Seanad Éireann - Volume 115 - 04 December, 1986
Electoral (Special Voters) Bill, 1986: Second Stage.
Question proposed: “That the Bill be now read a Second Time.”
Minister for the Environment (Mr. Boland) Minister for the Environment (Mr. Boland)
Minister for the Environment (Mr. Boland): The Bill introduces two measures of electoral for which there has been long-standing and deeply-felt demand. It provides special voting facilities for disabled electors and also establishes a system which will make it possible for diplomats representing this country abroad to vote at elections here. I am sure that the principle behind these reforms will be met with approval and, indeed, with a good deal of satisfaction.
Over the years the case for providing adequate voting facilities for the disabled has been made with force and conviction by Senators on both sides of the House. It has been maintained that our present voting arrangements, by not taking appropriate account of the specific needs of the disabled, may be discriminatory and may have the effect of disenfranchising an  appreciable number of our citizens, the particular citizens being persons who already have to bear the considerable burden of ill-health or disability. The Seanad will recall that one disabled elector was so concerned about this state of affairs that she felt impelled to institute legal proceedings which have been dealt with in the High Court and the Supreme Court. The present Bill will make good this deficiency in our electoral law.
In dealing with the problem of voting by disabled electors the Bill recognises that there are two different levels of disability to be catered for. There are many disabled persons who are perfectly capable of making their way to the polling station but find access to the voting area difficult because of the physical characteristics of the building concerned. There may be steps to be mounted, narrow doorways or awkward corridors to be negotiated. The disabled electors may be faced with the choice of sacrificing their vote or enduring the indignity of being physically conveyed past the obstruction. At future elections, persons in this category will be able to transfer their vote to another polling station to which access is easier for them. In the run up to the election or referendum they may apply to the returning officer for the constituency who will issue the necessary authorisation.
In relation to those who are unable to visit the polling station by reason of long term physical illness or physical disability that voter may apply to the local registration authority for entry on what will be called “the special voters list”. This list will be drawn up each year at the same time as the draft register of electors. Each application for entry on the list must be supported by a medical certificate.
At an election or referendum a ballot paper will be conveyed to each elector named on the special voters list, at their residence, by a special presiding officer accompanied by a member of the Garda Síochána. The special voter will make and sign a declaration of identity, which will be witnessed by the special presiding officer, and will then mark the ballot paper in secret. The ballot paper, enclosed in a sealed envelope will be conveyed by the  special presiding officer to the returning officer for the constituency. It will then be placed in the postal voters ballot box and will be treated in exactly the same way as voting papers received from postal voters.
Under existing electoral law no provision is made for voting by civil servants attached to our diplomatic missions abroad. I understand that we are alone among the 12 member states of the European Community in not making some provision in this regard.
The position so far as this country is concerned is that, not only are special voting arrangements not made for persons in this category but the persons concerned are not, generally speaking, eligible for registration as electors. Under existing law, a person must be ordinarily resident in a constituency in order to be eligible for registration. A temporary absence of up to 18 months is not regarded as breaking the continuity of residence. However, civil servants attached to missions are normally posted abroad for a period of several years and, thus, would not satisfy the residence requirement for registration.
The Bill provides that civil servants and their spouses will be deemed to satisfy the residence requirement and will be entitled to be registered in respect of the address in this country at which they would be living if not posted abroad. They must, of course, also satisfy the normal requirements in relation to age and citizenship.
The arrangement envisaged is that applications will be made to the appropriate registration authority each year at the time when the draft register is being drawn up. The fact that the applicant is qualified for registration under this procedure will require to be certified by the secretary of the Department of Foreign Affairs. The registration authority will enter the names on the draft register and, as in the case of members of the Defence Forces and the Garda Síochána, will also enter them on the postal voters list.
Voting by persons registered under this provision will in general be carried out in the same way as voting by gardaí or members of the Defence Forces but with an important modification. In voting they will make a declaration of identity in the  presence of a person authorised for this purpose by the secretary of the Department of Foreign Affairs — normally the ambassador or head of mission — and will mark their ballot papers, in secret, in his presence. The purpose of this modification is to provide a safeguard against the possibility of the kind of abuse which appears to be endemic in any postal voting system. I will be dealing with the question of abuse at greater length later.
