(Wexford): Under existing law restated in this Bill, a voter whose sight is so impaired that he is unable to vote without assistance may have the ballot paper marked on his or her behalf by a companion or a presiding officer. A voter who is illiterate may ask to have the ballot paper marked by the presiding officer. Under this provision, the presiding officer may assist the voter by reading out in full the details in relation to each candidate on the ballot paper and then mark the ballot paper as instructed by the voter.
While the inclusion of photographs of candidates on ballot papers might assist some voters, the effectiveness of the measure overall is likely to be limited. Under our system of proportional representation, which allows the voter to vote for the candidates in the order of his or her choice, certain categories of voters would still require assistance in marking the ballot paper.
The inclusion of photographs would give rise to practical difficulties. For example, it would put extra pressure on the resources of the returning officer at a time when he or she is already operating under pressure. At an election little time is available for preparing, printing and issuing ballot papers. Ballot papers have to be printed as soon as practicable after the closing of nominations to ensure maximum time for delivery and return of postal ballot papers.
The extra time required for checking photographs, ensuring that they are of suitable standard and quality and making certain that the photographs match the names on the ballot paper would add considerably to the demands on the resources of the returning officer. In the political party I represent, when we are trying to get photographs for the three or four candidates who are standing in Wexford, we usually spend two weeks trying to make sure that one is not brighter or darker than the other. I can imagine what the problems would be if this was a nationwide requirement.
Photographs on ballot papers could assist some electors in identifying the candidate for whom they wish to vote but only, of course, if they already know what the candidate looks like. Thus, there would be a built-in bias in favour of well known candidates at the expense of lesser known ones. Our electoral system is already criticised for putting undue emphasis on personality rather than on policy. Including photographs would exaggerate this tendency and could have the effect of, as some speakers said, turning the election into a beauty contest, although Senator Dardis does not agree. People might be more inclined to vote for a high profile candidate if their photograph was on the ballot paper.
The points I have made up to now refer mainly to general elections. It would be correct to say that the arguments might be different for a presidential election, where there is a longer lead-in, only one ballot paper for the entire country and the number of candidates is substantially less. However, in a presidential election there are usually only two or three candidates — there has never been more than three and, up to the present, the number had normally been two.
Wide publicity is given to the candidates in the news media, an extensive and effective campaign is conducted by, and on behalf, of the candidates and a free postage facility is provided under which the election addresses of the candidates are delivered to every elector. The candidates in the last presidential election — President Robinson, Deputy Currie and Deputy Lenihan — had high profiles and were well known. I do not think a photograph on the ballot paper at that presidential election would have been of any advantage because the candidates were all well known.
In the light of this, it is difficult to maintain that there is a genuine need for the measure proposed in the amendment. The proportion of spoilt votes in the 1990 presidential election was 0.5 per cent, which is very low by any standard. The argument that substantial numbers of illiterate or semi-illiterate electors do not turn out to vote because of embarrassment or fear that they would spoil their ballot paper is difficult to maintain.
In my experience, the major problem with people not turning out to vote concerns young voters. The majority of young people are highly educated, intelligent and would not be regarded as illiterate. This is an area we have to examine to see how we can get young people to vote. The existing regulations for presidential or general elections are adequate and there is no need for photographs as suggested by Senator Dardis.