Home Opinion Comment

Going Postal

The Irish abroad compose a significant part of the Irish population but voting rights for these citizens is extremely limited; why might this be and how does it compare to the rest of the world?

Irish polling stations open at 7am and close at 10pm. A thirteen hour window in which ten minutes of one’s time can be used to vote to elect 158 members to the next Dáil. It seems like ample opportunity as long as you have correctly registered yourself, unless of course, you will not be in the country at the time. Ireland does have a postal vote but it is limited. Members of An Garda Síochána and the Defence forces have it, as well as Irish diplomats and their spouses. There are other circumstances in which a postal vote can be arranged within Ireland; if you are disabled, imprisoned, in a nursing home or care facility these are all grounds for applying and in all likelihoods obtaining, a postal vote.

In the USA elections for Congress for the senate, for the President are held on the second Tuesday in November of even numbered years. But even if you’re going to be out of the country on that very specific date say on a last minute holiday, emergency business or even because you live outside of the country permanently, you can still vote. In Ireland elections are supposed to be every five years although this depends on the life of the government and if they last the whole term. The time of year the elections are held depends on when the last Dáil was dissolved, (this year the election will be held exactly five years and one day after the last one). In sum, Irish elections are nowhere near as regimented as those in the US. While allowing for a more flexible democracy which can be held to account in theory whenever the public demands, it does mean that people can make plans that land them out of the country on Election Day, completely innocently and so they unfortunately end up with an empty ballot.

Presumably the greatest debate for the introduction of a postal vote is who exactly should be entitled to it. The obvious initial argument is Irish citizens wherever they may be, have the right, as derived by the ninth amendment to the constitution that, as an Irish citizen* of 18 years of age or older, they are entitled to vote. However problems start to creep in when you look at emigration statistics and the risk of the possible disproportionate effect of external voters. The argument is that they want their vote because they want to help to shape Ireland for the future for when they return. This is a legitimate reason for wanting to decide who governs, but unfortunately there is no guarantee of return of someone who has emigrated and it is reasonable to ask if you don’t contribute to the shaping of the future, should you be allowed to determine how that future should pan out?

Many US citizens on foreign soil will be able to vote in November’s presidential elections, but they do not do so without a cost. There is a catch to remaining eligible to vote; still paying US taxes. As the US is a federal country with laws varying by state, it is not always quite as simple as paying multiple taxes at once. It also means that, depending on where you are registered to vote, a postal vote may not even be an option. The UK also has postal voting as well as voting by proxy (although the situation is different in Northern Ireland), citizens can apply to have a postal vote for a once off if for instance they are going to be on holiday they can even request a postal vote for life without any necessary conditions, which seems a bit ridiculous, anyone with UK citizenship who has only briefly lived in the UK with no interest in how the country develops, can in theory, have a say in what direction it wants the government to take.

Other countries in the EU have postal voting systems many with very strict guidelines and some have previously had it and have since rescinded it because of voter fraud. One key difference between the countries that do but they do not have the same degree of emigration as Ireland does and that is where the true difference lies. The degree of registered voters who live outside of the country is difficult to count but it is estimated that the Irish diaspora makes up around. It is also difficult to determine as unlike many other countries, there is no official record kept of those who have emigrated. The only time your passport is looked at before you leave is a quick glance at the burgundy book at the departure gate right before you get on the plane and it’s used as an identification check, not a security check or an emigration check. Thousands of Irish voters remain on the electoral register without the ability to vote. However emigrants are only one class of postal vote desirers; what of students on Erasmus, someone working away strictly for a year or two, someone volunteering or even just someone who booked an untimely holiday? These are people who are completely guaranteed to return to Ireland and return on an almost fixed date, why is there no postal vote for them?

There is clearly a significant gap in the Irish electoral system, and one which is not really very beneficial to anyone. How should it be solved? Extend the vote to everyone worldwide with Irish citizenship? Follow the US model of no representation without taxation? Do we give the vote to a select few who will be back in a few months or do we leave it as it is? Postal voting does not appear to be a key issue for any party so it is unlikely to change soon, but perhaps it would be an idea for all parties to keep in mind that it is not just the citizens at home who are watching what this election will bring.

*The ninth amendment added the provision of British citizens living in Ireland being allowed to vote in elections to reciprocate a similar law passed in the UK after the Republic of Ireland Act 1948.