Uplift members have been campaigning in areas related to democracy, voting rights and electoral reform since our foundation in December 2014. We’ve worked primarily in the areas of gaining voting rights for Irish citizens overseas, regulating political advertising, addressing the dangers of digital disinformation aka ‘fake news’.
Uplift is a member of The Coalition for Civil Society Freedom working to influence public policy for the benefit of people living in Ireland.
Over a period of 3 days, March 12–14th, 2019, Uplift members were consulted via a survey on the broad areas relevant to the establishment and functioning of Electoral commission. 571 members completed the survey and this submission is a summary or their responses.
Establishment of a Electoral Commission
Uplift recognises the importance of protecting the integrity of democratic elections and welcome the proposal to establish a permanent Electoral Commission in Ireland.
An Electoral Commission is required to respond to a fast moving environment and where a lack of regulation of corporate interests operating online platforms exist, including the manner in which these platforms are used to influence the outcome of democratic processes.
Critically analysing and engaging with the political system is fundamental to democracy and is a core function of a healthy civil society. Holding decision makers to account is a core Uplift priority. We fundamentally believe that when decision makers are accountable that better decisions can be made, communities better served and policies more effective.
Civil society organisations must be allowed and supported to engage in legitimate democratic action — including the right to critique, disagree, counter and downright disagree with politicians and the political process.
In this context we believe that the current definition of ‘political purposes’ as set out in the Electoral Act is highly problematic and have been widely flagged as creating an environment where campaigning for social change in Ireland is being unfairly hampered and works against a free and democratic society.
The following sections provide an overview of Uplift members views on the general areas of concern to the planned Electoral Commission.
Members are overwhelmingly in favour of an online system for voting registration being put in place. However, a number of concerns were raised and safeguards suggested. Most notably;
- Many members were concerned about the possibility of this system being hacked, and called for the highest standards of security.
- Members suggested that PPS numbers should be used as a way to verify identity, and avoid duplication when registering.
- Members also felt strongly that amendments to voting registration details such as address and voter constituency should be able to be changed online also.
“I have moved house a few times so I need to change my address to vote. It would be great if I could download a form online to do it but i have to go in to the garda station to get one. I always forget because I work crazy hours, usually late in to the night.. So I actually haven’t voted in anything since I turned 18, I’m 25.”
Methods of Registration
36% of member responding are in favour of PPS numbers being used for the purposes of registering to vote, rather than having to produce proof of identification at a Garda station.
Concerns were raised about the need to protect the integrity of the process including protecting from online hacking and electoral fraud.
An overwhelming majority of members believe that registering to vote should be accessible and straightforward.
Some examples of difficulties registering to vote in the recent referendums were provided. “Registered to vote in the abortion referendum as did many. I got down before the deadline but was added on to a list meaning I could only vote in that referendum and could have to go through the process of registering again if I ever wanted to vote again which is ridiculous.”
Right to vote if living overseas
The right of Irish citizens to vote in elections was supported by a small majority. However the comments provided by respondents were overwhelmingly supportive of citizens living overseas to be allowed vote, especially if they are not a citizen of another country.
“Presently, citizens overseas five years, should have an input. I’d imagine majority would see themselves, as contributors to the future of Ireland, with a view to return.”
“I think the rule that a citizen returned from living abroad cannot register to vote until they’re lived in Ireland for *18 months* is an outrageous violation of voting rights. Even if the state wants to insist upon only resident citizens voting (which is far more draconian than other countries permit), this could at least be shortened to a period of one to three months.”
A third of members feel they fully understand the voting system with a small number of people not understanding at all. 80% believed that it is very important that people who are registered to vote should do so.
A more varied response is evident in relation to the question ‘do you have confidence in the voting system in Ireland?’ In response to the question about introducing electronic voting responses were divided — 37% yes, 35% no and 29% not sure.
“Substantial barriers to registering to vote and participating in elections and referendums exist for those already most marginalised in society. Postal voting only applies for those with physical health conditions and does not include mental health conditions.”
“The absence of a proxy vote system excludes those who may be hospitalised during election periods, but do not have that hospital as their site of permanent residence in order to be able to apply to vote there. Homeless individuals may find it difficult to receive polling cards and systems to register are not designed with this group in mind.“
Numerous examples were provided about barriers people have experienced in attempting to vote in elections and referendums
- Irish citizens returning home not being allowed to vote until 18 months resident in Ireland
- Irish citizens living temporarily overseas not being allowed to vote
- Many examples of people being taken off the electoral register or finding they are on the register a number of times
- Complaints about trying to register to vote at garda stations and trying to change address on the register
- The way the supplementary register works was identified as particularly problematic
- Understanding our how the voting system works
- Challenges for people with a disability in registering and voting
- Postal voting rules being too narrow and not accommodating people with mental health issues, or people travelling overseas
- Victims of domestic violence not being able to register for safety reasons ie fear their location being identified
- Challenges for people living in rural Ireland who are without transport
- Long delays in accessing citizenship resulting in not being able to vote
The right to critique and participate in political processes
81% of survey respondents believe it is extremely important or very important that campaigners should be able to freely and without unfair interference hold decision-makers to account?
A majority of Uplift members believe that the role of campaigners in holding politicians to account should be respected and upheld, including its right to raise funds for legitimate action?
The Electoral Act contains a number of serious deficiencies including the difficulties surrounding the regulation of civil society advocacy as set out in ‘Keeping The People’s Voice in Power’, the policy position published by The Coalition for Civil Society Freedom of which Uplift is a member.
Along with other civil society members we are concerned with certain aspects of the current Electoral Law and Regulation as they apply to civil society: in particular that electoral regulation should not apply to advocacy by civil society on matters of policy outside of elections and referendums; and that regulation of the activities of civil society in referendums should respect (or be consistent with) freedom of expression and freedom of association.
Protecting elections and referendums from disinformation and ‘fake news’
87% believe an Electoral Commission should have a role in protecting voters from unfair influence via online advertising.
The lack of transparency in relation to online political ads is creating an environment where fostering distrust and confusion. Corporations that run social media platforms are operating in a transparency vacuum despite censoring what we see and don’t see and controlling vast amounts of personal data. Some recent initiatives are welcome but it is wholly inappropriate that these are at the discretion of social media corporations and not overseen by democratic government.
Uplift has previously made a submission to the Department of An Taoiseach on the issue of regulating online advertising which can be viewed here.
Protecting freedom of speech
89% of respondents believe that an Electoral Commission should have a role balancing the need to regulate election-related ‘fake news’ alongside our right to freedom of speech?
Balanced data protection and privacy laws and regulations are necessary to protect freedom of expression alongside the need to stop the spread of disinformation, ‘fake news’ and hate speech. Government faces a challenge in balancing the need to regulate and address the spread of ‘fake news’ or misinformation designed to spread hate and influence election processes — alongside our fundamental right to free speech.
Given the virtual monopoly that Facebook, Twitter and Google combined have there is a real danger (end evidence to show it is happening) that they are exercising arbitrary decisions about what is allowed/disallowed — resulting in complete ‘lockout’ from the digital communication system.
This submission provides a brief insight into the views of Uplift members in relation to important issues about the conduct of elections and the voting system in general.
We support the establishment of an Electoral Commission and look forward to engaging further on this issue.
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