Modernising elections and opening up politics

Malcolm Noonan speaks to Trinity News on the new Electoral Reform Bill

Having recently finished a students’ union election season unlike any other, Trinity students have been listening to conversations and asking questions about how to encourage turnout in elections and engagement among voters. Historically, turnout is usually quite low in Trinity College Dublin Students’ Union (TCDSU) elections, often coming in somewhere between 10 and 20%, and the same is true for national elections. While turnout was high among young people in the 2019 European and Local elections, it went down again in the general election of 2020. Although the share of support plummeted for the two powerhouses of Irish politics – Fine Gael and Fianna Fáil – this was largely due to voters between 35 and 65. 

There are those out there attempting to buck the trends. Several Trinity students ran in the 2020 general election. Green party candidate Tate Donnelly, who ran in the Cavan-Monaghan constituency was the youngest candidate in the country at 21, while Fianna Fáil Councillor James O’Connor won a seat in Cork East, making him the youngest TD elected at age 22. The resulting coalition government committed to introducing electoral reform, a key priority of the Green party.

On January 8, Housing Minister Darragh O’Brien and Minister of State for Electoral Reform Malcolm Noonan published the General Scheme of the electoral reform bill. The bill, which is currently going through pre-legislative scrutiny, has four main elements; the establishment of a statutory independent electoral commission, the modernisation of our electoral registration process, the regulation of online political advertising around electoral events and introducing measures which would assist the holding of an electoral event safely should Covid-19 restrictions be in place.

Speaking to Trinity News, Minister Noonan said the electoral commission is a long held ambition of successive governments and would have a broad function in terms of oversight of all electoral events and referenda. “We also anticipate that it will perform an advocacy, research and voter awareness function that would encourage more people to become more active in politics, in voting and in advocating for change”, he said.

This aspect of making the electoral process more accessible is seen as key to increasing turnout and participation among historically marginalized groups. “It should have a role in targeting hard to reach groups, minorities, Travellers and in increasing the participation of women in politics”, said Noonan. “The submission to the bill by the National Women’s Council for instance advocates for gender quotas to be introduced for the 2024 local elections; a good idea in my view as only 24% of candidates elected in 2019 were women.”

With almost 700,000 people aged 18 to 29, the youth vote has always had the potential to be a powerful force in Irish elections, and the minister hopes the bill will also open up more avenues for young people to engage in politics, noting that he would also like to see the commission examine the possibility of reducing the voting age in local elections to 16 for the upcoming 2024 elections. “I think it would have a transformative effect on not only the age profile of candidates running, but on the policies they espouse during the campaign.”  

The bill’s provisions for modernising the electoral register would lead to the creation of an active rolling register, using PPSNs, as well as pre-registering 16 and 17 year olds and notifying them when they turn 18 of their right to vote in upcoming electoral events.

The newly established independent electoral commission would oversee the regulation of online political advertising, and will place a legal requirement on those taking ads on online platforms to register their names, name of organisation and address to inform voters as to who is paying for an ad. Online platforms must appoint a responsible person to manage the registration process and information must be displayed clearly and conspicuously on online ads. 

It is hoped that these new regulations for online political advertising will assist efforts to prevent the spread of misinformation from impacting elections in Ireland. However, it does not intend to deal with disinformation specifically within ad content, as that matter is being legislated for at an EU level. “In its advocacy role, the commission could work outside of electoral events to ensure that there are good public awareness campaigns on voting, on the right to vote and in researching barriers to participation in politics”, according to Noonan.

Having run successful, poster-free campaigns in the 2020 General Election and in previous local elections, he notes that the commission could make recommendations on restricting election posters or eliminating them altogether.

There are also new provisions in the bill to ensure that Covid-19 safety guidelines are accommodated in the event of a by-election, or another electoral process, though the Minister is not expecting a general election to be called during the pandemic. Measures in the bill include allowing for polling over more than one day to assist with social distancing and the provision of postal vote to those on the special voters list such as nursing homes and hospitals. As of now, only military personnel and island residents off the coasts of Galway, Mayo and Donegal can vote by postal ballot. 

“All in all, it’s a really progressive piece of legislation, which has been warmly welcomed by civil society organisations as well as across the political divide,” says Noonan.

Sean Gordon Dalton

Sean is a Deputy Features Editor at Trinity News