TALK about floating voters! Even I was surprised last week to learn that our current voters’ list seriously overstates the number of people in this country who are entitled to vote – by nearly half a million.
In the current circumstances, you could nearly form a stable Government on that many votes, couldn’t you?
Now I know our numeracy skills aren’t anything as good as they once were, but surely we can still count. This exaggerated register of electors didn’t even raise an eyebrow among the political class: the more voters the better it seems. I thought the last time that situation prevailed in this country was at the famous Treaty Election of 1922.
I once interviewed a man who successfully stood for neutral Labour in that election and who later became a Minister in the Inter Party Government. When one box was opened at the count, the returning officer turned to him and asked: “did you mark them all yourself, Dan?” He had secured a preference of 101 percent of the total electorate in that polling booth.
He was at a complete loss himself as to how it had happened, but anti-Treaty proponents, many of whom had arrived at the venue with guns in their pockets, were even more bewildered. Something must have backfired, because, apart from resurrecting a couple of deceased voters, some of them had already made at least one unsuccessful attempt to kidnap the Labour candidate before he could even lodge his nomination papers with the County Registrar. It was all completely legitimate of course, because the presiding officer at the polling booth in question had the right to vote there too, although he was registered elsewhere.
The difference between then and now, of course, is that the ridiculously bloated electors’ list would never be suspected of being an attempt to rig the vote. If it was, at least we could have a bit of fun with it. No, it’s simply a case of leaving the compilation of the register of electors almost completely to chance and just a little to the civic mindedness and interest of qualified voters. Check and see if you are registered to vote: don’t bother checking to see if you’re registered twice. The trouble is that an awful lot of people aren’t interested, and many of them are too apathetic about politics to bother even turning up at a polling booth, not to talk of checking if their name is on the voters’ list – which makes me wonder if we don’t have another half a million entitled to vote who aren’t on the list at all and couldn’t care less.
I have a particular interest in the issue because, for two years in the late sixties, I was in charge of compiling the voters’ list for North Tipperary. For the first and only time in my life I was forced into a state of meticulousness that I was never able to muster afterwards. The register was published every year in early April, after the publication of a draft Register the previous December. Additions and deletions, to and from the previous year’s Register were provided initially by the rate collectors who were stationed in every corner of the county. They were the ideal people for the job.
They knew everyone in their areas – those who had reached voting age, those who had died, those who had left and those who had newly arrived. The only problem was that the rate collectors were all political appointees at the time and could be open to accusations of partisanship.
But this didn’t happen, because every January, after the draft register had been issued to councillors and garda stations all over the county, the Electoral Courts, presided over by the County Registrar, swung into action in courthouses around the county. It was there –under oath, as far as I can recall - that the final deletions and additions were decided and made with garda co-operation, while I took note, puffed to the gills with pomp and officiousness.
They don’t do that anymore. It wouldn’t even be possible now because we no longer have courthouses or garda stations scattered around the country – not to talk of rate collectors. Local Authorities still produce the Register of Electors, but I have no idea how they collect the names or how they even know if someone has reached voting age.
I can’t even imagine how they cope with the demands of population shifts, and of immigration and emigration. I remember, a couple of years ago, getting a call from a local woman asking me, on behalf of a politician, how many of my kids were still living at home. How professional was that? I wasn’t even able to answer her because they were away during the week and home every weekend.
I’ve heard of several young people who get two polling cards – one for where they are working and the other for home – but it’s hardly a big scandal seeing that it’s hard enough to get them to vote once.
Maybe I’m too cynical but, seeing that there is no real communication between the different Local Authorities in what has become a very mobile population, maybe there should be a national co-ordinating body to oversee the compilation of the voters’ list. Suggestions that the Census enumerators should be employed to collect the data nationally, is I think, an excellent idea.
By the time you read this, the 2016 general election will almost certainly have been called, coinciding nicely with the publication of this year’s voters’ list. Check and see if you are registered then, but also be wary of being listed twice. You can’t vote twice, even in different constituencies, but you’d never know where that superfluous vote could end up.