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Time for compulsory voting

... in single-seat constituencies.

The number of people choosing not to vote at election time is increasing with successive elections. The odd buck in the trend, for whatever reason, is of little consolation. Even though the Government decided to hold referenda on the same day as the city and county council elections of 1999 and 2004, the apparent level of participation in the voting process continued to slide. Nowadays, nearly five out ten on the register of electors don’t vote.

The decline in electoral turnout means that outcomes are increasingly determined by minorities, whether of party loyalists or those of the zealous, disgruntled kind, or by diligent senior citizens imbued with the civic spirit and a sense of the value of the vote which their grandparents, notably women, fought for a century ago. In the round, the choices made do not reflect views of the majority, among them a large chunk of absentees. Another, perhaps unnoticed outcome is the lack of credibility of those who are elected to office on the votes of a minority of the electorate. In the extreme, councillors are being returned without any voting, for there has been insufficient interest to muster more candidates than there are seats to fill.

There are good explanations for declining turnouts, whether at national or local government level. Most of the important decisions that affect society have been made. New legislation is often not implemented; it often seems as if it is to satisfy EU or other external obligations in a superficial way. Many significant decisions are now made by un-elected, unaccountable bureaucrats in the council secretariat, or in Brussels or “by the Minister” which in most instances is code for his or her civil servants, who are immune to sanctions. In an economist’s terminology, the incremental political process has declining marginal utility value. That accounts for the Seanad often sounding and looking like Frank Hall’s Ballymagash Council. It is also manifest in the Dail, where both backbenchers and opposition feel redundant. A great stock of capital has been invested in legislation and regulation. In this State we make them and then don’t implement or police them, bringing the lawmaker- politicians into disrepute. The move by the Oireachtas to engage in policing or securing accountability from implementing bodies is a reflection of their growing concern to see that the laws they make produce a ‘bang for their buck’. It is ironic that while that was very much the practice in the 18th century Irish Parliament, there are signs that the judiciary are intent on clipping the wings of this political development now.

In local government, since domestic rates were gradually abolished in the late 1970s, there has been less reason for the former rate-paying residents to vote. Farmers secured, through court action, the abolition of their rates and now only industry and commerce pay local rates. They, as voters, scarcely count, even though the ever-increasing rates are ultimately borne by their customers along with their owners.

In Leitrim and Monaghan there were only three candidates for every two seats and in five counties it was 2 or a little less per seat. The long ballot paper conveys an impression of lots of voter choice, but it is a myth. Half of all candidates, no matter how mediocre or unappealing they may be, are elected anyway.

Registers of electors, which are compiled once a year, are increasingly inaccurate and full of moved-on or dead voters, especially in areas without house numbers. The rate of moving on is in¬creasing: eight years is a figure that has been claimed for the average occupation of a house in a city. The power to number houses dates to 1854, and is not vested in county councils, only in towns and cities with councils. It is common for old main streets of highly urbanised towns, such as Celbridge or Swords, to have no numbering schemes and the registers are chock-a-block with names in alphabetical order on which only a Solomon could make a determination.

There is evidence that the more intimately local councillors are known to the electorate, the more likely voters are to turn out in great number. For example, in the 1991 local elections – the last time local elections were held without town council elections or referenda on the same day – the turnout varied from over 80% to less than 40%, with the largest turnout in Leitrim, where there were as few as 914 voters per seat, to Dublin Pembroke, with 8,376 electors per council seat, and a corresponding very low turnout. Obviously, in these times one can’t advocate more councillors: many feel we have too many already. (Each, however, has, rather perversely, an equal vote in the election of 43 Senators, which inevitably show a rural bias ).

The growing sophistication of the analysis of election statistics has led to the established political parties, or rather those of them who retain tight controls at their HQ, to select the smallest number of candidates practicable in each electoral area. Their objective is to minimise what they call “leakage” – the scattering of second and subsequent preference votes which arises when candidates are either eliminated or elected with a surplus – to candidates of rival parties. This electoral technique has led to very restricted choices in the hands of voters, who are thus less inclined to turn out. The last four five-yearly local elections have shown a decline for over three candidates per seat to an average of just over two per seat in the 2004 city and county elections. In particular cases the choice is even more restrictive: In Leitrim and Monaghan there were only three candidates for every two seats and in five counties it was 2 or a little less per seat. The long ballot paper conveys an impression of lots of voter choice, but it is a myth. Half of all candidates, no matter how mediocre or unappealing they may be, are elected anyway.

A much greater choice would present itself if council constituencies were single-seat ones (with a transferable vote as in proportional representation). The larger parties would feel obliged to put up candidates in each of them, which would push the ratio of candidates to seats above three once more. The single-seat constituency would tend to connect the candidate more closely to his or her electorate and increase turnout in any event and increase the number of independent representatives in the council: this would be no bad thing, as newer party candidates tend to be chosen as much for how little a threat they pose to incumbents than for their talent ; there is also an overlay of dynastic politics at work.

In these times it may seem trite to say it, but voting is a civic duty that has been hard-won. With the decline in turnout, the corollary is now upon us: let voting be compulsory, subject to a small fine for non-compliance such as in Australia, another ex-imperial colony. In Australia the turnout is very high by Irish standards and nobody seems to be hostile to the compulsion.