This Bill is designed to do two things. Firstly it deals with the situation arising from the Supreme Court decision on the secrecy of the ballot and secondly it makes provision for assisting voters at the forthcoming referendum in relation to our accession to the European Economic Communities.
As Senators are aware, a declaration was sought from the courts that certain provisions of the law relating to the election of Members of Dáil Éireann were contrary to the provisions of Article 16 of the Constitution which provides that voting at Dáil elections shall be by secret ballot. The essence of the claim was that the practice of writing the elector's number on the counterfoil of his ballot paper taken in conjunction with the requirements that the ballot paper and counterfoil must bear the same serial number, that election documents must be retained for 12 months after an election and that ballot papers and counterfoils may be inspected on the order of the Dáil or the High Court made it possible after an election to trace the ballot paper used by an individual elector and ascertain how he voted and that this practice contravenes the constitutional provision in relation to secrecy. The Supreme Court ruled that the provision for marking the elector's number on the counterfoil of the ballot paper was contrary to Article 16 of the Constitution and the present Bill accordingly provides for the removal of this requirement from the law.
Although the matter was not adverted to by the courts, I considered it desirable to remove also the requirement that the form of receipt signed by a postal voter should indicate the serial number of the ballot paper received by him. It seemed to me that there was, in theory at least, a possibility of ascertaining, by reference to the form of receipt and the ballot paper, how an individual postal voter marked his ballot paper. In future, therefore, a postal voter will simply acknowledge receipt of a ballot paper without specifying its number. This change necessitates some minor consequential changes in the postal voting rules and these are also being made in this Bill.
The Constitution also provides that voting at Presidential and Seanad elections shall be by secret ballot. A procedure identical with the Dáil election procedure for entering the elector's number on the counterfoil of his ballot paper is contained in each of these codes. Although the constitutionality of the Presidential and Seanad electoral law was not questioned it is clearly necessary to make changes in these Acts corresponding to the changes proposed in the Dáil electoral law. It was necessary to propose a further change in the law relating to the election of Panel Members of the Seanad. The elector at an election of Panel Members is required to produce his voting papers to an authorised person—that is, Clerk or Assistant Clerk of the Dáil or Seanad, county registrar, city or county manager, county secretary or Garda superintendent— who witnesses the elector's signature on the declaration of identity and signs a certificate which is then attached to the envelope sent to the Seanad Returning Officer.
The purpose of this arrangement is to make it impossible for anybody other than the elector to whom the particular ballot papers were sent to vote by means of these ballot papers. This safeguard will be somewhat weakened by the fact that the declaration of identity and the ballot paper envelope will no longer show the serial number of the ballot papers. Subsection (6) (e) of the Bill seeks to remedy this by requiring the authorised person to destroy each outer envelope—that is, the envelope addressed to the elector—produced to him and thus ensure that an elector, having already voted by means of his own papers, cannot subsequently produce his own outer envelope and another elector's ballot papers to a second authorised person.
As Senators are aware, there is no specific provision in the Constitution requiring that referenda be conducted by secret ballot but I am sure they will agree that it is desirable that a vote at a referendum should enjoy the same protection of secrecy as a vote at a Dáil, Presidential or Seanad election, and that the practice of writing the elector's number on the counterfoil should be dropped in the case of the referendum also.
It will be seen that the Bill prescribes new forms of ballot papers for use at Dáil and Presidential elections and referenda. These new forms are identical with the forms at present prescribed except that the space for the insertion of the voter's number on the counterfoil has been removed.
While this Bill was before the Dáil, the Third Amendment of the Constitution Bill, 1971, which proposes to amend the Constitution in order to allow the State to become a member of the European Communities was passed by both Houses. The Dáil agreed that the scope of the present Bill should be widened to provide for assisting electors at the referendum on the Constitutional Amendment Bill and the Dáil accepted a Committee Stage amendment proposed by me for this purpose. The amendment appears at section 5 of the Bill now before the Seanad. It provides that a special polling card containing a statement relating to the proposal for amendment of the Constitution will be sent to each elector, including postal voters. The statement will also be displayed in and in the precincts of polling stations and presiding officers will be authorised to assist blind, incapacitated and illiterate voters by reading out this statement to them, where necessary, and asking them whether they wish to vote in favour of or against the proposal and then marking the ballot paper in accordance with the voter's answer.
These arrangements are identical with those made by the Referendum (Amendment) Act, 1968, in relation to the referenda on the Third and Fourth Amendment of the Constitution Bills, 1968. Similar arranagements had previously been made by the Rerefendum (Amendment) Act, 1959, in relation to the referendum held in that year. Under the law, the proposal which is the subject of the referendum must be stated on the ballot paper by citing by its Short Title the Bill containing the proposal passed by both Houses of the Oireachtas. The Short Title, of course, gives no real indication of what the proposal is about and, in the circumstances, I think the Seanad will agree that it is desirable that a statement relating to the proposal for amendment of the Constitution should be circulated for the information of voters, as was done in 1959 and 1968.