In satisfying a long standing demand for reform in relation to voting by the disabled and by our official representatives abroad, I am confident that the Bill will be welcomed. An explanatory memorandum has been circulated which, I think, will serve to answer any question in relation to the detailed operation of the provisions.
I would like now to deal with some questions of principle and policy which I anticipate may be raised in the course of this debate. In particular I would like to set out the considerations which led the Government to go for the rather cumbersome and expensive special voting arrangement proposed for the disabled in preference to the seemingly simpler and less expensive postal voting system.
The Seanad will recall that we have had experience in the operation of an extended postal voting system at two local government elections. A fairly open-ended system was introduced for the 1974 local elections. It was tightened up considerably for the elections which took place in 1985 and additional safeguards were introduced. However, the sad and inescapable conclusion to be drawn from experience at these two elections is that postal voting is open to abuse, that it has been abused and that there is every likelihood that it would continue to be abused. It is equally clear that it is not possible to devise safeguards which would guarantee the elimination of such abuse. In particular, under postal voting, the individual voter and his ballot paper cannot be given the protection and the guarantee of secrecy which is afforded to an elector voting in the polling station.
As legislators there is undoubtedly an obligation on us to provide reasonable  facilities to enable electors to cast their votes and in providing such facilities to take into account, as far as reasonably possible, the specific difficulties experienced by particular categories. However, there is a still more fundamental obligation on us to ensure that elections are decided by the free vote of the people and not by machinations.
The preservation of the integrity of the electoral system is particularly important in our situation where Government majorities tend to be slim and where individual seats can be won or lost by late preferences on a handful of ballot papers. I am aware as I am sure many Senators are of one situation in a recent general election where the allocation of the last seat in a five seat constituency was decided by five votes on the eleventh count. No doubt other examples can be given. The clear message is that abuse even on a very limited scale could call into question the result of an election. In those circumstances the concept of an acceptable level of electoral abuse is simply not on.
We are faced with the problem of striking a balance between the desirability of adjusting the voting arrangements to suit particular circumstances and the necessity to preserve the integrity of the electoral procedure. The special voting arrangements proposed in the Bill represent a measured response to this problem. They provide the disabled with a reasonable opportunity of voting and at the same time provide a complete safeguard against the abuse associated with postal voting.
I want to make it absolutely clear that the abuse which took place was not perpetrated by the sick, the disabled or the other categories for whom the system was devised. These were simply the innocent victims of the abuses which took place. It must be a source of sadness to us all that this is the situation. But we live in the real world and our proposals must take account of the situation as it is, not what we might wish it to be.
Mr. M. O'Toole Mr. M. O'Toole
Mr. M. O'Toole: I welcome this Bill. We have had regulations and Bills to cover  persons who are incapacitated and are unable to get to the polling booth because of their disability and incapacity. We on this side of the House are prepared to agree to the suggestion by the Leader of the House that one speaker from each side of the House should contribute to the discussion. I hoped to have an opportunity between the debates on the Air Pollution Bill and this Bill to examine this Bill in depth. We will be making a better and perhaps a more substantial contribution on Committee Stage rather than on Second Stage. Because the debate is limited to two speakers the Minister should be able to put it through both Houses of the Oireachtas without undue delay. We on this side of the House will not in any way deter its passage through the Seanad.
As the Minister has said, there were abuses of a few of the systems we have had. This Bill should have the effect of eliminating abuses and of allowing us to provide facilities for voting for people who are unable to go to the polls. Would I be right in saying that if this Bill goes through both Houses of the Oireachtas and an election takes place between now and 15 April, this legislation will come into effect for any election prior to 15 April or will the Bill only be operative from 15 April 1987, the date of the new register? If this is the case there is no urgency but I understood that speed was essential in order to have the legislation for the next election so that people on the present register will be allowed participate in any election prior to 15 April 1987. Will the Minister clarify this?
