I move: "That the Bill be now read a Second Time."
I am glad to have the opportunity today to outline the provisions in the ninth Bill in the electoral area brought forward by this Government. This short Bill contains three measures, each separate and distinct. The Electoral (Amendment) (No. 2) Bill 2015 provides, as the name suggests, for amendments to existing electoral law. The need for these amendments has become apparent in the operation of the relevant provisions in electoral law. The Bill was described in summary in the autumn legislation programme published last month.
It provides for the continuation of the existing arrangements for candidate entitlement to free postage at Seanad university member elections, when the household distribution provision for Dáil elections is commenced. It provides for the Association of Irish Local Government to be included in the register of nominating bodies for Seanad panel member elections.
It also provides that persons who become Irish citizens after the qualifying date for the register of electors may apply for entry in the supplement to the register of electors to have their new citizenship status recognised. Entry in the supplement would entitle them to vote at all elections and referendums arising before the next relevant register is prepared.
I will elaborate now on the provisions in the Bill. The first provision relates to the entitlement to free postage for candidates at elections in the Seanad university constituencies. The Electoral Acts provide that candidates at presidential and Dáil elections, and elections in the Seanad university constituencies, are entitled to send an item of election communication to each person on the register of electors, free of postage charge. The postage costs are met by the State. The communication issued is colloquially known as the "litir um thoghchán", and I think it is so labelled by An Post. Under these provisions and where more than one person is registered at the same address, multiple copies of the same item of post are sent to that address. This is unnecessarily costly and wasteful.
In line with the Government's commitment to achieve efficiencies and reduce Government spending, the necessary provision to allow for household distribution of the litir um thoghchán at European elections was commenced in 2014. This generated estimated savings of €2.5 million in the cost to the State of running the 2014 European elections. It is now the Minister's intention to commence section 78(a) of the Electoral Act 1997 to provide for household distribution of the litir um thoghchán at Dáil elections. The potential savings at a general election are estimated at €3.6 million, based on the same number of candidates availing of the facility as in 2011 and with similar postage costs.
The commencement of section 78(a) of the Electoral Act 1997 will amend section 57 of the Electoral Act 1992, which is also applied to Seanad elections by section 25 of the Seanad Electoral (University Members) Act 1937. However, household distribution would not be workable for elections in the Seanad university constituencies, as registration in those constituencies is on an individual basis. The Bill therefore inserts a provision into the Seanad Electoral (University Members) Act 1937 to provide that candidates at elections in the Seanad university constituencies may send, free of postage charge, one election communication to each registered elector in the constituency. This effectively provides for the continuation of the existing arrangements for elections in the Seanad university constituencies and it mirrors the existing provision for Dáil elections in section 57 of the Electoral Act 1992. The necessary provisions are made in section 1 of the Bill.
The second provision in the Bill relates to nominating bodies for Seanad panel member elections. The Seanad Electoral (Panel Members) Act 1947 Act provides for the establishment and maintenance of a register of bodies entitled to nominate persons to panels of candidates for the election of 43 members of the Seanad, as provided for in the Constitution. This register is renewed annually in accordance with the provisions in the Act. The Act provides for the bodies representing local government to be registered each year automatically - that is, without application. The bodies named in the Act are the Irish county councils' general council, which was most recently known as the Association of County and City Councils, and the Association of Municipal Authorities of Ireland. In 2014, following the reforms in local government, the two bodies representing local government, the Association of County and City Councils and the Association of Municipal Authorities of Ireland, merged to become the Association of Irish Local Government. That association is not named in the 1947 Act and there is no provision in that Act for a successor body to the previous bodies to be included in the register of nominating bodies.
The current register of nominating bodies came into force on 21 March 2015 and, even though there has been no policy change as such, the body representing local government in Ireland is not included in the register of nominating bodies for Seanad panel member elections. This is an inadvertent consequence of the changes in local government that took place in 2014 and one that is being addressed in this Bill. The Bill provides, in section 2, for the amendment of the Seanad Electoral (Panel Members) Act 1947 to provide that the Association of Irish Local Government shall be registered, without application, in respect of the administrative panel in the register of nominating bodies for Seanad panel member elections.
