Until last week I was president of Trinity College Dublin students union and, over the course of the last year, I acquired more experience of the voter registration process in Ireland than I ever thought I would. I echo the recommendations of previous speakers to set up an electoral commission and make a significant improvement in the way we register people to vote in this country. I will speed through my paper, which I wrote last week and which sets out most of what I think on the matter. I am speaking in a personal capacity as someone who is interested in the democratic process but also as a young person and student.
This year was an exceptionally positive year for students and young people and for many it was the first time they had engaged in the democratic process. I have read a number of articles about how to transfer this energy and I fear that may not happen unless we capitalise on it and not let it dissipate. I see two reasons why this level of civic engagement might not necessarily transfer into the future and to future elections. First, young people are very mobile. The USI has registered 27,000 people to vote this year but most of those 27,000 will have moved house before the next election as a lot of students move house every single year. Second, the marriage equality referendum was a binary civil rights issue which easily resonated with people whereas the same, unfortunately, cannot be said of general elections. We need to spur ourselves on in this area.
I am interested in voter registration although if an electoral commission were to be set up it would have many other responsibilities. I will talk through seven problems which I believe exist with voter registration. The first is that the system is entirely decentralised and there are gaping differences between the system on paper and the system on the ground. In theory a decentralised, devolved system has advantages in giving people with local expertise the responsibility to pick the polling stations and go door to door but in reality it does not happen. In theory, a decentralised system prevents double voting and stops someone from casting a vote in Dublin then getting a bus home to Bray, where I live, and casting another but unless a council happens to telephone Wicklow County Council to ask if a Domhnall McGlacken-Byrne is on its register there is no way to prevent double voting. In this respect the decentralised nature of the system seriously encourages rather than averts manipulation.
The second problem is that the available information is confusing and contradictory on many different resources and it deters non-traditional voters, by which I mean the people represented on this committee today. I telephoned a person on a county council and was left with the impression that a poorly literate person, a homeless person, somebody too busy with financial or personal pressures or just not interested in reading the dense prose that one currently has to traverse to go through the guidelines would be excluded from the process. Ideally, information available on how to register would have the user in mind. Just before this session I went halfway through the process of registering to vote in the UK using my telephone. I was asked what I would like to do, whether I wanted to register to vote or to read about something, etc. The information available is very inward facing.
The third problem is that the primary RFA form, which people use to register, pertains to households and not individuals. This is a serious problem. As the previous speaker said, the current system was designed when the vast majority of people in this country lived in the same place for their whole lives and there was an assumed family structure. This does not apply to students. Last October, at the start of the year, we did some door-to door registration at Trinity Hall in Dartry in Rathmines. Some 42 people lived in one address, namely, Cunningham House in Trinity Hall, Dartry.
There are six spaces on the RFA form and one person asked me how they would all fit on the form. The answer was they would not. Thinking in terms of households instead of individuals does not work and does not reflect the change that has happened in recent decades.
Bizarre problems can arise with the RFA form. Let us say John and Mary live in the same house. John is going to vote "Yes" and Mary is going to vote "No". John could print off an RFA form, give his address as John Murphy, 1 Main Street and send it off. Mary could then print off the same form and write "Mary Murphy, 1 Main Street", omitting John's name. If the current system is applied strictly the council will receive that form in the post and conclude that John has moved out and Mary has moved in. In theory, then, somebody who knows they are going to vote a different way from somebody who lives with them could manipulate the system in that way.
The fourth problem is that www.checktheregister.ie does not work. If a person is cursed with a fada, a hyphen or a double-barrelled name, all of which I am cursed with, it does not work and unless one inputs one's details precisely as the person in the county council inputted them, one will not come up on the register. This year people came to me every day, vaguely remembering that we had registered them, to check if they were on the register and I advised them not to use www.checktheregister.ie because more often than not it is misleading. The only way to get a definitive answer is to go to one's local library or ring the franchise section of the council. The overall problem with the website, apart from the local annoyances, is that it is nobody's express responsibility to maintain a decent online modality.
The next problem is that there is no clarity regarding the dates of referendums. All the student registration efforts this year were predicated on two assumptions, namely, that the two referendums would happen on a weekday and that they would happen before the end of the academic year. One of those assumptions was correct as it happened on a Friday. Unfortunately, by 22 May this year the vast majority of students had already gone home to Donegal or wherever so, having been registered to vote in Dublin, they had to change their details, which is a cumbersome process, or get a bus down to Dublin. Despite the high turnout, many people did not do this. Somebody suggested a constitution day, a specific date on which referendums would happen. The fact there is no clarity regarding the dates of referendums is a problem that often goes unnoticed.
The second last problem is that the postal vote system in Ireland is obsolete. The process is so cumbersome that I would love to have the figures for how many successful postal votes were processed this year in Ireland. Seven students managed to get almost all the way through the process because we helped them but, as far as I am aware, not one Trinity College student actually managed to register successfully for a postal vote. The home to vote trend on Twitter, with the images of people flying home from Australia, China and other places to vote, was inspiring but surely it was also totally unnecessary and inefficient and the fact that there is no outlet for citizens abroad to vote is bizarre, particularly in the context of the emigration of the past decade.
The final and overarching problem with the current voter registration system is that it is no one body's express responsibility. On several occasions when I asked questions about how to register someone, and what the right form was, it was asserted to me that registering people to vote is not the students union's responsibility. I would ask whose responsibility it is. In Scotland, for the referendum, there was a turnout of 85% and there was 98% voter registration. If every single Irish citizen who is not registered simultaneously became civically engaged tomorrow and sent off a registration form, the current system does not have the capacity to handle it. It is a serious problem and we do not invest as much as we should in these things.
I have not included any reference to votes at 16 years of age or the difficulties in finding out one's polling station within a constituency, but I have broadly outlined the problems. I thank members again.