There are a number of outlying islands along our coasts and these will have to be catered for under the Bill. I would envisage the sending of an officer, appointed by the county registrar, to these islands long before the date of the election in order to give an opportunity in the case of inclement weather for ballot papers to reach the returning officer in time for the count. It is important that the Minister would take into consideration the people on the islands so that people who will be qualified to vote under this Bill will have that opportunity. Ample notice should be given to ensure that the people of those  islands have the same facilities as people on the mainland.
I welcome the provision whereby people who are on the register but who are in areas outside the jurisdiction of the State, through no fault of their own, will now have an opportunity to vote in any election. These people spend some time away but they also spend much of their time in Ireland and they should have the right to vote. We will probably be putting down amendments for Committee Stage.
It will be a cumbersome and expensive job to get around to each voter who is deemed to be incapacitated. I understand that the jurisdiction of deeming a person a voter in this category will rest with the county registrar. He will be the person who, on the submission of a medical certificate will deem the person a voter under this legislation. Sometimes it can be quite easy to get a certificate. Will evidence other than the medical certificate be required for this purpose? That is a very sensitive area and one the Minister should give some thought to. Voters should be given sufficient time in which to make their applications. We must allow enough time in which to deem an applicant a voter and, subsequently, for him to be called on by the representative of the returning office and a garda. We do not want to have a situation in which these representatives would be rushing around constituencies in order to have voters complete their ballot papers as fast as possible and return them to the returning officers. There should be ample time to ensure that everybody is catered for under this legislation.
The Minister is to be complimented on bringing in this legislation. It is only right that those who are incapacitated and also those who are out of the country and for whom we are providing here be given the opportunity of having their say in the election of people to govern the country.
I hope that the kind of abuses that were perpetrated up to now will be eliminated by this legislation but that is something we will be able to judge only in time. It would not be easy to pre-empt abuses at this stage. We can only ensure that we tighten the legislation as much as possible in that regard. If this legislation works properly  on this occasion it can be easily repeated in subsequent elections. That is what everybody would wish for and I have no doubt but that the Minister will get the cooperation of the people involved in the administration of the legislation. I look forward to seeing it in operation.
Mr. McMahon Mr. McMahon
Mr. McMahon: Like Senator O'Toole I welcome the Bill and I wish the Minister speed in getting it through both Houses and putting it into operation. While most of us pay a lot of attention to our electoral system and how the system operates, and indeed we could spend a long time discussing this and any matter connected with election day, I think we are all anxious to see the Bill through, particularly in these uncertain times. I certainly see no reason why it should not be enacted before the new register comes into operation. It really has nothing to do with the register. The most important thing is to ensure that it is enacted before we have a dissolution of the Houses of the Oireachtas so that it can be in operation for the events that will follow.
Even though we are extremely interested in the voters and how they operate, it is not generally realised that the Irish people are far better voters — I am not referring to their choice of candidate or party — than are most of our European neighbours. They are certainly more anxious to go to the polls. We see on the papers following an election the percentage of votes cast but I have always found that percentage to be far higher than the published percentage. If one takes a page of the register one finds on that page somebody who would dearly have loved to have cast his vote but for reasons, and some of the reasons are being dealt with in this Bill, beyond his control he was unable to vote. I have met some of these people at election time and indeed subsequent to elections and I cannot express to the House how they felt.
Irish people are deeply interested in voting. I may not always agree with the way they vote but certainly the onus is on all of us, the democratically elected members and parties in the democratic  system, to ensure that as many as possible of people fulfilling the qualification are enabled to carry out their duty on that day. With this in mind the Minister, has brought this Bill before the House and probably because of the uncertain times we are now in politically he has probably rushed it through his Department. I would certainly go along with the Leader of the House who said we should not delay it here, that we should have a look at it quickly. I hope we can finish Second Stage today and then deal quickly with any amendments that may be proposed on Committee Stage.
