Problems with Irish voting register

June 28th, 2005 | by Andrew Ó Baoill |

I meant to post about this earlier, but I think my draft got lost in a computer crash. I first heard about the story thanks to my mother, who provides me with a very efficient media monitoring service on the various issues in which I’m interested. The story was also reported on the ICTE mailing list.

In essence the Sunday Tribune has identified problems with the voting register that may be very substantial:

By comparing register totals against census statistics, he concludes that the total figure of registered voters from 2002 (3.002 million) was overstated by something between 675k and 800k voters.

For reference, the Irish population is around 4.1 million in total, so this is an error of around 25% of the voting population.

I’d previously pin-pointed the register as a likely weakness in the electoral system. Or rather I should say registers, as they are compiled locally. I was under the impression that various actions were initiated a number of years ago to improve the register and thought that the various problems might, over time be addressed, but the potential scale is larger than I had thought.

A number of particular points about the Irish situation that will provide some context:

  • In Ireland there are various classes of voters who are allowed participate in different types of elections. All residents in an area can participate in local elections. All citizens of member states of the European Union who are resident in an area can vote in elections for the European Parliament. Citizens of Ireland or the United Kingdom can vote in elections for Dáil Éireann. Citizens of Ireland can vote in Presidential elections and referendums.
  • Ireland does not provide voting privileges to those not currently resident in the country.
  • According to the last census approximately 80% of those in the country who were born in Ireland are resident in the county in which they were born.

I include the first two points to stress that the compilation requires slightly more than the accumulation of unique names – the citizenship of the registrant is required. A listing of Irish citizens would both be too broad (including those abroad ineligible to vote) and too narrow (excluding resident non-citizens). However, a listing based on, for example, PPS numbers (Personal Public Service Numbers – formerly RSI numbers) wouldn’t necessarily provide the necessary citizenship detail (though the coverage of PSNs is now something like 98% of the population and I believe the government foresee using them as a basis for access to egovernment services in the future).

The third point is relevant because the newspaper report was based on a comparison of register data and census data. One potential reason for a deviation between the two – census and register – is the structure of, for example, the student body in Ireland. Students living away from home can be registered in either place and may have been counted in the census in either place, depending on where they were on the night of the census.

Ní féidir leat a bheith cláraithe ach ag seoladh amháin

Although one may, according to the regulations laid down, be registered in only one place, it is possible that a large portion of the student body, those who have moved residence, or those who have a split residence (for example between parents’ residence and their place of employment) are actually registered in more than one place. This need not be a problem for the electoral system, as long as each person votes no more than once in total, but the system as is is not set up to monitor such practices and therefore needs to ban the multiple registrations at root. The fact that the current registration system cannot adequately police the multiple-registration system suggests that radical reform of some sort is needed.

Of course, allowing multiple registrations would probably require that polling stations be networked to prevent multiple votes by a single person and this does not seem sufficiently secure or easy in the near future.

Another problem with the current system is that the system is based on an annually compiled register. The problem?

To be eligible to be included in the Register of Electors, you must:

  • Be at least 18 years of age on the day the Register comes into force (15 February)

And

  • Have been ordinarily resident in the State on 1 September in the year preceding the coming into force of the Register.

Thus those who turn 18 after 15th February are disinfranchised until the following 15th February. This is unnecessary given the computerised nature of today’s register. There is a supplemental register published shortly before elections, but it is only for those who were eligible for the earlier register but weren’t registered and for those who have changed address. This seems a hold-over from the days of type-written registers and an area worth improving immediately. (Linking between local registers would allow someone to register in a new address and have their old registration removed for them without having to fill out a second form).

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