VOTES FOR EMIGRANTS?
Irish citizens living abroad may have an opportunity to vote in the election for the next Irish President, due in 2018. A recommendation to that effect was proposed by the Irish Constitutional Convention last September. Two major hurdles have to be negotiated before anything happens. Firstly the recommendation has to be approved by the Government . Secondly any proposal has to be passed by referendum.
The artificial deadline for a Government decision has passed. There may be more time to wait. We are now at a key moment politically, with parties absorbing the recent results of local and European elections. An issue pertaining to a possible vote in four years’ time is hardly likely to seize the Government’s attention with a general election less than two years off. Moreover, the Convention’s recommendation is just slightly contentious enough to give politicians pause, unlike some others, uncontroversial and which have been nodded through. In the end the Government may well accept the proposal. But then the referendum has to be carried.
The Irish Constitution came into force at the end of 1937. Though on the whole it has served the people well, at this stage it is showing signs of its age. Of the thirty six referenda proposing amendments, two thirds have taken place since 1992, reflecting both changing lifestyles and attitudes among the electorate and Ireland’s changing position in the world. While it is difficult to generalise, one thread evident from the referenda results has been the reluctance of voters to be swayed by arguments advanced by politicians. Some proposals which seemed reasonable, including those regarding the EU, have come a cropper at the ballot box.
A number of parliamentary and officially sponsored Constitutional reviews have taken place since the sixties but it has become clear that the Irish political establishment has no appetite for any radical reform of the document. We have been left with some useful analytical reports, suggested alternatives and amendments but very little else, the reviews on occasion serving merely to kick the can on an issue down the road.
The current government, elected in 2011 on a tide of “ a plague a both your houses,” had another bash, announcing in its programme for government the setting up of a “Constitutional Convention to consider comprehensive constitutional reform.” The areas identified hardly lived up to the rhetoric They included a review of the Dáil electoral system, reducing the presidential term to five years, providing for same-sex marriage, removing blasphemy from the Constitution and a possible reduction in the voting age. The first threatened to be a non-runner from the off, the rest were at best non-controversial, at worse irrelevant. Two other areas mentioned promised more – amending the wording on women in the home and encouraging greater participation of women in public life, as well as “other relevant constitutional amendments that may be recommended by the Convention.”
The Convention was duly launched in 2012, holding its first meeting on December 1st. It consisted of 100 members, two thirds randomly selected members of the public, and with terms of reference expanded to include, as well as those mentioned, consideration of “giving citizens resident outside the state the right to vote in Presidential elections.” Hence the current recommendation. The Convention completed its deliberations in March 2014.
The Convention’s recommendations can be divided roughly into three: those immediately acceptable politically, those requiring further consideration and those likely to prove unacceptable. In the first category, recommendations to reduce the voting age to sixteen and to legalize same-sex marriages have been accepted by the government and will be put to the people in 2015, together with a recommendation to reduce the age for presidential candidates from 35 to 21. In the second category are the Votes for Expats issue , the recommendation to replace the blasphemy provision with a ban on incitement to religious hatred, proposals to alter the current wording regarding women, reform of Dail procedures and the recommendation to include references to certain economic social and cultural rights.
In the final category is the most contentious recommendation by far – that proposing changes in the Dail electoral system. This calls for constituencies to have a minimum of five seats; at present (the next election) only eleven out of the forty constituencies will have the current maximum of five seats. The recommendation, if accepted, threatens to alter dramatically the composition of the Dail, giving greater opportunities to smaller parties and independents at the expense of the larger parties.
Currently, while second preference transfers can and do provide spice and uncertainty to election results, the general rule of thumb is that, in a multi-seat constituency, to get elected a candidate requires a certain percentage of the first preference votes, represented by 100 divided by the number of seats plus one . So in a three seat constituency a candidate requires 25% of the vote( 100 divided by four) , in a four seat constituency 20% ( 100 divided by five), in a five seater 16% (100 divided by six), and so on.
It is not hard to see how the current arrangements, under which two thirds of Dail seats are in three and four seat constituencies, favour the larger parties. In the three- seaters in particular the prospects for an independent or a small party seeking to break through are bleak. The big picture is whether larger constituencies ( five or five plus) would lead to a proliferation of smaller parties and independents and what effect this would have on the functioning of Irish parliamentary democracy.
In the early years of the state there were a number of constituencies with more than five seats, including one (Galway) with nine, without any earth-shattering splintering of the vote. And, to take the current Dail, there are six identifiable party groupings, plus independents, while after the 2002 election there were seven. The jury is still out, but the best guess is that the larger parties, with one eye on the increasing volatility of the electorate, and the other on their own political skins, will opt to hunker down and stick with the status quo pending further consideration of the issue. It is one, incidentally, on which the Constitution says nothing beyond declaring that any constituency must have a minimum of three seats.
What are the chances, then, for yet another referendum before 2016, permitting citizens resident abroad to vote in presidential elections? The issue is not straightforward. Extending the franchise to non-resident citizens is complicated, politically, legally and administratively. An argument in favour is that it would constitute a positive gesture towards the diaspora, suitably topping off a decade of increased official engagement with that diaspora.
The recommendation comes at a time also when the issue has built up a moderate head of steam with lobbying from some of the recent economic emigrants for a say in how the country has been and should be run. Their argument is that their emigration was involuntary, is temporary , and that having a vote would enable them to keep in touch. Whether this will cut any ice with domestic politicians fearing a backlash remains to be seen.