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Bill to modernise electoral system published
Pic: RollingNews.ie

31 Mar 2022 / legislation Print

Bill to modernise electoral system published

The Government has published a bill that provides for a new statutory, independent Electoral Commission, and includes plans to regulate online political advertising.

It also aims to simplify the registration process for voters, and provide “enhanced public education and information” on the holding of elections and referendums.

Under the Electoral Reform Bill 2022, an Electoral Commission would be set up as an independent, specialist body, with a broad remit to oversee the electoral system.

The bill allows the new body to assume a number of functions immediately – including the work of:

  • The Referendum Commission,
  • The Registrar of Political Parties,
  • The Constituency Commission, and
  • Local Electoral Area Boundary Committees.

The commission will take on the decision-making, oversight, secretariat and supporting services associated with explaining what people are being asked to vote on in referendums. It will replace the existing model of establishing a separate Referendum Commission every time a referendum is held.

The body is also being handed a new policy-research function, allowing it to advise the Government on electoral issues. It will oversee the Electoral Register, and review the conduct of future electoral events.

Electoral register

The bill aims to modernise the electoral registration process, by providing for rolling, or continuous registration, which the Government says will standardise and simplify the process.

Transparent data-sharing, and the use of PPSNs, will enable data checks aimed at protecting and improving the integrity of the register.

The Department of Housing, Local Government and Heritage says that the new system will enable online applications “in most circumstances”.

Local authorities will retain their existing responsibilities for maintaining and updating the register, but the bill provides for a single registration authority to manage a shared database for all local authorities to use in their registration duties.

A number of additional features are being included to support greater participation:

  • The facilitation of anonymous registration for persons whose safety may be at risk if their names are published in the register,
  • Provisions to enable pre-registration for 16- and 17-year-olds,
  • Arrangements for those with no fixed address,
  • Better and more flexible options for people who – because of mental-health difficulties – are not able to attend polling stations to vote.

Online political advertising

The department says that Ireland will be among the first countries in Europe to provide for the regulation of online political advertising.

The bill’s provisions are designed to ensure that such advertisements are clearly labelled, and are accompanied by transparency notices clearly identifying the sponsor of the advertisements, their associated costs, and why the recipients of such advertising are being targeted.

"The bill will place an obligation on online platforms to determine if advertisements fall under the scope of the legislation and, for the purposes of transparency, to identify and verify the information and documentation provided by the buyers of the advertisements,” the department adds.

Minister for Housing Darragh O’Brien has also asked the attorney general to prepare proposals on protecting the electoral process from disinformation, for inclusion in the bill.

He added that this could include giving the Electoral Commission “an appropriate function” in this area.

ICCL critical

The Irish Council for Civil Liberties (ICCL) welcomed what it called “positive measures” in the bill, but added that the Government had missed an opportunity to fix an anomaly in Irish law that means community groups or volunteer organisations could be prosecuted for normal fund-raising work.

“We are in the bizarre situation where a community group set up to oppose, for example, the building of an oil refinery, could find themselves brought to court for seeking donations above a certain amount, but the company building the refinery can spend as much as it wants to influence the Government,” said ICCL Executive Director Liam Herrick.

The body accused the Government of ignoring a recommendation from the Oireachtas Committee on Housing, Heritage and Local Government that the issue be addressed as part of the pre-legislative scrutiny process in August 2021.

Gazette Desk
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