Seanad Éireann - Volume 107 - 13 March, 1985

Local Elections (Postal Voting) (Amendment) Regulations, 1985: Motion.

Mrs. Bulbulia: I move:

That Seanad Éireann approves of the following regulations in draft:

Local Elections (Postal Voting) (Amendment) Regulations, 1985

a copy of which regulations in draft form was laid before Seanad Éireann on the 25th day of February, 1985.

Minister of State at the Department of the Environment (Mr. F. O'Brien): Postal voting is not new to the Members of this House and for that reason I look forward with particular interest to their views on these proposals.

Mr. Smith: Has the Minister a prepared script?

Mr. F. O'Brien: I am afraid my officials have not arrived yet. I understood the debate was to start at 4.30. The copies are on their way. I am sorry about that. [1063] If the Seanad wishes I shall wait. They should be here very shortly.

An Leas-Chathaoirleach: We decided on the Order of Business to take the extra half-hour because a lot of speakers were offering. That is why we brought the matter forward to 4 o'clock.

Mr. F. O'Brien: Postal voting is not new to the Members of this House and for that reason I look forward with particular interest to Senators' views on these proposals.

These draft regulations are laid before the House in accordance with section 82(5) of the Electoral Act, 1963, which provides that, where regulations under that section are proposed to be made, a draft thereof shall be laid before each House of the Oireachtas and that the regulations shall not be made until a resolution approving of the draft has been passed by each House.

There has been a constant demand for the provision of extended postal voting facilities for many years. This demand comes in particular from groups representing those who, for reasons connected with their occupations or their health, find it difficult or impossible to vote in person at elections. In response to this pressure, an extended system of postal voting was introduced for the local elections in 1974 but this facility has not been available at any election since. This situation is now to be rectified.

A Bill is being prepared at the moment which will provide for an extended system of postal voting at all elections and referenda. This Bill, which takes account of the views expressed by Deputies and Senators in the various debates in both Houses and in the Joint Committee on Legislation, will entitle certain categories of persons to be registered in the Register of Electors as postal voters. Persons so registered will vote by post at any election which takes place during the currency of the register.

The registration of persons as postal voters will be carried out as part of the [1064] normal procedure of compiling the register of electors. This takes place between September and December each year and I will be bringing forward the legislation as soon as possible so as to ensure that the new system will be in place in time for the 1986 register. The purpose of the draft regulations now before the House is to bring the postal voting system to be used at the local elections in June into line as far as practicable with the permanent arrangements proposed under the Bill.

The extended postal voting system for the 1974 local elections was provided for by the Local Elections (Postal Voting) Regulations, 1974. Under those regulations anybody who could not vote in person by reason of the circumstances of his occupation, service, or employment, absence from the place in respect of which he was registered as an elector, illness or physical disability, or his employment by a returning officer, could apply to vote by post. These regulations were suspended for the local elections in 1979 because they were held with the European Assembly elections and it was considered that it would not be practicable to run two elections together with different postal voting systems.

Reaction to the operation of the system in 1974 was mixed. From an administrative point of view, it worked satisfactorily but many public representatives were unhappy about the security of the system. Despite these reservations, there is general acceptance at this stage of the need to cater for those who, for genuine reasons, cannot vote in person. What we are trying to do in these regulations therefore, and in the Bill, is to provide a system of postal voting which will minimise the risk of abuses, while continuing to provide a simple and accessible facility. I will now outline briefly the principal changes which the regulations will effect.

Under the draft regulations, the persons who will be entitled to vote by post at the local elections will be those who will be unable, or are likely to be unable, to vote in person by reason of (a) the circumstances of their occupation, service or employment, or (b) physical illness or physical disability. This is a [1065] narrower range of eligibility than applied in 1974, but I believe that those with a genuine claim to a postal vote will be catered for under the regulations. The electors being catered for are those recommended by the Joint Committee, except for diplomats and certain other categories resident abroad who cannot be registered as electors under existing law. These will be dealt with in the Bill.

There are several changes in the application procedure, too. The time for making applications will be earlier — from 15 to 30 April. This will take the processing of applications out of the peak period of pre-election activity and give the returning officer the opportunity and time thoroughly to evaluate and investigate applications. In addition, applications will now have to be independently supported by a certificate from an employer, or medical practitioner, or by a statutory declaration where a person is self-employed. This will obviously impose a certain burden but we are satisfied that it is essential for the security of the electoral system. Finally, the returning officer will have a much more substantial role in dealing with applications. In 1974, his function was basically to check that applications were properly completed; if they were, he had no option but to register the applicant as a postal voter. Under the new regulations, a returning officer will himself have to be satisfied as to the inability of an applicant to vote in person, regardless of whatever certificate or statutory declaration is on the form. He will be empowered to seek additional information for the purpose of satisfying himself that an applicant is a qualified person and to reject an application where such additional information is not forthcoming.

It is generally accepted that one of the major weaknesses in the present system arises in the issue of ballot papers to voters by normal post. Under the regulations, all ballot papers will in future be sent to voters by registered post. This means that a signature must be received by the postal authorities for every ballot paper entrusted to them for delivery, a [1066] procedure which should help considerably to ensure that the ballot papers get into the correct hands. It should also help to trace the culprits if ballot papers are interfered with.

These, then, are the principal changes which the regulations will make. What we have attempted to do is to identify the areas which we feel are most open to abuse and to tighten up these areas. We have done this by restricting the eligibility for a postal vote to those with a genuine and constant problem about voting in person — I think the very wide scope given by the temporary absence from home provision in 1974 was a potential source of abuse. We have also given the returning officer a more positive role in adjudicating on applications and placed a greater onus on applicants to satisfy the returning officer as to their inability to vote in person. And, by pushing back the application period, we are giving the returning officer the time he needs to do a thorough job. Finally, we have tackled what was generally regarded as the weakest area under the old system — the actual issue of ballot papers by post. I feel that the requirement that ballot papers be issued by registered post should close most of the loopholes here.

I have deliberately been brief in these opening remarks and I have confined myself to dealing only with the essentials of the matter. Postal voting has been discussed on several occasions in recent years and I know that Senators will already be familiar with the subject. It was my objective, therefore, not to detain the House unduly. This is not in any way to suggest that these regulations are not important. They are indeed very important in that they are regulating the system by which our public representatives will be elected. They are also very important to those who, up to now, have been effectively prevented from exercising their right to vote. I think the system which will now be available will meet the needs of these people while protecting the security of the electoral system.

Mr. Loughrey: On a point of order, [1067] could you please advise me as to what form the debate takes?

An Leas-Chathaoirleach: An Opposition speaker is next and then it comes back to the Government side.

Mr. Loughrey: What in fact are we doing? Are we endorsing a regulation? It is not a Bill as such. There is no Second Reading and there are no Stages?

An Leas-Chathaoirleach: The motion is to approve regulations.

Mr. Loughrey: So it is a motion that is before the House. The motion has been proposed and the Minister has spoken on it. We eventually vote on the motion, is that the procedure?

An Leas-Chathaoirleach: If necessary. It has been agreed on the Order of Business to allow 15 minutes to a speaker. A Senator could speak longer on this type of motion but we have to try to facilitate as many speakers as possible.

Mr. M. O'Toole: First, I too, like most people, welcome this regulation. I am delighted that it will be in time for the local government elections. County registrars throughout the country are awaiting a final date for the local government elections. That is a very serious situation to leave them in. As the Minister is aware, they will have to draft regulations and there will have to be a certain legal term of notice given to the electorate.

I notice the date fixed for applying for a postal vote is 15 April. This is the day after the new register comes into operation. One would need to be very much on one's toes as a voter to ensure one sees the register first to see whether one is on it and then apply to the county registrar for a postal vote if one is in one of the categories mentioned by the Minister. It behoves the Minister today to announce the date of the local government elections, so that most of the county registrars can put in train the necessary [1068] machinery as regards getting the regulations, including this regulation printed and making the public aware of the importance of this regulation. That is the first thing. I will be disappointed if the Minister does not make that announcement before he leaves this House this evening. It is time someone told us whether the elections will be this year or next year. There is an urgency about this regulation and the public should be informed of the date of the elections. There is nothing to hide. There is nothing to be gained by not announcing the date. I do not know if there is any leakage. I am not aware of the date but I have heard 26 June and other dates mentioned. The Minister should not leave this House this evening without announcing the date and letting county registrars to put in train immediately with the printers the notice which will go into the local and national papers. We are aware that the county registrar for this purpose will be the county secretary of each local authority and each urban and municipal authority involved in the local government elections. It behoves the Minister to make that announcement on behalf of the Government and let the people know the date of the elections. If there is to be an election in June, there is an urgency because there is a time limit. From today until the application date for a postal vote there is only one calendar month. That is a very short period. Time moves on fairly fast. It is important that we know the date at this stage.

This is a regulation governing local elections only. I would take it that local elections will be held this year. If a Bill is going to be brought in at a later date that will include EC elections, Dáil elections and referenda there would be no need for this regulation if the local government elections were not being held this year.

This regulation precedes the Bill. I am delighted that the disabled people are getting an opportunity to cast their vote in the forthcoming local government elections and other elections that will take place. Senior citizens are the people who are hurt most by inability to cast [1069] their vote. They remember when only the householder of each household was allowed to vote until we got our native Government. They welcome the right to vote. They welcome the right to have a say in the selection of their local representative.

Many incapacitated and disabled people were under a disadvantage when they tried to be mobile and to get to the polls. Some of the polling stations were not accessible and these people had to be carried in from their wheelchairs because the necessary arrangements were not made for taking wheelchairs into some polling booths. This regulation is a step in the right direction.

I know that the county secretary, who will be the county registrar, will be the deciding person in all these applications. That will require intense research by the staff of county secretaries in local authorities. It will require time to process all the applications after 30 April. This gives only the month of May for processing and distributing postal votes and ensuring that they are returned in time for inclusion in the count.

There is an urgency and a speed required here that I am sure the Minister and his Department have taken into account. It will need intensive research. If the county secretaries have to make the decision, they will have to undertake detailed research.

