Some thoughts on the presidential election 2011

So Election Day is here at last.  I’ve made up my mind pretty much on how I am going to vote, at least on the referenda, and know who my 7,6 5 and 4 votes are for the president.

A couple of things strike me.

Firstly, why on earth is this election held on Thursday? Throughout the years there have been calls for elections to be held on the weekend. We have an absolutely archaic method of applying for postal or absent ballot paper. Having election on a weekend would allow students, persons working overseas, persons away on business travel, people who simply cannot on the day easily get to a station to vote and to exercise their democratic franchise. There’s no reason on earth, other than a fear of what people might say, why elections should not be held over two days or over a weekend.

The   second issue that strikes me is the growing gap between modern media and how elections are dealt with. While it’s all too easy to overstate the role of blogs, Twitter, Facebook etc the reality is that these are growing as methods both communication and interaction. In particular we have the farcical situation where we still have an old-fashioned moratorium on broadcast media in Ireland. The airwaves (perhaps mercifully) go silent the day before the election. All this does is push the discussion further into the still somewhat inchoate social media. The alternative is the print media, which with longer lead times can often find itself not in a position to react to swiftly breaking news. It’s hard not to think that at least part of the timing around the Sinn Fein “revelations” re   Sean Gallagher and his fund-raising activities was to take advantage of the fact that the broadcast media would be going silent shortly thereafter, leaving him with little enough time to respond. In any case we pay taxes and license fees to ensure that broadcast media can provide a public service. What greater public services can there be other than, right up to the wire, providing the population with nuanced analysis and breaking news regarding fundamental electoral decisions around our Constitution and the election of a president?

The third point follows on from this. While not wishing to revisit the debacle around the electronic voting machines the above two points should indicate that with modern technology the possibility should at least be explored of moving towards for example the Estonian model of voting. In Estonia people can vote over the Internet, securely, in a prespecified period leading up to the Election Day. On Election Day they can only vote in person. This shows an awareness of modern technology and the willingness to ensure that where possible all people should get the opportunity to vote.    A number of the Swiss cantons have (not without some stops and starts) also introduced the opportunity for people to vote electronically, and although not possible to vote the Tunisian elections recently had a strong Internet/mobile  component in terms of assisting and guiding people  as to how to vote and were to vote.  Again there is no reason on earth why we should not begin to experiment with different approaches to ensure that democracy is within the reach of everybody.

The final point that arises from the above is the issue of “the diaspora”.  I have to say I’m quite ambivalent about the idea of people living abroad voting in Irish elections. By living abroad here I include people living in Northern Ireland….To my view voting should be tied to residency and taxation. I see no reason on earth why somebody,  although not an Irish citizen, but living and working and paying tax in Ireland for a number of years,  should not have a vote on everything up to and including parliamentary and presidential elections. If we reform the upper house, as we should rather than just simply abolishing it, then that would be an appropriate place to experiment with a limited number of (electronically voted) senatorial posts.  I think calls for people who simply hold an Irish passport but who neither live nor pay tax in Ireland to be given automatic rights to vote misconstrue the nature of what it should be to be a citizen. Citizenship must be active.  Part of the difficulty around this is that there are at least two classes of Irish persons living abroad. Firstly we have a very large number of people living in the North of Ireland who hold Irish citizenship. Secondly we have a very large number of Irish people living abroad were driven out of the country by lack of economic opportunity. Both are, to some extent, “hard cases”, And we know what kind of law that makes.   We need to ensure that future elections provide some form of inclusion of the diaspora and citizens living elsewhere. As to whether that should be an automatic passport driven right to vote on all and every issue with the same weight as those living and working in Ireland is to my mind a very open question.

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