Pending the next annual revision of the register, in March 2016, the Bill also provides, in section 2(c), for the Association of Irish Local Government to be registered in the register of nominating bodies which came into effect on 21 March 2015. It provides for the publication of a notice in this regard in Iris Oifigiúil by the Seanad returning officer. Section 2 also makes consequential amendments to sections 27 and 58 of the 1947 Act. The effect of all of the amendments is to replace the references in the 1947 Act to the Irish county councils' general council and the Association of Municipal Authorities of Ireland with a reference to the Association of Irish Local Government.
The third provision in the Bill is about application for entry in the supplement to the register of electors by persons who become Irish citizens. The three requirements for voter registration are age, residence in a constituency and citizenship. One's citizenship dictates what elections one can vote in.
Since 1992, arrangements have been in place for persons not on the register of electors to be entered in a supplement to the register so that they can vote at an election or referendum taking place before the next register comes into force. Initially, persons would have had to meet the necessary requirements on the qualifying date for the register in any year, that is, 1 September. The supplement provisions were modified in 1997 and again in 2001 to provide that persons reaching 18 years of age, changing address or moving constituency after the qualifying date could apply for entry in the register. However, no modification was ever made to provide for a person whose citizenship changed after the qualifying date to apply to be entered in the supplement to the register of electors. The Minister is proposing that this anomaly be addressed now. The Bill provides that a person who becomes an Irish citizen after the qualifying date for the register of electors can apply for entry in the supplement. This means that those who become Irish citizens will not have to wait for a full turnaround of the register of electors to be registered to vote at all elections and referendums. They will be entitled to apply for entry in the supplement to the register and to have their new citizenship status recognised and so be entitled to vote at an election or referendum taking place before the next relevant register of electors comes into force.
The new provisions are set out in section 3 of the Bill, which substitutes section 15(1A) of the Electoral Act 1992. The new section 15(1A) repeats the provisions in the existing section and includes the new provision that a person may apply for entry in the supplement to the register of electors if he or she was not a citizen of Ireland on the qualifying date, that is, 1 September each year, for the register of electors and subsequently became a citizen of Ireland. Such applications could be from persons who were never registered to vote. They could also be from persons already registered to vote, for example, as local government or European electors, who wish to change their registration details and so be entitled to vote at all elections and referendums.
Finally, I want to signal to Members that I will bring forward an amendment to the Bill on Committee Stage. The amendment will provide for the introduction of a revised format for the ballot paper used at Dáil elections. I hope the changes proposed will receive the support of all Members of the Oireachtas and I look forward to the new format of the ballot paper being used at the next general election.
The Minister committed to a review of the ballot paper in this House in April last. At that time, Deputy Stanton raised concerns about voters misplacing their marks on the ballot paper.
At present, political party emblems are placed along the left-hand side of the ballot paper. In the case of non-party candidates the space for the emblem is required to be left blank. It is reported that some voters express their voting preferences by placing their marks in these boxes in the left-hand column. While it is understood that such marks may not necessarily make a ballot paper invalid, any potential confusion should be eliminated, where possible. Following the review of the format of the referendum ballot paper earlier this year, Department officials also consulted with the National Adult Literacy Association and the National Council for the Blind in the review of the Dáil election ballot paper.
The revised form of the ballot paper should help voters avoid misplacing voting preferences and it should be more user-friendly for voters with visual and literacy difficulties. The main change proposed is to move the space for including the emblem of a political party from the left-hand side of the ballot paper to a new location to the left of the photograph. There will, therefore, be no boxes along the left-hand side of the ballot paper. This should help voters avoid misplacing voting preferences, given that there will be only one box that can be marked for each candidate after voters have read across, from left to right, all the information on each candidate. In addition, italics and parentheses will be removed from the front of the ballot paper and the wording on the back of the ballot paper and the counterfoil will be in both Irish and English.
As I said at the outset, this is an amending Bill containing three separate and distinct measures. Each of the measures in the Bill is important in itself. On Committee Stage, the Minister will propose that a fourth measure, on the Dáil ballot paper, be added. The Bill seeks to resolve issues that have arisen in the course of the operation of the electoral codes. I commend the Bill to the House.