I also want to know from the Minister the position as regards fishermen who will be away from their base, who will be at sea and will be on the register. What provisions are made in the regulation for this type of voter? I also want to know the position as regards island dwellers who may be marooned from their homes perhaps on the mainland and will not be able to get back to the islands in order to cast their votes on election day. What provision is made in the regulation for this type of voter? Will he be able to apply from the mainland to have his vote posted to him? He does not come within the categories mentioned. Perhaps the wide ranging term “self-employed or employed in another field of activity” may cover him. If he is on a business trip [1070] is he covered? If he is attending a wedding or death on the mainland, is he covered? I would like the Minister to spell that out, because that is a very important issue. The trial spin, as I call it, will show up teething problems and that will be of major importance in drafting a new Bill. Worthwhile knowledge will be gained from the operation of the postal vote in local elections.

I was a candidate when the last postal vote was in operation and there were several abuses at that time. I would like to see those abuses eliminated. They left a bad taste and did not do any good to the franchise system. As a result of this trial spin, I hope we will be in a position to clear up a lot of the abuses that occurred in 1974. There will be some abuses in this election also but the experience will be valuable in drafting a Bill to cover all facets of elections and referenda. Careful study should be made of the operation of the postal vote at this point.

An Leas-Chathaoirleach: The Senator has one minute to conclude.

Mr. M. O'Toole: All I can say, in conclusion, is that I welcome the motion. Inasmuch as the Minister on that side of the House was brief, we intend to be as brief to ensure that it passes as smoothly and efficiently as possible through this House. We on this side of the House will not delay the regulations.

Mr. Loughrey: I am very wary indeed about the introduction of this regulation, from the experience that I had in 1974. My colleague on the other side of the House referred to this as a trial spin. I do not think local elections should be used as a trial spin because local elections are very, very important elections. Members of local authorities are extremely important people and I do not think they should be used as guineapigs to try out any regulation.

It is the Minister's intention to introduce a regulation before the local elections. I have no inside information, any more than my colleague on the other side of the House, but I gather that the [1071] elections will be held this year and I am preparing for them. That makes me wary from the experience I have had in the compilation of the register in County Donegal for this year. Might I draw the Minister's attention to the dates on which the registers are compiled? They are compiled between September and December. Revision courts are being prepared for and preparation work is taking place throughout the Christmas and New Year period. I ask the Minister to consider changing that completely to start some time in September and end on 15 April or some time after that.

Might I also draw the Minister's attention to section 15 (3) of the Act where registrars in an authority shall send notice of the decision on each claim or objection to the claimant or objector and to any other person appearing to them to be interested, together with an intimation of the right of appeal against the decision of the Circuit Court under section 8 of the Electoral Act, 1963. That is not being done. When the decision of the court is against the interest of the person, they are notified of the decision of the court but there is no intimation given to them of their right to appeal to the Circuit Court and that should be done. I draw the Minister's attention to this because of the experiences that I have had this year in County Donegal. I am going to mention three of them. One was where a rate collector included in the draft register for this year in County Donegal two persons who have been living abroad for 20 years and had been ruled against by the county registrar in the revision court of last year. I have no doubt that the decision of the rate collector to include those persons was a political decision. The second was where the mother of a person who had reached the legal age was asked by another rate collector to have her son included and that person was omitted from the register, despite the duty of the rate collector to have him included. The third case, in which I played a role, was where two people were removed from the register by the county registrar on the sworn evidence of a [1072] county councillor that the persons concerned were not resident at the place where they were entitled to be registered on 15 September. These people had to travel some distance to establish by sworn affidavit that they were resident at that spot, not only on 15 September but until 26 November.

I would also like to refer to a revision court in County Donegal that I can only describe as a sham — I would like a public investigation into that sham — where a number of appeals for including extra persons on the register were put in at a late date, were initially refused and then accepted by the rate section of Donegal County Council, where the revision court was moved from Letterkenny town to Ramelton town, where no notification was given to some public representatives of the moving of the venue, or the time, or the date of that revision court, where the rate collector involved simply gave evidence to the county registrar on the advice of a county councillor and former Member of this House——

Mr. M. O'Toole: On a point of order, I do not think that is relevant to the regulation before the House. We are discussing postal voting and if Senator Loughrey wants to criticise the county registrar of County Donegal he will have a rostrum where he can do that at a later date. He should not avail of this House for doing so.

An Cathaoirleach: I agree totally.

Mr. Smith: They are discussing a Bill with regard to wandering animals in the other House.

An Cathaoirleach: The Senator is talking more about the compiling of the register.

Mr. Loughrey: I ask the Cathaoirleach not to take this interruption from my time, as I am making a point of order. Members on the other side of the House think that the compilation of registers has nothing to do with the regulations on postal voting, but are we not playing in [1073] the same pitch? I ask the Cathaoirleach to make a definitive ruling on this because if the compilation of the register has nothing to do with the regulation on postal voting then I am a Dutchman and I most certainly am an Irishman.

An Cathaoirleach: At this stage the Senator should move on. I have been lenient enough to him now.

Mr. Loughrey: This is one of the fora where I can raise abuses by a rate collector called——

An Cathaoirleach: The Senator is completely our of order.

Mr. Loughrey: I am concerned that in the compilation of a register a member of a local authority can prompt in the ear of a rate collector that so-and-so should be included and so-and-so should be excluded from a list of names that was drawn up to give free tickets to a dance by a proprietor of a dance hall, a former Member of this House.

An Cathaoirleach: Wait now. The Senator is getting away altogether from the regulation. He had better come back to it.

Mr. Loughrey: I respect your position, a Chathaoirligh, but the point I am making is that if the registers are drawn up wrongly we will get postal voters on the basis of a wrongly drawn up register. This is why I am almost totally opposed to this regulation in this year.

Mr. M. O'Toole: I can see nothing wrong in the Minister's regulation.

Mr. Loughrey: If the Senator would like to join me later I will give him a sample of light footwork. If postal voting is to be based on the registers as they were compiled this year in Donegal I ask the Minister if he has any authority to bring to court members of a county council who give sworn evidence in order to keep themselves on the register. Is it proper that somebody who was residing [1074] with his wife at a particular place of residence can be removed from that place of residence because a member of the county council is prepared to swear lies against them and that they must travel distances to give sworn affidavits in order to defend their right to vote? Regulations are being introduced to give postal votes while at the same time persons who are entitled to vote are being denied that right. Section 15(3) of the Act provides that notices shall be sent of the decision on each claim or objection to the claimant and to the objector, together with an intimation of the right to appeal against the decision of the Circuit Court. Is this being done? In my experience it has not been done where they have been ruled against. I would be ready to support the regulation inasmuch as it gives the right to vote to persons who should have the right to vote — persons who are infirm, persons whose positions of employment render them for that day or for a number of days unable to be present to vote — but when the Members on the other side of the House refer to dancing, the light footwork which they enacted in 1974 left no dancing classes to be required by some of the persons who are carrying out that light footwork.

Mr. Smith: Except a side-step.

Mr. Loughrey: Had I learned them a little earlier I would have applied for more lessons.

Mr. Smith: That seems to be what is wrong. The Senator was caught napping.

Mr. Loughrey: I was not, because I was elected subsequently and I hope to be elected in June if the Minister so orders that the elections be held in June. I will be pleased to come back to give another lecture to the Members of the Opposition on how to treat this matter properly. There is a saying: “Beware of Greeks bearing gifts”. When Fianna Fáil welcome something I am inclined to ask myself: “What is in it for them. Why are they so pleased to welcome it? Is there something there that I have not seen?” [1075] From my experience in 1974, there is something in it for them but I did not see it. The regulations can be abused. I would ask the Minister to go through each one of the regulations.

What happens a small farmer in receipt of unemployment assistance? Is he deemed to be self-employed? The declaration of being self-employed has to be signed by a peace commissioner or commissioner for oaths. I would ask the Minister to delete “peace commissioner” because while 90 per cent of peace commissioners are very honourable people, 100 per cent of them have been political appointments. I am sure they would act in the best interests of whatever party appointed them. I take it that the Minister and his departmental advisers have been very careful in drawing up the regulations but I question the use of this election as a guineapig because local authority elections are very important. Senator O'Toole will agree with me when I say that members of local authorities are very important persons. They should not be treated as guineapigs in this regard.

Mr. M. O'Toole: On a point of order, Senator Loughrey has repeated “guineapigs” on a few occasions. They are not being treated as guineapigs. I am sure the Minister is aware of that. In my opening remarks I said that worthwhile information will be available if we have this on a trial basis.

An Cathaoirleach: I do not think this is a point of order.

Mr. M. O'Toole: Senator Loughrey used the expression “guineapigs” as a result of what I said about this being a trial spin which would give worthwhile information to the Minister.

An Cathaoirleach: I do not know to whom the Senator is referring as “guineapigs”.

Mr. M. O'Toole: The Cathaoirleach was not here when I mentioned that to [1076] have postal voting on a trial basis would be valuable experience in drafting a new Bill. We are not making guineapigs of county councillors or anybody else.

Mr. Loughrey: I was not implying that Senator O'Toole had made that type of inference. I shall withdraw “guineapigs” and substitute “trial spin” which are the words the Senator used. Does the registrar, the county secretary in this instance, become the final adjudicator on who does or does not get a postal vote? The applications are made. Is the Minister entitled to reply to all of the debate at the one time and to all of the points raised at the one time? If I was seeing a man about a dog and could not be here——

Mr. T. Hussey: Senator Loughrey is not familiar with procedures here.

Mr. Loughrey: No, but I am becoming familiar with them and I intend to become very familiar with them. I am open to advice at all times from the wiser Members of the House.

An Cathaoirleach: Do not encourage interruptions.

Mr. Loughrey: Would the Minister make it clear if we are giving power to one person to decide whether an application for a postal vote is a valid application or not? If that person applies political judgment as I have seen it applied in the revision courts in County Donegal, I would be still more wary of the regulations. We had for a number of years in Donegal the migratory worker, a type of person who no longer exists. We do not have migratory workers in the west of Ireland: we have people working abroad who cannot find work at home and come back for a fortnight or three weeks' holidays or maybe come twice a year. It is suggested that if they provide a letter requesting to be left on the register they may be left there. Can they apply for a vote? If their normal place of residence is England, Scotland or Wales and if they apply for a postal vote or if somebody applies on their behalf, must the peace [1077] commissioner witness the signature as it is being made or the signature as he might know it to be? It is very doubtful that he would know what a person's signature was like. I have great and grave reservations in view of the catastrophe of 1974. It might have been a worse catastrophe: I might not have been elected but I was. The abuses that existed in 1974——

Mr. T. Hussey: The Senator was not elected on a postal vote.