The most important thing in this Bill — there are a few points I want to make on it — is that we get the Bill through because it will enable more people to cast their votes on election day, something which is indeed dear to their hearts. I have some neighbours who for years were on the register and then because of a typographical error or whatever they were omitted from the register. In one case that person nearly had to go to hospital. He was a man in his early seventies and he had voted all his life from the time he was 21 years of age in every election and he could not understand why he was being denied his vote. I could not explain to him that it was unintentional that he was not on the register. The local authority could not explain it to me but it seemed to have been a typographical error. That is the effect it had on this man. There are many people in the categories being dealt with here in this Bill who have had to suffer that annoyance at every election. I am certainly glad the Minister has brought the Bill before the House, I want to see it enacted as quickly as possible so that in case we do have an election in the near future we will give these people the pleasure and indeed the pride of casting their vote because that is how they feel about it.
The Minister is extending the vote also to civil servants on diplomatic mission but I wonder if he has considered extending it to other people? He mentioned that we are the last in the EC to do this but there are certainly many citizens with voting qualification who are abroad because we are in the EC. They may not necessarily be civil servants but could be serving many  of the committees and the like in the EC. Indeed, many of them are also civil servants but could not be described as being in the diplomatic service or on diplomatic missions. I know of many people who are now in Europe with their families for a period of four or five years or for whatever period their contract lasts with the EC and I would ask the Minister to give some consideration to allowing them to vote.
It is not clear to me from the Bill if those who will be permitted to go from their own polling station to a neighbouring polling station within the same electoral area need to be on the special voters list. Perhaps the Minister will clarify this point. Can a person on the ordinary voters list we have published today apply? You could have a person who has been disabled for a short period and who might not have been disabled when the special voters list was being compiled. That person could have problems gaining access to certain polling stations. It is not clear to me whether a person being directed from his own polling station to another polling station must be on the special voters list. The special presiding officer appointed by the returning officer to visit the homes of the disabled people in connection with voting is to be accompanied by a garda but I notice there is no provision for another agent, say a personating agent of a candidate or a party personating agent.
Professor Dooge Professor Dooge
Professor Dooge: It is prohibited.
Mr. McMahon Mr. McMahon
Mr. McMahon: I think this should be permitted because it is normal standard practice in the ordinary voting stations that candidates can appoint their agents if they so wish. This seems to be a normal act being gone through in an abnormal way. A specially appointed presiding officer with a garda visits your home and nobody else is permitted to be present. We do not know who the presiding officers will be or who the gardaí will be. I am not casting aspersions on them any more than in the normal polling station situation, but we should ensure that democracy is carried through to the full and a personating agent of the candidate should be permitted to accompany the special presiding officer.
 There is another point which I have raised on Electoral Bills in the past. The time for registration is from 15 December to 15 January each year. There seems to be no movement on that despite the fact that I and many other Oireachtas Members have pleaded for some relaxation or some re-arranging of it. There is a further requirement that the person being registered between 15 December and 15 January for the register operative from the following April must be resident at that location in September of that year. Strictly speaking a person moving into an area today cannot be registered and cannot vote from that address until April of 1988. A person moving into a residence in October 1986 under the law as it stands at the moment is not permitted to vote from that address because he cannot be registered at that address until the following year and cannot vote until April 1988. For a year and a half that person is residing at that address and has no legal right to vote. In this day and age of technology and computers in every office surely we can give a speedier response to a request for registration than that.
Those are the few points I wanted to make on the Bill. Under section 9 the returning officer at an election or a referendum will appoint a special presiding officer. These officers will have all the powers vested in a presiding officer appointed to a polling station except authority to enable an elector to be assisted in voting by a companion. A person can be on a special voters list simply because he cannot use his hands. Many disabled people cannot use their hands and have to be assisted. How does the Minister hope to get over the fact that this officer will have all the powers vested in him except the authority to enable an elector to be assisted in voting by a companion? Perhaps it is the reverse, that it is giving him that authority. I have only glanced through the Bill since the Minister came into the House but I am sure he will clarify that when he is replying to the debate.
