With a range of important referendums on the horizon, Gavin Tracey examines the recommendations made by the Citizens’ Assembly aimed at increasing voter turnout and engagement.
“I don’t know who created Pokémon Go, but I’m trying to figure out how we get them to Pokémon Go to the polls.” – Hillary Clinton
Voter turnout has always been an issue that has concerned politicians and those invested in the notion of representative democracy since the inception of modern representative democracy. In the past, and in many places, the political classes are concerned with how to prevent people from voting, as is the case in the United States, with voter ID laws and gerrymandering. However, in Europe, the trend is more towards trying to increase the number of people going to the polls. We in Ireland seem to have a peculiar love/hate relationship with voting, with over 61% of people voting in the Marriage Equality referendum, but only a 33.5% voter turnout for the Children’s Referendum in 2012. In relation to the rest of Europe our voter turnout is good, and it has been on the rise since the early 2000s, but there are still a large amount of people who do not vote, and this number is much higher among young people.
With the aim of increasing voter turnout, the Citizens’ Assembly has put forth a range of suggestions to be discussed in the Oireachtas. They voted overwhelmingly for the establishment of a permanent Electoral Commission, weekend voting, and lowering the voting age to 16. They also voted in favour of a system similar to that found in Switzerland and Australia, whereby a public petition could trigger a referendum. Will these measures really help to increase levels of voter turnout, or is voter apathy simply too strong to be counteracted by simply changing who can vote and when?
Perhaps the most important of these would be the establishment of a permanent electoral commission. An electoral commission is tasked with overseeing referendums and elections, and ensuring everything is above board. Ireland is one of very few countries that does not have a permanent electoral commission. As it is now, an electoral commission is set up for each election or referendum and is disbanded afterwards. Speaking to the Assembly Michael Marsh, a professor of Politics at Trinity College, said that establishing a permanent electoral commission was a “no-brainer.”
98% of the Assembly voted in favour of implementing spending limits for referendums. This is a good proactive step in preventing monied interests in interfering with politics, a problem that has led to huge levels of voter dissatisfaction and disillusionment in many countries, perhaps most notably in the United States. This was backed up with 72% voting in favour of preventing anonymous donations to political parties, politicians, or campaigns.
The key to a functioning democracy is an engaged citizenry
The Assembly was also concerned with voter turnout, putting forward many proposals aimed at making voting easier and more accessible to everyone. 100% voted in favour of weekend voting, with a smaller majority voting in favour of postal and early voting, and being able to vote in any polling station. The vote that will spur the most debate was the overwhelming vote in favour of lowering the voting age to 16, with 80% voting in favour. A poll conducted by Amárach Research for theJournal.ie and Claire Byrne Live found that only 16% of the public would be in favour of it. It was also floated by the Fine Gael and Labour government in 2013, who planned on holding a referendum on the issue, but never did. Likewise, Fianna Fáil also floated the idea of lowering the voting age, before u-turning on it last year. The National Youth Council of Ireland has made the point that all of the arguments used against lowering the voting age were also used in the debate around giving women the vote: that they would be easily manipulated or uninformed. However, there are doubts that the political will exists around this issue, especially in parties like Fianna Fáil and Fine Gael, who rely heavily on the so called “grey vote” for their electoral survival.
All of these motions are due to be debated in the Oireachtas, and it is unclear what will happen in relation to them. While the Citizens’ Assembly no doubt plays a large part in influencing future legislation, it is after all only an advisory body, and government is under no obligation to follow what they vote on. However, with increased voter participation in the Marriage Equality referendum, and with a number of referendums on the horizon, most notably the referendum concerning the eighth amendment, the debate surrounding voter turnout and participation is only going to intensify. The key to a functioning democracy is an engaged citizenry, and we must ensure that this upward trend of voter turnout continues.