Mr. Loughrey: No. I would ask the Minister to reply to all of the points raised. I would repeat my request to him to carry out an investigation into the allegations I have made about Donegal where one rate collector included in his draft register persons whom he knew to be living abroad for 20 years and whom the county registrar had excluded the previous year. Another rate collector refused, despite the request of the parents, to include a person who had come of age. In another case the county registrar accepted——

An Cathaoirleach: The Senator is repeating himself.

Mr. Loughrey: I would ask the Minister to investigate, publicly if necessary, all of those allegations which are very serious ones.

Mrs. McGuinness: If we might withdraw from the battles of Donegal for a few minutes I can be very brief about this. I, unlike Senator Loughrey, wholeheartedly welcome these regulations basically because of something I have been interested in for some considerable time, that those people in our population who are severely disabled and who are now denied a vote, should be enabled to vote. I hope very much that, as promised by the Minister, there will be a Bill to enable this type of person to vote at all elections in the future and that this Bill will come in very rapidly. Obviously, I cannot enter into the difficulties raised by Senator Loughrey but I suggest that these are difficulties which relate to the basic [1078] register rather than to whether one can vote or not.

If there are difficulties as to the basic register this should be dealt with through other legislation or possibly through a Private Members' Motion or in some other way but not on this regulation. I would point out, however, that I am elected by an entirely postal vote and all the University Members of the Seanad are so elected. I do not think that there has been any very great complaint of abuses of this system. It does rely on the system of registered post as outlined by the Minister for these regulations and even though it is registered post which has to go all over the world, not just Ireland it still seems to work quite satisfactorily. I suggest that if the regulations are properly fulfilled and registered post is used then abuses should not arise. The main thing is that these regulations will enable disabled persons and the other categories which are also important and are covered by the regulations, to vote. Important though they are, people who are working away from home at least have the chance of going to a polling station; they have the chance of being able to organise their employment so as to vote, whereas people who are physically unable to go to a polling station are totally denied the vote. One of them, Mrs. Draper, brought a case to the court to try to ensure her ability to vote and, unfortunately, it was ruled that it was not a matter that the Acts were unconstitutional and that she could not overthrow them on the basis of unconstitutionality. I am delighted to welcome these regulations and I hope that the Bill will be brought forward to carry them into all elections as soon as possible.

Mrs. Rogers: I am pleased to see these regulations before the House. I come from a part of Ireland where abuse of the voting system has almost reached disaster proportions, so much so that we have now reached a situation where we have to have identification when we go to the polls. It has been suggested that it is coming near to the stage of a police state. [1079] If that is the case, those who are responsible are those who have been abusing the system.

There are just a few points I want to mention with regard to the regulations. The first is that it is good that everyone who is entitled to vote should be able to vote. I welcome the fact that disabled and sick people and old people who cannot leave their homes will now have the same right as all other citizens. That is only simple justice.

On the question of persons who are applying for a postal vote on the basis of illness or disability, I note that the regulation is that a medical practitioner must sign the form. We have discovered in Northern Ireland that that may give rise to a certain amount of abuse and it might be a good idea to make the regulation to provide that the form must be signed by the person's own doctor, not any doctor. That was introduced in the North some years ago and it has ruled out a certain amount of abuse.

I do not know if any consideration is being given to the idea of a permanent list of absent voters, as we call them, because it cuts out a lot of the work in advance if you do have a permanent list. There are some people who are permanently disabled and who are never going to be able to vote. It is useful to have those people on what is known as a permanent list, having had their doctor's signature, which means that those people do not have to reapply every time there is an election. The problem of some of those people dying between one election and the next can be dealt with by checking with their doctor, assuming that it is their own doctor who has originally signed the forms and that their own doctor is known. In other words, the permanent list would have to be examined every time an election comes up to see if some people have to be struck off it.

The question of sending out the ballot papers by registered post is very important. We have had experience in Northern Ireland, where we have had the postal vote for the same categories as suggested here for many years, of postmen being [1080] waylaid along the way and the postal votes never reaching the people to whom they were sent. The problem of occupation has to be defined — postal votes on the basis of occupation. I presume that also includes students who very definitely need postal votes because many of them are away at universities and are registered in their home places and elections often happen during the college year. This gives rise to a certain amount of abuse and we have seen it in recent elections in the North where votes were applied for for students, let us say in Queens' University, not by the students themselves — it is very difficult to check up on that particularly if it is near the election time — and the votes were to be sent to an address in Belfast, which was the regulation — that you give your address at Queen's or where you were staying — but in effect what was happening was that other people were applying and giving an address to which the postal vote was to be sent which was, of course, not that particular student's address. That is an area where there can be abuse unless the regulation is tightened up considerably. People have to be certain, first of all, that the student has applied. Perhaps the student when applying should get the signature of a tutor or someone in the university on the form which would make it clear that it was the student who was applying and therefore that the student's address would be the correct one.

In dealing with occupation I wonder if members of the security forces who would be in other places on the day of the election and not able to vote, or people like long-distance lorry drivers who might even be out of the country on the day of the voting, or student nurses who perhaps would not be at their home base are included. The other category very often forgotten is journalists who very often at election time are in different parts of the country and not at their home base and therefore are not able to vote. Journalists, like everyone else, have rights and ought to be considered as coming within the “occupation” provision.

[1081] I do not want to be too long-winded because I know there are a lot of speakers. It is important, in making provision for people to have postal votes, to be very much aware of the fact that abuses can happen and have happened in the past and will be attempted and, therefore, that it is important to tighten up the regulations as much as possible. In line with that, the idea of providing that the time for application is well in advance of the election is very good and one that we might take example from in the North, because if application is delayed, it is not physically or practically possible to deal with the amount of work that comes in and, above all, to examine the bona fides of the applicants. Therefore, it is a very good innovation to have the postal vote application time well in advance of the election itself.

Mr. Mullooly: In every area in every election there are persons whose names are on the register of electors but who are unable to go in person to the polling station to vote. We are all aware of this fact. A check of the register of electors in any polling station on polling day in any election will reveal that there are persons registered as voters who for a variety of reasons cannot cast their votes. The people I refer to are those electors who by reason of being sick, disabled, away from home or otherwise so occupied that it is not possible for them to go in person to the polling station to cast their votes. Since it is desirable that every citizen, as far as possible, should participate in the electoral process, I am in favour of a system which will enable the maximum number of electors to cast their votes in any election. A postal voting arrangement for voters who would not otherwise be able to cast their votes is one way of facilitating or encouraging maximum participation in the electoral process.

The vast majority of people cherish deeply the right to vote. It is a right that was dearly won by our ancestors and it should not be viewed or exercised lightly. The right of the sick or disabled to cast their votes is no less than the right of [1082] those who can do so without any difficulty or inconvenience. Therefore, I believe that voting by such people should be facilitated in every possible way. In the same way I believe that any other individual or category of electors who for genuine reasons cannot go in person to their polling stations should not be deprived of their right to vote if it is at all possible to make arrangements to enable them to do so. In principle, I agree with the idea of postal voting for such persons and I welcome the statement by the Minister that a Bill is being prepared which will provide postal voting in all elections and referenda from next year onwards. I wish the Minister well in this undertaking because the preparation of a worthwhile postal voting Bill will not be an easy task by any standard. To be worthwhile, such a Bill cannot be too restrictive and yet it must safeguard against the possibility of abuse. It will not be an easy task for the Minister to get the balance right.

The first time postal voting was introduced in this country for persons other than gardaí or Army personnel was in the 1974 local election. In my view that experiment was not a success. Under the Local Elections (Postal Voting) Regulations, 1974 almost anybody was entitled to apply to vote by post since absence from the place in which one was registered as an elector was accepted as grounds for the granting of a postal vote. Anyone who was a candidate in the local elections of that year knows what happened but in case the Minister does not, I will tell him.

Certain individuals armed themselves with pockets full of application forms for postal votes. Persons whose names were on the register but who were no longer in the area and, indeed, in some cases who were no longer in this world, had applications for postal votes made on their behalf by zealous election workers and, in some cases, over-zealous candidates. Every kind of excuse was given for absence from the area on election day. Some were going to weddings in far away places and others had appointments with medical specialists of every conceivable type. Many elderly persons and persons [1083] living alone were persuaded by the same election workers and candidates to apply for postal votes on medical grounds.

The returning officers were swamped with applications when they were up to their eyes in all the other preparations for the holding of the elections. Applications were not scrutinised at all or were insufficiently scrutinised and postal ballot papers were issued to all applicants. On the day the postal ballot papers were being delivered the postman was shadowed on his rounds by one of the individuals to whom I referred, the zealous election worker or the over-zealous candidate. The ballot papers were collected within minutes of being delivered — in some cases before the envelope was even opened. I heard of one case where the gentleman who collected the envelope pointed out to the elderly householder that the envelope in question was addressed to the householder's recently deceased brother and was from the Land Commission and was in connection with the late brother's smallholding which the Land Commission had plans to acquire. However, everything would be sorted out and the acquisition proceedings would be halted. That poor, harmless man gladly handed over that ominous looking brown envelope without even opening it.

I am aware of another case where it was widely known two days before the election how many postal votes a particular candidate would have and the forecast was exactly correct. Everybody involved in local elections was very relieved when it was announced that there would not be extended postal voting in the 1979 local elections. The reason given at the time was that the 1979 local elections were being held in conjunction with the European elections and that it would not be practicable to run two elections together with different postal voting arrangements for each.

