannot deal with them because they did not vote in the last election, it would not be long before there was a greater turnout at elections. Will the Minister consider making the official register, as marked off, available to elected representatives at local and national levels?

Mr. Hayes

The Minister mentioned the use of electronic voting. Rumours have been flying around the House that at the next election one constituency will be selected as a prototype for this. Will he confirm it is his intention to have one of the 42 constituencies using electronic voting at the next election?

It is my intention to have a number of constituencies voting electronically at the next general election.

Mr. Hayes

The whole constituency.

Yes, if that is possible. That is contingent on the tests that are being conducted. We are purchasing a number of electronic voting machines and they must go through extensive tests. If, at the end of that, we think it is sufficiently fool-proof – I have every reason to believe it will be – we would do this on a constituency rather than an individual polling station basis. If we are not satisfied, we will not go ahead with it. It is, however, our intention to do that. The Bill being prepared on electoral matters generally into which this process will feed will cater for that.

On Deputy McCormack's suggestion, while it might be a very effective way to ensure people turn up to vote, people would end up coming to us with notes from their doctor, travel agent, hospital and so on to explain why they were away. In the current highly competitive, multi-seat constituency system, even if I or the returning officer provided the information, I would query exactly how many Deputies would say that.

I would have no difficulty because the people who do not vote are no good to the Minister or to me.