Whatever faults the Bill may have, it is to be welcomed because it is enabling more and more people who heretofore could not cast their votes to do so. I would like to  see an extension in the areas I have outlined and I await the Minister's reply to the points I have made about the EC personnel who are involved. We could extend that to firms because very often a multinational firm here send some of their personnel managers abroad for a period of a year or two to see how the firm are operating in other countries and thereby improve their operations here. People go abroad for brief periods like this and I can see no reason why they cannot be facilitated in the same way as civil servants in the diplomatic missions.
That is all I have to say at this stage. No doubt we will have a further opportunity on Committee Stage. I wish the Minister well with the Bill and I appeal to all sides of the House to ensure that it is enacted as quickly as possible so that it can be effective. I hope we will not need it for eight, ten or 12 months but, at the same time, we know what the position is and we could need it in three, four or five months time. We have the Christmas holidays coming up and we should ensure that it will be put through both Houses of the Oireachtas and be available for people to cast their votes whenever the next voting day comes.
Mr. Ross Mr. Ross
Mr. Ross: I welcome this Bill as do all Members of the House. In principle I cannot give it quite such a warm welcome as Senator McMohan and Senator O'Toole gave it because too little and too late. It has been a very long time coming. We need to know if this Bill is so urgent as has been suggested in this House today and yesterday, will it come into operation immediately on passing through this House and the other House. It is unclear whether a new register needs to be compiled and whether this Bill will not come into operation until April. If it does not come into operation until April what is the hurry? I hope the Bill will come into operation immediately it goes through both Houses and I presume this is the reason it is going through this House with a certain amount of welcome speed this week. It should then go through the Dáil very quickly and be in operation for the election whenever it  comes. I am not prejudiced about whether it comes next month, in three months, six months or nine months, but the important thing for disabled people is that it comes through as quickly as possible.
I do not understand why this Bill was not introduced last year or the year before. At the time of the referendum on the amendment to the Constitution on divorce we had a similar type debate on votes for the disabled in this House and unfortunately it is only now that this Bill is coming to the House. The urgency today seems a little bit absurd when the urgency was emphasised last year and the year before and the year before. It would be a tragedy if, the Bill having been presented in this House as being urgent, an election was called and those people this Bill is supposed to franchise are still effectively disenfranchised in the next election. I would be very grateful if the Minister could clear up that point. The timing is very important and it is unclear to both sides of the House according to the speeches made here. I welcome the Bill because it is a recognition of the difficulties under which disabled people labour in this country and the lack of awareness in our laws, in our attitudes and in our rules about the needs of the disabled.
The most interesting point about this is that polling stations are so inaccessible at the moment to disabled people. Very few polling stations are accessible to the disabled and I would like to see this Bill beginning a process whereby all public buildings are made accessible to wheelchair users so that not only polling stations, not only the National Concert Hall but all public and private buildings are accessible, and compulsorily accessible, to disabled people. There are no facilities even in this House, for instance, for disabled people. It would be very difficult for someone in a wheelchair to listen to what I am saying here at this moment, which is very unfortunate for them. It would be very difficult as well for members of the public who are in wheelchairs to visit the Dáil. While the Bill recognises one aspect of the difficulties of disabled people — and elections are on everybody's mind at the moment — we  should ensure that all public buildings, private buildings, cinemas, theatres, post offices are accessible to disabled people. It would take only one or two removable chairs and an accessible lift to allow disabled people to come in here.
The postal vote has been criticised implicitly in the Bill and in the Minister's speech. I can see the difficulties but I think they are over emphasised in this Bill. I see very little evidence in the system under which the University Senators in this House are elected by postal vote of massive, broad personation. You may get very strange results but I do not think they would be the outcome of a massive amount of fraud in the electoral process. I wonder if it would be less of a humiliating process and involve less paraphernalia for the disabled if they were to receive their votes by registered letter and return them by registered letter. While a registered letter, it may be maintained, is a rather loose or insecure way of allowing people to vote, to me it is a particularly safe way.
If a registered letter goes astray as I understand it, it is very easy to put a trace on it, and if a disabled voter does not get his registered letter in time he will be screaming and kicking up a fuss about it. It is very easy to trace a registered letter, where it has gone, whether it has been delivered, where it has been delivered. I find it difficult to meet the objections which the Minister has to this in the Bill but I will concur with the House's desire that this Bill should go through Second Stage today and will not detain the House at length. I welcome the Bill. It is only the tip of the iceberg and it is only a small piecemeal way of attacking the problems of the disabled.