It is also true to say that most existing local authority members felt somewhat apprehensive when it was learned that postal voting was being re-introduced for this year's local elections. However, in the draft regulations which are before [1084] the House the Minister has attempted to tighten up the system. The possibility of abuse has been reduced but, in my view, not eliminated. The restriction on the categories of persons who will qualify to vote by post will, without a doubt, reduce the possibility of abuse but, because of the restriction, many who for genuine reasons cannot vote in person are not being catered for. The draft regulations provide only for those who are likely to be unable to vote in person by reason of (a) the circumstances of their occupation, service or employment, or (b) physical illness or physical disability.

Senator Rogers referred to students and I would like to ask the same question. What about students who may be doing examinations at centres far from their homes on the day of the election? They do not appear to be catered for. I understand that the date of the local elections has not yet been officially announced and I join with Senator O'Toole in appealing to the Minister to announce today the date of the local elections. The speculation seems to indicate a date towards the end of June. That is the time of the year when many students sit for examinations. I am thinking in particular of the thousands of students who sit for the matriculation examination at centres far removed from their homes. It is possible that hundreds or even thousands of school leavers, many of whom will be entitled to vote for the first time in the local elections, will not be able to cast their votes if they are doing the matriculation examination when the local elections are held. The reason for this is that the number of matriculation examination centres is limited and many students, from rural areas especially, sit for this examination in centres such as Dublin, Cork or Galway.

It would be regrettable if a situation were to arise which would result in these young people being deprived of their votes. I ask the Minister, in the case of students doing examinations, to instruct returning officers to treat them as persons who could be regarded as entitled to a postal vote because of the circumstances of their occupation. In other words, they [1085] could be treated as a category of self-employed persons.

The draft regulations also tighten up the application procedure. Applications for postal votes must be submitted between 15 April and 30 April. This arrangement will give returning officers the time necessary to scrutinise and investigate every application carefully and to seek further information if necessary in order to satisfy themselves that any particular applicant is entitled to a postal vote. However, the deadline of 30 April will mean that persons who become ill or suffer an accident after that date will be precluded from obtaining a postal vote. Perhaps the Minister would consider an arrangement whereby late applications would be accepted from persons who could establish that their illness or disability arose subsequent to 30 April. It seems very unjust that a person who suffers an accident on 29 April will be able to obtain a postal vote while a person who suffers a similar accident two days later will not.

In the case of an application for a postal vote in respect of which further information is sought by the returning officer the applicant must supply the required information within seven days. The draft regulations state:

If he fails to supply the information so required within seven days of being so required, the returning officer shall rule that the application is invalid and shall cause the application form to be marked accordingly.

I am not happy that the time allowed to an applicant in this situation is reasonable or sufficient. Does the seven days period start on the day on which the returning officer's request is issued to the applicant? Having regard to the 1937 Interpretation Act it must commence on that day. If so, let us assume that the letter from the returning officer requesting additional information is dated and posted on 31 May, 1985. The information so required must then be supplied on or before 6 June. As 31 May is a Friday, and because the following Monday is a [1086] bank holiday, in many parts of the country the letter will not reach the applicant until Wednesday, the second delivery day after posting. Even if it were possible for the applicant to supply the information requested by return of post, the reply if posted on Wednesday would not in many cases be delivered until Friday, the second delivery day again after posting. It would then be late, since Friday will be 7 June. However, I would envisage that in most cases the information sought will have to be obtained and certified. Therefore, it will not be possible to send it by return of post. Consequently, the seven days allowed in the regulations is far too short. I would go as far as to say that it is totally inadequate and should be extended to 14 days.

I welcome the fact that the ballot papers will be sent to voters by registered post. At least, there will be a record of the signature of the person who accepts delivery of the envelope containing the ballot paper. If not already the case, it should be an offence for a postal voter to deliver the ballot paper issued to him or her to any other person unless it is sealed in the envelope provided for its return. It should be an even greater offence carrying a much stiffer penalty for anybody to seek to obtain a ballot paper from a postal voter. Another safeguard I would like to see is that the application forms for postal votes should not be obtainable ad lib, as they were in 1974. They should be numbered and obtainable only in post offices or Garda stations. Every person requesting an application form for a postal vote should have to sign it, giving the name of the person for whom it is required. This would prevent a recurrence of the 1974 situation when, as I said, certain individuals had their pockets filled with forms.

The last couple of points I want to make are in relation to the application forms also. When the applicant has completed section (a) the medical or employer certificate or the statutory declaration must then be completed——

An Cathaoirleach: The Senator has one minute left.

[1087] Mr. Mullooly: The statutory declaration in most cases will be signed by a peace commissioner in which case there would be no charge to the applicant. The same will apply as far as those applications which will be accompanied by an employer's certificate.

There is just one question I would like to ask concerning the employer's certificate. What will be the position in the case of somebody such as a nurse employed by a health board? Whose signature will be acceptable in the case of such an applicant? Will the signature of the CEO of the health board be required or will the signature of somebody such as the matron of the hospital in which the nurse is employed be accepted? This is something on which there should be uniformity as between the various returning officers throughout the country. In the case of the medical certificate which must be completed where the application for a postal vote is made on the grounds of illness or disability, I am sure most doctors will not charge for completing the certificate. Certainly, the question will not arise in the case of applicants who are medical cardholders. However, the doctors would be entitled to charge non-medical cardholders for signing medical certificates. I do not believe that it would be proper, and it might be unconstitutional, that anybody would have to pay a fee in order to exercise the right to avail of a postal vote. Therefore, the Minister should request the medical profession to provide medical certificates in connection with these regulations free of charge.

An applicant for a postal vote should not have to pay postage on the application. It is stated in page six of the draft regulations that if you were sending the form by post you should please affix a stamp to the envelope. This may be said to be a very small point but I would not agree. This requirement is a breach of the principle that one should not have to pay for the right to cast one's vote. Payment of postage on applications should be made unnecessary by the provision of postage paid envelopes with the application forms. I will be interested in [1088] hearing the Minister's replies to some of the points that I have made.

Mr. McMahon: I, too, welcome the regulations before us. The Minister has done a fine job in simplifying and at the same time copperfastening to a great extent the regulations that existed in 1974. The point has been well made here today, and many times since 1974, of the abuse that took place then. We will no doubt be watching with interest the operation of these new regulations.

I welcome the registered post aspect because, if the 1974 regulations had included a provision for registered post only, much of the abuses that took place on that occasion would not have occurred. Every effort should be made to ensure that as many people as possible are given the opportunity to cast their votes, not only in local elections but in all elections that take place. I am often of the opinion that insufficient attention is given by politicians, and particularly by the relevant Ministers during their terms of office, to this matter. We have an excellent record with regard to voting, with a few exceptions, the most glaring of which is the 1960 local elections when the vote was around 30 or 31 per cent, the poorest showing ever in an election.

It should not be taken for granted that all our citizens will be as eager to vote as they have appeared to be over the years. A lot will depend on the behaviour of politicians and the service that politicians give to the electorate. Certainly, this measure is an effort to ensure that the less well-off in our community will be given the opportunity of casting their votes by post. This means a lot to them. I have seen people who have been on the register for many years and have gone to the polling booth to cast their votes. Their satisfaction is not appreciated until one meets a person who has been for many years on the electoral register and one polling day arrives at the polling booth to discover that through an error his name has been omitted. It certainly has happened in my area in almost every election which I took part in that if I did not get the complaint on the day of the election [1089] I would get it afterwards. People arrive at the polling booth to find that their names were omitted, for whatever reason, from the electoral register. If one was to meet such a person on polling day only then would it be appreciated the value a vote is to all of us but particularly to those who cannot get to the polling booth. They have always felt deprived, not only on election day but during election campaigns and when elections were over. I met a person on polling day whose name was not on the register. I met him a week later and he said he was highly annoyed and wanted to take the matter to court. He wanted me to investigate whether it was possible for him to take it to court. He had been voting for upwards of 50 years and his name was then omitted, through an error, from the electoral register and he did not have a vote.

An Cathaoirleach: I do not want to interrupt the Senator but it is the actual compilation of the register that is being discussed. I do not want the Senator to proceed as he is proceeding at present.

Mr. McMahon: I met this man a week later. He explained that, even though he now discovered that his vote would not have made any difference to the election he still felt he had lost something in his life by being unable to vote. I believe that the people to whom the Minister is now proposing to bring this exercise of the franchise will thank him for it and will greatly appreciate it even though some of them in his own area may not even support him. They will certainly appreciate the Minister giving them the opportunity of casting their votes, whether it will be in the Minister's direction or against him.

I do not think we should take it for granted that the vast majority of our citizens will continue to vote. I would ask the Minister during his time in this Department to pay some attention to this. Indeed, it might be no harm — this has been suggested by some previous speakers — if some consideration were given to identification. Perhaps we are coming up to the day when we should [1090] present identification and indeed maybe extend our polling over more than one day. This happens in Sweden where each person has identification and can collect his polling card over a period of two weeks. I would not like to see us getting into that position here, nor would I like to see us getting into the position that obtains in other countries where a person refuses to cast his vote or does not have a legitimate reason for abstaining from voting. At the same time we must give every encouragement and opportunity to our citizens, whether they be invalids or old people who cannot physically attend the polling booths to cast their votes. There are others, of course, who cannot be physically present at their own polling stations for other reasons. Many of them have been mentioned here — nurses, students, commercial travellers, journalists and others who find it necessary to be away from home on polling day. It is only right that they should be given the opportunity to cast their votes in this way.

There is also the category, while it is dealt with to some extent in the regulations, of election personnel. It will not be possible for those engaged in the election to be present at their home stations. I dealt with that here before. Indeed, I raised it in the other House also when I was a Member of it. I failed to make any real progress with regard to these people. They are not adequately dealt with in the regulations before us today because the returning officer will not know his personnel until it is too late for them to apply for postal votes. Most of them will not be known. The returning officer is not appointed in the first place until it is too late to apply as there is a set time for applying for postal votes. Many of those who are working and operating the polls will be denied the opportunity of voting because many of them are appointed to polling booths outside the area in which they reside and in which they could cast their votes.