Mrs. Bulbulia Mrs. Bulbulia
Mrs. Bulbulia: I understand the House has agreed that only one member from each grouping should speak but lest it be thought that my interest in the Bill is not keen, I should just like to say that I will reserve the major portion of my contribution for Committee Stage. As a nominee to the Seanad of the Multiple Sclerosis Society of Ireland, obviously I have a particular interest in postal voting for the disabled and have contributed in the  past to discussions on this subject. I look forward to contributing at length on the Committee Stage of the Bill.
An Cathaoirleach An Cathaoirleach
An Cathaoirleach: If that agreement was made, it was not made in the House, Senator.
Professor Dooge Professor Dooge
Professor Dooge: It was not an order of the House; the matter was ventilated.
Minister for the Environment (Mr. Boland) Minister for the Environment (Mr. Boland)
Minister for the Environment (Mr. Boland): I should like to thank Senators for the general welcome which they have given to the provisions contained within this Bill. I agree that it is extremely important that the House, the Legislature and the Executive should recognise the special needs of the disabled in a variety of respects and I would like to think that I have endeavoured to do that during my own time in Parliament — back to the late seventies, when I was party spokesman on health. In the other House, I was very interested in and actively pursued the cause of the disabled. Quite recently I was glad to have the opportunity to announce that families who have a physically disabled member amongst them may, even if they have previously owned a house, apply for and get the first time purchaser grant if they are purchasing a new house which they are having especially adapted to the needs of the disabled member of the family. Indeed, about the same time we issued instructions to local authorities and others who are involved in the provision of swimming pools to provide specifically for special access to be made available to swimming pools for the disabled. When I was Minister for the Public Service I availed of the opportunity on at least one occasion when we were having a large intake of young people to act as temporary clerical trainees to increase the objectives set for public employers generally of a 3 per cent quota of disabled people to 5 per cent in relation to that category. Many of us could ensure that life which obviously is somewhat more difficult for disabled people than it is for the rest of us could be made a little easier if the rest of us gave more care and attention to the problems which the disabled encounter, which we  more able-bodied people just do not notice.
Senator Ross was less than fulsome in his welcome of the measure largely based on his submission that the Bill represented too little, too late. Of course, if that was to be the yardstick for the criticism of any measure it might well mean that no new proposals would ever to put forward on the basis that they all should have been put forward previously. The simple fact of the matter is that the reason for the delay in recent years in presenting this legislation is quite simply the ingenuity of the Irish in managing to pervert the previous postal voting attempts which were introduced.
I could regale the House for many hours in recounting to them details of widespread abuse of the most extraordinary ingenuity achieved in different parts of the country by candidates, agents on behalf of candidates and friends of candidates and agents. Indeed, were it not for the system which we are now proposing, which I admitted in my introduction of the measure here is somewhat cumbersome and certainly a very expensive system, were it not for the adoption by the Government of that system I am afraid the inescapable conclusion would be that it was not possible to provide special voting facilities for the disabled for fear of abuse of the same type as had been experienced when postal voting was attempted in those local elections. May I say in that regard, just to give one single example, that in many instances, postal vote applications were made in the names of people without their knowledge? Complicated mechanisms were set up to intercept the postal vote and, occasionally when queries were raised by the registration authority, to intercept the query and to respond to it on behalf of the supposed applicant. There is a rather interesting account of a different version of “Postman's Knock” which took place in a certain part of the country where the postman was literally followed by a string of agents or runners on behalf of a particular candidate who arrived shortly after the postman at the various houses where postal votes were being delivered and while one would engage in deep and interested conversation with the applicant  his companion would remove the postal vote.