I would ask the Minister to give some attention to this and to issue some instructions to returning officers to appoint, in so far as possible, personnel from their home areas and their own polling booths [1091] so that as many as possible will be able to cast their votes on polling day. In the Dublin area particularly where the areas are so small, it is very easy for a returning officer to appoint personnel without giving some attention to the fact that a person he is appointing to a polling station may be living only down the road but his polling station is in the other electoral area across the street. It would not be possible for him to cast his vote. I would ask the Minister to issue some instructions or request to returning officers to appoint presiding officers and polling clerks in their own polling stations, or certainly in their own electoral areas.

The other point I am concerned about, and it has been dealt with by the previous speaker, is the seven days' requirement for the return of the registrar's query. If a person who is working away from home applies for a postal vote — say, a person in the west working in Dublin, or a Dublin person working in the west — that request will arrive at his home very likely when he is away for the week and he does not arrive back until the weekend. A weekend may not be an appropriate time to get the required information. This seven days provision is totally inadequate to meet the requirements of many people who are away from home. I would ask the Minister if it would be possible to extend that period.

I know we here can either reject or accept the regulations. I have no hesitation in saying that I believe the House will readily accept them. I would ask the Minister if it would be possible for him to ensure in the meantime, between now and the carrying out of these regulations that the county registrar or county secretary be given a further seven days at least in regard to this requirement. I am sure the Minister will find a way of doing that and maybe of bringing a further amendment before the House, or he may be able to do it without having to do that. Certainly I would implore him to consider extending the seven days because that would benefit very many people. The vast majority of those whom it is intended to benefit will be away from home for most [1092] of the time, and seven days would be totally insufficient for them.

An Cathaoirleach: Before I call on Senators, I would like to say that a defect has arisen in the lighting system in the Chamber. I have endeavoured to arrange for alternative lighting and I trust that Senators will not be too greatly inconvenienced in the meantime. I am finding it hard to see some of the good looking people on my left.

Mr. Smith: I do not presume I will throw any more light on the subject than has already been done here this afternoon, except to welcome this as one of the plethora of measures that we have had coming before us in both this and the other House in recent times in connection with the local elections. Obviously, the one area that most people are concerned about is whether these elections will be held this year at all. One would be inclined to the view that where a Government are so anxious to introduce all the paraphernalia around them and yet reluctant to give the date that perhaps they have something else in mind.

The Minister might be in a position to give us some firm undertaking as to whether this election will be held in this year or not. It is quite relevant as far as a number of aspects of this Bill is concerned. In particular, applications will have to be submitted between 15 and 30 April. The Minister will accept that all over the country those who are employed have difficulty by virtue of their being away from their place of residence at the time of voting. Employers and employees generally make the best possible effort to be available in or about their place of residence for voting. In order that employers and employees alike could make some arrangements to be near their places of residence, they obviously would want to know the date of the elections. That would at least alleviate some of the problems. That is one area where Senators would be anxious to hear from the Minister.

In earlier contributions Senator Loughrey of Donegal seemed to be still [1093] suffering from some of the battle fatigue from being pulped up in the Donegal postal voting machine on the last occasion. I presumed that it was entirely peculiar to Donegal until I heard Senator Mullooly speak about Roscommon. The south of the country seemed to be spared from the worst effects of the last postal vote in 1974.

Mr. M. Higgins: It is the Senator's innocence.

Mr. Smith: Obviously some Senators are going to have problems. They did not seem to be as acute in the south as they were in the areas referred to. However, leaving this aside, the Minister has gone a long way towards removing the problems which showed up on that occasion and has, by a number of measures taken in the Bill, tried to correct them.

In the event of an election being held in June of this year, there will be reasonable time for the returning officer to process and properly identify the qualified applicants under this scheme before the onslaught of the election itself. The fact that the postal vote is by registered post should also be a help.

The Minister referred to “the circumstances of their occupation, service or employment” and (b) “physical illness or physical disability.” I notice in all of these areas we refer to physical disability or physical illness. It will be appreciated that in recent years fairly genuine attempts have been made to assist and rehabilitate and bring into open employment people who are mildly mentally handicapped and people who may not always be in a position to assess fully what their actions should or should not be in any given circumstances. Genuine efforts have been made to try to motivate and to encourage those groups in society to be more involved in every facet of life. This is an area in which I have a special interest. I am wondering about people in these categories who would be away from home or in institutions or hospitals and where the consultants there were satisfied that they too should have a right to vote. [1094] Will they be covered under these regulations? Naturally, the numbers would be quite small but in terms of trying to encourage and facilitate people who have these handicaps in modern and more open circumstances, I would like to hear what the Minister has to say.

I should like to support the Senators who spoke in relation to students. As invariably elections are held in June many of them are scattered all over the country at this time and they are not in a position to finance the travel which is involved. In what circumstances will this system cope with this kind of situation?

With these comments I welcome the contents of these regulations. The Minister should tell the House now, and not be dilly-dallying, the actual date of the elections. If we knew this most of the provisions in the regulations could be better put into effect.

Mr. M. Higgins: I will be brief. There has been a general welcome for these regulations. Most Senators have already made the case for the extension of the franchise which the regulations will make possible.

Essentially what is intended are two considerations: one is that the franchise should be extended as widely as possible to include those whose occupations or health preclude them from exercising their vote. This is one consideration. The second consideration is that such arrangements as are made should not be amenable to abuse. I am very impressed by the thoroughness of the observations made by Senators Mullolly and Loughrey. Senator Mullolly went into detail on the different ways in which the regulations made in 1974 had been abused. The abuse of the ballot has a long history in Irish electoral affairs. It goes way back before the first secret vote for local elections in 1899 and it was accompanied, at times, by different kinds of intimidation. It is an aspect of our civilisation that we are now able to organise elections a little differently, although we have been slow in making the necessary reforms.

I should like to comment on one fundamental point. I welcome the Minister of [1095] State and I welcome the regulations and the extensions that are contained on behalf of the Labour Party, but I am worried about one point. The changes in the voting registration arrangements are being made piecemeal. Frankly, the structure upon which the regulations are placed is one that is out-dated. We are speaking about regulations that are laid before the House in accordance with section 82 (5) of the basic Electoral Act, 1963. I am disappointed that we have been so slow to look at the obvious defects in that legislation in relation to the question of the surround of voting itself. We are in a minority of electoral systems now that allow so many possibilities of abuse in relation to going to the polls.

In relation to postal voting, people have stated that at least they “do not have to go down there now” — the idea of battering their way past people who are busily creating mounds of litter and wasting their own money and public money. The 1980s have always struck me as a time of appalling mess at polling stations and I am in favour of banning all this activity for, perhaps, 48 hours before polling takes place. Announcements, speeches and music surrounding polling stations should be eliminated. There should be listings of contributions made at elections. There should be an upper limit on the amount of money spent on elections. All this should have been changed before now. While there is a certain antiquarian charm in continuing to count votes the way we do, it is inefficient, slow and unacceptable in an electronic age. It is quaint and should be changed. The way we conduct elections and the atmosphere surrounding them should be changed. In the mining towns of Canada they close the pubs for 48 hours before an election so that the people would be somewhat sober as they are carted in to vote.

We should not be so reluctant to make necessary changes. Bits and pieces of electoral regulations are no substitute for a fundamental reform of the 1963 Act. This is no reflection on the Minister of State or on the regulations, or on the [1096] speech which he has made here this afternoon. I should like to place that on record. In the 12 years that I have been here, I have made the point to many different administrations that changes in this area are overdue. Equally, in relation towards the manner in which a register will be compiled, I support the Senators who have been asking for some form of identification. Senator Mulloly said that when people request a form they should have to identify themselves or issue a signature. I support this. I do not share the reservations of Senator McMahon who said that we are moving too much in the direction of having to produce an identification. I would welcome us having to produce an identification at the polling stations. It is a good idea and a much more meaningful control on voting patterns than what we have now.

I am confused as to what the arrangements are in relation to diplomats. This is entirely my own fault. It is wrong that the people who work for us abroad and who are involved in the public service should be unable to vote.

I was interested too, in another point upon which some Senators touched. It is in relation to this question of the institutionalised. There is no doubt at all that one of the most pathetic aspects of voting in general has been the abuse of access for patients who are not in a position either physically or mentally to get themselves to the polls. It would be very wrong if any regulations we made were open to abuse in the same fashion, or with the same consequence as occurred when people abused that aspect of the electoral Acts before now. In other words, the issuing of a request for a postal vote on behalf of somebody. That is the point. We would be compounding by regulation what was a defect in relation to a bad practice in the Act itself. I support those Senators who have made a request to the Minister to think about this in relation to the way it should be done. I was in anticipation of the Leas-Chathaoirleach asking me a question. I can assure her that I am not developing any fearful tendencies in her regard at all; she has always been so helpful to me.

[1097] Another point is that I think the registered post arrangements for the sending of ballot papers is certainly a very significant advance on the procedures in 1974. With some alarm I listened to Members referring to people going around with pockets full of papers. I can accept this because I am used to the idea of people travelling around with pockets full of cards going to the polling booths, particularly from the flatland of Dublin, and from areas where students are suspected to stay and so on. May I very humbly add my support to the case made by Senator Smith for students who are usually away from their polling area? Students, even to get on the register, have had the most extraordinary problem in getting through not only registration courts but having actually to stake a case before the courts to establish their rights to register under the Act. It was a long, slow process. Nothing should be placed in their way if they want to register in their way if because of the fact that they are away to earn a living.

This raises an interesting question. I was associated somewhat with offering advice on this and I was not able to offer advice on some parts of it. Those in charge of the registration process interpreted it as the duty of the student to take himself or herself off every register other than the one they sought to be placed on. We had an argument as to where the obligation lay, on the registration authority or on the person registering and so forth.

I believe that the basic structure, the Electoral Act, 1963, and the way it is operating is deficient as something upon which to make regulations. If the whole surround of the voting process is antiquated, out of date, daft and not really helpful towards wider participation, equally the registration process is cumbersome and slow. There is no doubt at all that a person would encounter the greatest difficulty in getting back an answer to a query from a registrar and having a reply back in time. It is not possible under the period of time I mentioned. I also think the orientation of the [1098] average person in charge of the registration process would not be such as to do it with such expedition as to facilitate the person involved. For example, the advertisements for registration are generally placed in newspapers not read by the young. I write for a small minority paper that is read by a great number of young people under 30 and, for some extraordinary reason, it has never been allocated an advertisement by the Department of the Environment. The places where the young would read of the registration process are not being used for advertisements for registration.