It is interesting in another respect to hear the Senator criticise the system because, frankly, this system as adopted by the Government at my suggestion is based on my experience of the voting system which obtains in relation to the majority of the Members of the Seanad. If the Senators care to examine carefully the system — the signing of a witness authorisation and the placing of the disabled person's vote into an envelope which will then be put together with the witnessed document into a larger cover for returning, they will realise that to a large extent it is modelled on the system which elects 43 Members of the Seanad. I am sure Senators would attest to the adequacy of that system.
In that regard perhaps I might at this stage avail of the opportunity to deal with a specific point raised by Senator McMahon in relation to companion voting and the attendance of personation agents. The Bill specifically excludes the right of persons other than the presiding officer and the Garda to be present at the time of voting. There are several reasons for this. In the most part the voting will take place in the disabled voter's own home or residence and often, because of the nature of the disablement, perhaps in the voter's bedroom. We were anxious to minimise as much as possible the invasion of privacy of the home by having a large number of people arrive. In addition it was felt that the presence of the presiding officer and the Garda adequately protected the integrity of the ballot procedure. While personation agents are provided for in general polling stations where large numbers of people attend it was felt that the likelihood of another person representing themselves to be the disabled voter in the residence was relatively small and would be adequately dealt with by the presiding officer and the Garda.
For the same reason the companion voter system has not been provided for here because the intention is that where a voter is physically unable to mark the paper the presiding officer will have the power to complete the ballot paper on the instructions of the disabled voter. I draw the  attention of Senators to the fact that a number of disabled voters will almost certainly reside in institutions and that in the implementation of this measure, as well as visiting individual voters in their homes, it may well be that groups of voters will apply who are in long stay residence in particular institutions. Without over emphasising the point I think many Senators who have experience of practical politics on the ground will know that those voters can sometimes be inordinately influenced by those who care for them on a daily basis within the institutions. It was felt better that the voters should be allowed cast their votes in the presence of the presiding officer and the Garda rather than in the presence of other people or have other people offer to act as a companion voter on behalf of the disabled person in a long stay residence. That is the reason for the exclusion of those two provisions. It is not inadvertent, it is quite deliberate and it is to deal with particular problems which I have to say have been experienced from time to time and of which I suspect the majority of the Members of the House have personal knowledge.
Three of the four Senators who spoke asked about the commencement date for this measure. The intention is to have this system brought into operation in time for it to coincide with the introduction of the register of electors in 1987-88 which would be 15 April 1987. I have noted the views expressed by almost all of the Senators who spoke regarding their desire to see this measure introduced immediately on the enactment of the legislation. I would like to give those suggestions some thought to see whether it might be possible to accommodate them. There would be major administrative difficulty obviously in trying to introduce a system like this separately from the general compilation of the register of electors which process of course is taking place in the normal way now in preparation for the introduction of the register of 1987-88. If, however, in view of the views expressed by Senators it were found possible to introduce a system on the enactment of this legislation I would be quite favourably disposed towards that idea. I would need some time  to examine the legislation to see whether in order to provide for that, if it is administratively possible, there would need to be an amendment put forward to the House on Committee Stage.
Senator O'Toole asked about the situation regarding disabled voters who may live on islands. In that connection it would be a matter for the appropriate returning officer to ensure that arrangements were made to see that the papers were got to those voters in good time, bearing in mind the possibility of inclement weather conditions. I have every confidence that once this system comes into operation the returning officer will recognise where there may be particular difficulties in visiting the homes of disabled voters living in isolated areas or on islands. I hope they will be able to provide accordingly.
In relation to the medical certificate required, the medical certificate will I expect in virtually all cases be that of a general practitioner but the Bill provides for a certificate to be signed by any medical doctor. In the main I would anticipate that the certificates would be signed by general practitioners.
Deputy McMahon asked for clarification regarding disabled persons who are not on the special voters' list either through their own choice or perhaps because at the time of suffering their disablement the special voters' list in force had been compiled. There is provision in section 14 where a disabled person who is not on the special voters' list and who will not have the machinery we have just been discussing apply to them to cast their vote. There is provision for a person in that category if they have difficulty in casting their vote in their local polling station because of difficulty of access, to apply after an election has been called but within not less than seven days before polling day to the returning officer to have their vote transferred to another polling station in that constituency where there is better provision or special provision of access made for the disabled. I think that is a provision which will be availed of widely. I hope it will help people who either are not on the special voters' list or, who for  one reason or another, do not choose to have their names entered on that list.