I hope that when we make these regulations it may prod us into a fundamental review of the whole voting and registration process. I very much welcome this motion and I congratulate the Minister on it. When those responsible come forward with a proposal to amend the basic Act, particularly in regard to those areas I mentioned I will be the first to support it. The present arrangements are reasons why we are switching people off voting. That has happened because of the hullabaloo that takes place on polling day. I was almost going to say that it had a carnival atmosphere but it is far from that. It is very much a kind of dirge-like occasion when people mournfully crowd against each other, elbow each other out of the way and indulge in behaviour that is quite unbecoming in many cases in a modern democracy. I look forward to fundamental electoral reform that will bring us into the 20th century. I will be glad to compete in those conditions on any occasion.

Mr. Lynch: I wholeheartedly support this motion and compliment the Minister on its introduction. When I was elected to Dáil Éireann one of the first issues I raised — Fianna Fáil were in Government — was the fact that people suffering from illnesses such as multiple sclerosis or confined to wheelchairs could not vote at election time. I was fully conscious of the fact that people who are disabled spend a lot of time reading papers or listening to the news and usually have a very strong interest in politics. They have [1099] more time than most to read about politicians, sport and so on. However, on an election day those people are deprived of their voting right because they cannot avail of the facilities at the polling station for one reason or another. I often wondered why we call ourselves a democratic State when we leave that situation as it is. I am delighted something is being done about this. I was sorry that the 1974 regulation was scrapped after only one year. I know there were numerous complaints at that time but it should have been reviewed and whatever anomalies existed dealt with. The regulation should have been streamlined in order to ensure that the system operated correctly. I was indeed disturbed that last year we could pass a Bill allowing a vote for non-nationals and not incorporate voting rights for people such as invalids.

I still have worries about the operation of the regulations for the first time. The draft register will be completed by 15 April and some people on that register will have the letter P in front of their names indicating that they are postal voters. I presume a supplementary register will be provided. I can see problems arising and checking and double-checking being necessary. The Minister should allay the fears that I have of discrepancies in the operation of the system.

I was disturbed by Senator Loughrey's contribution. He expressed scepticism because we in Fianna Fáil gave our full support to this motion. We gave our full support because we were concerned that invalids who are entitled to vote were not given the right to exercise the franchise. I felt that perhaps Senator Loughrey was not aware that these people existed, judging by his contribution.

The Minister should let the House know the principle applied when through accident a postal voter is omitted from the final register. If that person takes an oath will he or she be given a right then to exercise the franchise? There is confusion in this area. I know a 70 year old man who voted all his life but when he had moved house he was struck off the register. He lived in a rural area and [1100] because his name was not on the register in the urban area to which he moved he was not allowed to vote. He asked to be taken to the local sergeant to take an oath but this was not accepted by the returning officer. The man felt hurt and remarked that it might be his last time to get a chance to vote. As it happened, it was his last time because he has since died. It is a great privilege to have a vote and it is something we should all be proud of. We should do everything in our power to ensure that the voting system operates as smoothly and effectively as possible so that everybody who has a right to vote can do so.

Mr. O'Leary: I welcome the Minister's indication that this is the advance guard of a system and that a more fundamental appraisal of the Electoral Act to cater for the problems of voting at Dáil and other elections is to follow. The reason I do that is that I am not in favour of the regulations before us. It is acceptable that having had similar regulations in 1974 we should try another experiment this year and I certainly will not oppose the regulations but I am not in favour of them. I was a candidate in the 1974 local elections and the position was, indeed, far from satisfactory. All political parties — it was not confined to any one political party — abused the position. One might say that probably the net result was that it was a self-cancelling exercise. It probably was but abuse of the right to vote by putting undue pressure on elderly people is very serious. It is much more serious than whether an individual candidate gains or loses votes out of it.

According to a document which I will mention later about 1.5 per cent of the electorate applied for postal votes in 1974. That understates significantly the true percentage of the electorate affected because while 1.5 per cent of the electorate applied they represented between 3 and 4 per cent of the people who voted. In County Leitrim as a county on that occasion 5.3 per cent of the electorate applied for postal votes. Allowing for the non-voters in County Leitrim on that [1101] occasion nearly 10 per cent of the electorate who voted in County Leitrim used postal votes. In Milford, County Donegal, 10.7 per cent of the voters applied for postal votes. Allowing for the non-voters there, up to 15 or 16 per cent of the people of Milford who voted chose to exercise their votes through postal means. There was widescale abuse of the system and I do not think that the changes the Minister has made have gone anywhere towards meeting the problem. I realise that there are arguments in favour of extending the system to include those with physical handicaps. Of course, I understand that and, of course, I understand that we must make facilities available for these people but I do not think these are the right facilities. That is the point I am making.

The Government appointed a working party on the register of electors, which reported in March 1983. I do not think any Member has referred to the fact that they did report. I am referring to publication 1471. One of the terms of reference of the working party was to examine and make recommendations on a scheme of postal voting for disabled persons and others who may be unable to vote at an election. Their report was a very valuable one and I would recommend it to anybody who wants to examine the matter. In fact, the proposals the Minister has brought before us are almost word for word from that working party's report. The matter is dealt with in chapter 8 of the report and their recommendations are given in paragraph 8.7. The report reviews the position in other countries. For instance, we find that in neither Italy nor Luxembourg are there postal votes. In Belgium and France postal voting has been abolished because of abuse even though there is some arrangement in respect of proxy voting. In the Netherlands it is only civil servants abroad, and their spouses, who can use the postal vote. In Germany, United Kingdom, and Denmark there are wide facilities for postal voting. There is no postal voting arrangement in Greece.

Other countries have had to tackle this problem and a lot of them have tackled [1102] it by saying they will not have postal voting. There is, of course, a difficulty with regard to general elections and the kind of postal arrangements which we had in 1974, that is arrangements made when the elections were coming. They are not suitable for elections the exact date of which is not known. It is because we have general elections the exact dates of which are not known until shortly beforehand that the 1974 system is not suitable.

What the Minister is seeking to do is to establish a list which will be produced annually. It will be a system which can be used, with proper modifications, for general elections and other types of elections. That objective is correct and, obviously, the Minister is wise to give this a trial run because I see this local elections system as being a trial run. If the same abuses as took place in 1974 take place again, we should set our face against postal voting and just say we will not have postal voting and we are very sorry for people who cannot go out to cast their votes but, that is too bad. The abuse which took place in 1974 was a scandal. It was a bigger scandal than denying people votes. The abuse of a vote is a bigger scandal than denying people a vote.

The working party to which I referred made a number of recommendations most of which are contained in the regulations which are before us. The main thrust of the working party's report deals with what it calls the standing list of postal voters. That standing list of postal voters covers the type of system which is now suggested.

A number of Senators have spoken with regard to the short time, seven days, for allowing people to respond to queries from the officer. They have a fair point but at the same time the time has got to be reasonably short so as to prevent people who make multiple applications getting time to organise suitable replies. There is one point I am not happy with in the regulations, even allowing for the fact that these regulations are by and large experimental.

[1103] The working party considered, at paragraph 8.6, the question of mental disability and whether people suffering from a mental disability should be facilitated by having a postal vote. The position is that because of suggested previous abuse of the system a system has been devised where those in mental institutions who are eligible to vote, who are the overwhelming majority of people, are eligible to vote but only in their own home location, the place where they would otherwise be resident if they were not in the hospital. From a practical point of view that means that many people in mental institutions cannot vote. The alternative of that was to set up polling booths and to put them on the register there. However, that gave rise to a situation where there was intensive political activity among the supporters of political parties and the staff of the hospital to influence people with regard to the way in which they should vote. That is not wise. That problem of undue pressure could revive if regulations were introduced to give persons with a mental disability the facility of postal voting.

It is true to say that people of unsound mind are not eligible to vote. In addition it is true that in all other EC countries mental illness disqualifies people from voting. Of course, the position is that the vast majority of people in mental institutions are not people of unsound mind. They may be of unsound mind but they are not, legally speaking, people of unsound mind. Therefore, they are on the register of electors. Having considered all these factors the working party arrived at the following conclusion:

The working party has considered this matter at length and is of the opinion that postal voting facilities should not be extended to persons suffering from mental disability. There are relatively large numbers of such persons; they are probably more open to undue influence than other categories and, judging from experience in 1966, there would be a risk that they could innocently provide a focus for electoral [1104] abuse. If postal voting is to become an accepted part of the electoral process, it is important it should be seen to be as free as possible from the potential for abuse.

The problem I see is that in the regulations as drafted it appears that a convincing case could be made by a person who is in a mental institution that he falls within the category of persons entitled to be considered. Article 42 of the amended regulations will read that the categories of people entitled to be considered for postal voting will be persons of physical illness or physical disability. While we all know what mental illness is, a convincing case could be made that it is also physical illness, that it is something to do with the way in which the mind works. It may be both mental and physical. The mental illness of a person may be as a result of some physical malfunction of his brain. In those circumstances I would like to ask the Minister if he is satisfied that the overwhelming majority of the inhabitants of mental hospitals are not under these regulations entitled to be registered. If they are, that would be an abuse. That would reimpose pressure on these people. They were registered in their own home place. As a result of pressure the facility was removed from them after some particularly unfortunate experiences in elections in areas where there were mental hospitals. I ask the Minister to consider that carefully.

I am willing to support the regulations on the basis that they are an experiment but if the position is as chaotic as the 1974 situation we must go back to other suggestions. For example, we should consider travelling polling booths. In the case of a person who applies and is put on a postal register a polling booth should visit that person on the day of the election. It is not so difficult to organise that in this day and age. That would overcome the difficulty of undue influence which is an unfortunate characteristic of the previous experience of postal voting we have had.