Senator Ross suggested as an alternative to the system outlined, the possibility of having the ballot paper sent to the voter by registered post. I hope that in the few small examples or vignettes I outlined to the House, he will realise that while the use of registered post might to some extent reduce the possibility for abuse, bearing in mind our considerable ingenuity it would leave open — widespread possibilities.
Senator McMahon raised three other points. One was a suggestion that people other than civil servants or diplomats posted abroad, but who are natives of or normally resident in this country should be afforded the opportunity of voting in the same way as those civil servants. This point was given considerable attention by the Government and it was not found possible to introduce a system which safeguarded against abuse. It might be argued perhaps that people working in the public service generally who are posted abroad might have the same provision extended to them and then it might equally be argued that people working on behalf of private sector interests abroad might have the franchise extended to them. It is very difficult then to resist the temptation that people on long-stay holidays abroad should have the franchise extended to them. Once the door is opened, the further groups who would come onto the horizon are virtually endless.
While there are relatively wide postal voting provisions in some other countries, it is also interesting to note, for example, that in both France and Belgium the entire postal voting system was abolished ten years ago because of the difficulties of abuse and the difficulties of policing it. I am afraid that were we to pursue the course as suggested by the Senator, we would eventually have so many groups claiming eligibility that there would be a very wide and uncontrollable postal voting system fraught with all of the difficulties of abuse which I have earlier referred to.
The final two points do not relate specifically to the provisions of this Bill but  rather to the electoral law generally. I refer to the difficulties experienced by some existing voters who find themselves through some error omitted from a subsequent register. There is also the point that the time of publication of the draft register, during which people may inspect the register and make an appeal if their name has been omitted or wrongly entered, is unsuitable running as it does from approximately this time until early in the New Year. Both of those matters have been receiving attention. I accept that the period is a particularly difficult one and was adverted to by the working party some time ago. I am examining the electoral law generally and I hope to be in a position to come back to the Oireachtas shortly with a proposed amending Bill relating to various aspects of the electoral law which will deal with this matter among others. It would make specific provision also for persons who have previously been registered on the electoral register and who have not changed their address but through some clerical or administrative error find themselves omitted from the register to be able to claim their entitlement within a reasonable period prior to an election.
I suspect that that electoral Bill when I bring it before the Houses will be the subject of lengthy debate. There are many matters which are introduced by Ministers in the Oireachtas on which a number of the members in each House would see themselves as having particular special or expert qualifications. There are very few measures which are introduced where in one House 60 of the Members and in the other 166 all know they are the acknowledged experts on the topic. I imagine that a further Bill will receive very close and detailed scrutiny from the Senators and Members of the other House when I introduce it, hopefully some time early in the New Year.
I conclude by thanking Senators for the general welcome they have given to the provision. I hope they understand the practical difficulties on the ground which we have encountered and which have brought us to the realisation that the system providing for voting for the disabled has to be of necessity one which contains as  many safeguards as possible within it, as does the system which is outlined in the Bill now before the House. Again, I will give consideration as to whether it is possible to introduce the commencement of this provision immediately following the enactment of the Bill and, if so, whether that might necessitate the introduction of an amendment on Committee Stage.
Question put and agreed to.
An Cathaoirleach An Cathaoirleach
An Cathaoirleach: When is it proposed to take Committee Stage?
Professor Dooge Professor Dooge
Professor Dooge: It is proposed to order Committee Stage for Tuesday, 9 December, and to take it as the first item on that day. I might state that I do not intend, formally or informally, either inside or outside this House to make the slightest attempt to limit contributions on Committee Stage. Any understanding today in regard to the dispatch of Second Stage was on the understanding that this was a Bill on which the more substantial and important points could, with more advantage, be taken on Committee Stage.
Committee Stage ordered for Tuesday, 9 December 1986.
Seanad Éireann 115 Electoral (Special Voters) Bill, 1986: Second Stage.