Mr. B. Ryan: I will be very brief for a number of reasons, largely because the [1105] general franchise is an area that I am not familiar with. I have a limited franchise. On the other hand I do have a very intimate knowledge of postal voting and, I was going to say, of the potential for abuse but that would sound like a confession. I am well aware of suggestions of abuse. I have never noticed them in my own constituency in which there are 50,000 postal voters but I am intrigued by the looseness of the arrangements in that election by comparison with the actual vote I have as an elector for the other seats in this House where I have to go through a most extraordinary procedure in order to vote. I found it extraordinary on the first occasion I was involved. The looseness of the arrangements in the other elections in which Senator Higgins, myself and a number of other people are involved is quite astonishing.

What I really want to talk about briefly is our perceptions and, in particular, the difficulty we seem to have in perceiving the needs of individual sub groups. We spend a long time talking about democracy as a mass of people out there. We are only beginning to realise that we are a collection of minorities among whom we have now identified the handicapped and people who for reasons of employment need postal votes. It is arguable that there are many women who for reasons to do with their domestic circumstances may find it impossible or extremely difficult to vote. There is no doubt that certain combinations of socio-economic factors prevent people from voting or people do not bother to vote. In the Minister's constituency, and in other constituencies in Dublin, the level of participation in elections is frighteningly low.

When we are beginning to talk about encouraging participation, and in a society like we have which is beginning to fall apart at the edges, the effort should be directed towards maximising participation in elections and all other processes. A general Bill on the whole area of electoral activity and electoral participation should begin to recognise that there are all sorts of minority groups. We should look at the possibilities for modifying electoral procedures generally [1106] to increase access. There is a good case for opening polling booths earlier and leaving them open later. Some countries have decided for good reasons to have elections on Sundays. I do not want it to be added to other accusations that I now want to desecrate the Sabbath, but nevertheless, Sunday has a lot of attractions for a lot of people. There is also a good case to be made in the light of various comments that have been made here, and things I have experienced, for the regulations that exist in other countries whereby election campaigning ends on the night before the election or perhaps even 48 hours beforehand and there can be no further campaigning, to be adopted here. They provide a much more healthy atmosphere for electoral participation and for people to make free choices.

I am sure that there is no system that can be devised by man for elections that is not open to abuse. The ingenuity of those of us who seek election to find ways of maximising our votes probably knows no bounds. I am being very careful to include myself though I am not for one second suggesting that I have been involved in abuses. What I am saying is that the ingenuity of people seeking election knows no bounds. Therefore, I would not like to have us, in the tone, for instance, of Senator O'Leary's remarks, discriminate against a particularly vulnerable group, the handicapped, whose needs in a whole lot of areas we have only recently begun to recognise, because of the possibilities of abuse.

The area of abuse that I would be a little more worried about is where people's employment may interfere with their voting and the possibility of employers bringing pressure to bear on people to seek postal votes and, therefore, to have a considerable impact on how people vote. Whatever my criticisms, I have a reasonable degree of faith that the medical profession will not allow itself to be party to widespread abuse.

The basic principle of my remarks is that I hope that when the Minister brings in the Bill he referred to, it will begin to look at voting in the context of the [1107] technology that is available in the late 20th century, the methods of communication available and also in terms of the perception of our society as having a large number of minority groups, for example, the travellers. I wonder how many travellers ever vote in an election? If people are to be encouraged to feel they have a stake in our society those of us who have a stake in society have an obligation to reach out. The most obvious need is for the handicapped and I welcome these regulations, but there is a need to extend the same understanding to other groups who may be neither as fashionable nor as articulate nor as easily identified as being deserving of sympathy.

I am concerned about the possibility of abuse by employers. That being said, I welcome the regulations. They are a sign of an increasing consensus about the needs of the handicapped and it is very welcome to find a consensus on both sides of the House on this issue. The handicapped deserve a great deal more of our understanding. For a long time we failed to understand that it was not a case of what we thought handicapped people needed but what handicapped people themselves recognised as their needs that should be dominant. I therefore welcome the regulations.

An Leas-Chathaoirleach: Senator Ferris. We have just a quarter of an hour left. Another speaker may wish to speak for ten minutes and Senator W. Ryan may speak for five minutes.

Mr. Ferris: There has been a general welcome for the motion on both sides of the House and there has been understandable reservation in regard to the possible areas of abuse. That stems from all our experiences of the level of abuse that took place formerly. There is no doubt whatsoever that abuse did take place. It took place in institutions, particularly. Senator O'Leary asked if people who were mentally ill would be entitled to vote. The vast majority of them are on the voter's register and as such are entitled to vote. What happened on the last [1108] occasion was that peace commissioners collected all their votes, witnessed them and filled them in for them. That is the kind of abuse there was.

This amending regulation will tighten up the procedure in that a formal application will have to be made in a specific period and will have to be substantiated by, perhaps, a doctor. I would not share Senator Ryan's optimism that doctors would not be politically motivated. I have my own views on that, as I know quite a lot of them who are politically motivated.

Mr. B. Ryan: I have reason to be careful about what I say about doctors.

Mr. Ferris: On the basis of what Senator Ryan says, and he has spoken from experience, everyone will try to ensure his or her own election. If you are a doctor and you are also a politician, you will try to ensure your own election also. I am satisfied that the regulations as set down here will go in some way towards tightening up the areas of abuse that existed.

The period 15 to 30 April has been mentioned as being the possible application dates, which is quite early in comparison with the election date, which will probably be the last week in June, depending on the legislation which will be before the House next week or the week after. Presuming that it will be at the end of June, this is quite early. Administratively, that is very important. A number of people will have got ill after 30 April and will be ill in or about election time and they will not have the facility to have a postal vote because they will have got ill after the due date. That is one disadvantage of having the date too early. I understand that from an administrative viewpoint it is desirable to get the applications in.

Can the Minister confirm that specific application forms would be printed the same way as application forms to have one's name on the register? Will it be a form that will have a stamp and that the person applying for the vote will be able to submit to the post office, together with [1109] the substantiating circumstances, such as a certificate from their employer?

I understand the occupational problems in the case of commercial travellers being away from home. I can see no employment reason, if the hours from 9 a.m. to 9 p.m. are correct why a person could not vote, apart from being absent from the area. Physical illness will be dealt with correctly and physical disability. The reason for the regulations is the tremendous wrong that was done to people in wheelchairs, in particular, who showed such tremendous interest in being able to cast their vote. These people have association with many of us through various voluntary organisations and at election time they like to show their appreciation. They have been precluded from doing so since 1974 because of abuse by other people. I want to stress that people in wheelchairs would be the last in the world to abuse that facility. I hope that for them in particular, this will be a major breakthrough. Those of them that I have contacted through the Irish Wheelchair Association have expressed delight at the fact that they will have a vote in the election in June.

The provision of a mobile polling station is the ideal. In a local election, it could be quite difficult because people could be outside their own electoral area in hospital in another electoral area. Administratively, that could prove quite difficult. It probably would be very successful in a general election, where most people in hospital would be in their own electoral area, at least. I can see problems. I am concerned, therefore, to ensure that there is a specific application form which should be easily available at a Garda station, or post office, or by application in writing and that it would be stamped and suitable for return to the returning officer.

Are we insisting on the postal registration of the vote being returned, because that is important? That is required in the Seanad election. As Senator Ryan said, there is an extraordinary amount of safety involved in voting for the Seanad in that you get your vote by registered post; you have to cast your vote in front [1110] of somebody of standing; you also have to register the return of it. This ensures that nobody can interfere with the vote between the time the person genuinely casts it, fills in the application and returns it. Is it a requirement in this amendment that the vote would also be registered when being returned?

I could deal with many other areas, particularly students, in whom I have an interest, because there will be students away from home. That is possibly for another day. They are not specifically mentioned here so there is no point in talking about them.

I hope that, when we have tidied up the whole area of postal voting, the 1986 register will include all these people and everybody will know in advance who is a postal voter. On this occasion, I take it that the returning officer for local authority elections, which is generally the county manager or county secretary will know in advance who the postal voters are.

When will the applicant be advised that his request is successful? It is important that he be notified fairly quickly. Our greatest concern will be to ensure that people cast their votes. In regard to the areas of verification the Minister might quantify or qualify what the statutory declaration will be for a self-employed person.

Generally speaking, with those reservations I welcome these regulations, particularly for handicapped persons. I hope they will go some way towards meeting the problems handicapped persons have encountered in trying to get into polling stations in their wheelchairs.

Mr. W. Ryan: Like the other speakers, I welcome these regulations. They are long overdue. With all the restrictions that have been provided for on this occasion, I am sure that postal voting will not be abused as it was on a former occasion.

Like Senator Ferris, I feel that 30 April is too near the date of the election. The election, I understand, will be 27 June. So much can happen in a month. People who are anxious to vote might not have [1111] looked for a postal vote on 30 April and by 30 May may find that they cannot vote. I do not know if the Minister can review that at this stage.

Many young people perhaps from Tipperary or Limerick, are working away from home and only come home on Friday evenings. They are on the register at home. If they get a letter from their employer to say that they are not available to vote, would they be eligible for a postal vote? It is important that that be taken into account. Many people have to leave Dublin at 6 o'clock in the evening and rush down the country to vote. They are as much entitled to their vote as the person who has to go to Dublin and cannot be at home to vote. They should be treated similarly. When people apply for a postal vote, will they have to know their number on the register? That is not going to be too easy unless some local politician, who thinks they will vote for him, will help them out. Where will they find a register? If they send in the application without the number, that should not debar them from a postal vote.

Senator O'Leary mentioned mental hospitals. When patients in mental hospitals were allowed a vote, they voted, on the first occasion in the mental hospital. I understand that in places certain Deputies were elected as a result of this. I remember canvassing in a very large mental hospital. Some patients had their faculties but others mentioned some TD who had died 20 years before. That was because he had been a TD when they went into the mental hospital. These patients, are entitled, since they are on the register at home, to a postal vote. How will the Minister ensure that all the mental hospital patients do not vote the one way because of somebody in the mental hospital advising them that way? Things like that do happen.

An Leas-Chathaoirleach: The Senator has one minute left.

Mr. W. Ryan: That is all I have to say. Senator Higgins mentioned changing the register. That is for another day, but the [1112] Minister should take into account the registers we have at present. For one polling booth, there might be six registers with 50 names on one and 100 on another. The registers should be brought up to date. Our county council have decided that they will do that. Every county council should do so.

There is one other speaker on the other side. If we could stretch things a bit, as he probably will not be any longer than five minutes, perhaps an extra five minutes could be allowed after 8 o'clock for the other Bill.

An Leas-Chathaoirleach: Is that agreed?

Senators: Yes.

An Leas-Chathaoirleach: It was decided that the Minister would come in at 6.15 p.m.

Mr. Browne: Would 6.17 p.m. do?

Mr. Ferris: We cannot discuss any other business after the emergency motion. We cannot take it at 8.5 p.m., or 6.35 p.m.

Mr. Browne: By nature I am very brief and tonight I will be twice as brief. It is very difficult, in a minute or two, to summarise what should be said. I had one experience of a wheelchair person who weighed nearly 18 stone who went to all the trouble of going to the polling booth and people were unable to get the chair in. He had to go home without voting. We should go out of our way to help people like that person, who want to vote. There is a lot of talk about the abuse of postal voting. It is politicians who have abused the system. I am not talking about Fianna Fáil; I am including Fine Gael. It is quite clear that there are abuses from every side of the House. Politicians of some sort or other are the ones who are going around talking to people in mental hospitals and if they set a good example, there might not be as much abuse. I would hate to see rheumatism or lumbago cited as cases where it [1113] was inconvenient for people to go personally to vote.

Sunday voting would solve a lot of our problems. It would solve Senator Willie Ryan's problem about people coming from Dublin. Voting is always in the middle of the week. People are away from home and if we had Sunday voting, people would be at home. They have their good clothes on and they are going out to Mass and you might have a much better and a more accurate poll.

It is time the political parties on all sides were cleared from polling booths on polling day to within a minimum of 100 yards. If people go to the trouble of voting and they have to jostle their way into polling booths, it is embarrassing. Anybody who goes out to vote has his or her mind made up who to vote for.

An Leas-Chathaoirleach: The Minister, to conclude the debate.

Minister of State at the Department of the Environment (Mr. F. O'Brien): I would like to thank Senators for the very constructive and useful debate on this issue. The measure has been welcomed with open arms by Senators on all sides of the House. Several Senators referred to the desirability of having postal votes at elections generally. I mentioned in my speech that this is intended in the forthcoming Bill and will be in operation for 1986.

Senator O'Toole and others asked about the date of the election, and said that nothing can happen in the meantime. I would like to point out that in national elections there can be three weeks in which all this happens. We are talking here about four months. I want to assure the House and everybody, particularly on my right, that there will be no problems. There will be plenty of time. We will be announcing the date in good time. All will have all the time they want to operate and move in the direction they want to move.

Senator O'Toole asked about the position of fishermen. In replying to his question, it would be better to outline briefly the categories which we hope to cover. [1114] A number of other Senators also asked about this. Apart from the ill and physically handicapped, the voting facilities aim particularly at those people who are resident in this country and away from home on a regular basis whether to other parts of this country or abroad in the course of their employment. Categories which immediately come to mind are company representatives, long distance lorry drivers, fishermen, journalists, airline pilots, among others. It would be up to the returning officers to decide on others. It is not the intention to accommodate people who are resident in other countries. Such people would not be registered electors under the existing laws.

Senator Rogers asked about the Garda and the Army. We are aware that they are at present on the postal vote. Senator Loughrey asked about small farmers, whether they were self-employed. Of course, they are self-employed but the fact that they are self-employed does not entitle them necessarily to a postal vote. They must prove that they will be away, or that they are normally away and would not be available on the day of polling. That is possibly unlikely, unlike other people such as fishermen or trawler owners and people like that.

Senator O'Toole asked about the position of island dwellers. There are no special provisions relating to postal voting by islanders. Their right to a postal vote is governed by the same rules as apply to everybody else. The qualification is illness or physical disability and islanders do not come under this.

The question was raised by Senator Loughrey of people voting who were working abroad. Briefly, the position is that persons working or resident abroad should not be on the register of electors and the question of voting should not arise. There could be people working abroad on a seasonal basis, or people who have recently moved abroad and are still on the register. These could obviously apply for a postal vote if their occupation prevents them from voting at the polling station. However, there are no provisions for ballot papers to be sent [1115] abroad. They will be sent to the address at which the person is registered.

Senator Higgins asked about diplomats. That problem will be dealt with in the forthcoming Bill. Senator Smith raised the question of postal voting for mental patients. Senator O'Leary raised that question in regard to the working party on the register of electors. On balance, they recommended against it, because it was felt that these patients are probably more open to undue influence than other categories. It is something that we should be always looking at. The whole basis of what we are about is to try to include as many people as possible on the register and at the same time minimise abuses. We should, on an on-going basis, review this from time to time but, under the present regulations, that would not operate.

Many Senators referred to abuses which took place in 1974. Of course, this is the nub of postal voting — how to provide a reasonable facility and at the same time guard against abuse. A number of Senators said this. I believe what we are doing now is striking a reasonable balance. If we impose too many restrictions, then we would be undoing what we are trying to do and preventing people from voting. I think we have taken sufficient precautions on that.

Some people were trying to classify this as a trial run. It is not. This is the type of legislation which will be going into the Bill, but we have not moved on the Bill in time, so we want to put these provisions into regulations to enable people to vote and I believe it will be successful. There are penalties to deal with people abusing postal voting.

Senator Higgins mentioned the matter of pressure being put on voters at polling stations and other aspects of the conduct of elections. I noted his comments and I will have them considered.

Senator McMahon mentioned staff employed by the returning officers. They were not included in the regulations because, again, the application period is now going to be much earlier. This matter [1116] was raised by other Senators as well regarding illness and accidents and so on. No matter what date we have, we would have problems. The idea of bringing the date forward was to give the returning officer plenty of time in which to examine applications and adjudicate and make decisions. It is in the interest of a good system that that be done.

Senator Loughrey is interested that peace commissioners should not witness statutory declarations, that that should only be done by a commissioner of oaths. We want to make this as reasonable and as accessible as possible and debarring peace commissioners would create problems and I do not intend to do that.

Senator Loughrey made some very serious criticisms of the way in which the register of electors is compiled in Donegal. Indeed, it is not relevant to the matter now under consideration and I will just say that he should bring these matters to the attention of the appropriate authorities. If he will let me have details of the irregularities, I will have them investigated. He also suggested that the dates for the compilation of the register should be changed. I will note that too. That has been mentioned in other places as well.

Senator Lynch raised the question of a person whose name is omitted from the register of electors. When your name is not on the register, there is no provision to allow you to vote. You cannot swear an oath or anything like that. Regrettably, you cannot vote.

A number of Senators raised the point about students. They are not specifically mentioned in the regulation but they may qualify under the occupation qualifications. It would be a matter for the returning officer to decide on each qualification, if they use that as a means for getting a vote.

Senator Ferris asked about application forms. An application form, if specified, will be a schedule to the regulations and stocks of forms are being printed and they will be available at post offices and local authority offices.

Mr. Ferris: Post free?

[1117] Mr. F. O'Brien: No. They are there by application and the post will not be free. Senator Ferris also asked whether the completed ballot paper will be returned by registered post. The answer to that is no. The main beneficiaries of this regulation will be the ill and disabled and it would be a major imposition if such categories were required to register their envelopes. The risk of abuse at that stage is rather small but again it is a matter we can look at. At present we do not intend to do that.

Senator O'Toole raised the question of the application period and expressed concern that people might not be aware of the new system. Senator Higgins mentioned this as well. This will be well publicised. We will have it on television, radio and in all the national newspapers and periodicals. I have no doubt that public representatives, aspiring candidates, will play a very active role in ensuring that everybody is aware of postal voting.

Senators Mullooly and McMahon mentioned that the period of seven days being allowed for providing further information was too short. We must accept that a cut-off time is essential and that the supplementary postal voters list must be completed within a reasonable time and made available to candidates. Again, it is something we can look at but I think we will leave it seven days and examine this as we go along. I do not anticipate a huge volume of requests for additional information. I would hope that that would not be the case.

Senator Mullooly also asked about the charge for medical certificates. The question of charges for medical certificates will, of course, be a matter for individual doctors. We have to assume that there could be a separate charge. I am not saying that there will not be a charge. As we are aware, most genuinely ill or disabled persons should not face this additional financial burden, because they would be having frequent visits from the doctor and I hope that would take care of it.

Senator O'Toole mentioned accessibility to polling booths. At the Department we are always trying to ensure that better [1118] buildings and facilities are made available at polling booths. That is most important. It is not good enough to give a postal vote to a person in a wheelchair if they want to exercise their right to vote at a polling booth. That right should be there for them. Senator Willie Ryan mentioned people who work away from home and go home at weekends only. These people would qualify on the employment criteria.

I wish to thank Senators for their helpful and constructive contributions. It is great to get this kind of consensus in the House on this very important matter. These measures are long overdue. I have no fears about them. If there are any problems we can look at them again. It is our right as democrats to ensure that as many people as possible have access to voting. A Bill will be brought before the Dáil shortly to ensure that these rights will be conferred at every election, referenda, general elections and European elections. Then we can truly say that we are endeavouring to give everybody, particularly those who are unable to vote, their right to vote.

Mr. Ferris: Senator Ryan asked about identifying the vote on the application by the register number. Will that be a requirement?

Mr. F. O'Brien: No, the vote will be registered, sent out to the person and returned.

Mr. Ferris: When the person applies will they have to say which register they are on and their number on the register?

Mr. F. O'Brien: No, they will not.

Mr. Cassidy: Is the Minister——

An Leas-Chathaoirleach: The Minister should be allowed to conclude without interruption. He has answered several times without telling us when.

Mr. F. O'Brien: I am very happy to say that the local elections will be held in June. It should be the last week in June. [1119] This is because of impending legislation going through the Dáil tomorrow and this House the following week or week after. Because of new electoral areas it is necessary to put it back as far as June.

Question put and agreed to.

An Leas-Chathaoirleach: Could I ask the Leader of the House when it is proposed to sit again?

Mr. Ferris: It is proposed to sit next Wednesday 20 March at 2.30 p.m.