By Christopher Walsh.
With similar legal systems and a wide degree of cultural intelligibility, the UK can look to Ireland for efforts in reforming remote-based voting. In an era of unforeseeable disruption in the polling industry, it is necessary to reinvigorate the minds of the electorate and provide a platform for the contemporary e-voter. This will provide for the hurried, time-conscious, voter who hopes that their voice will be heard yet may be restricted from being in a specific location on a certain date.
It is easier said than done, and we must keep in mind the psychological associations perceived by some as symbolically casting a vote – the prospect of creating an entirely new platform for a fundamental part of democratic life may encounter resistance.
With a focus on Ireland, where simple presentation of a polling card results in access to the booth, it is now foreseeable that electronic means of voter engagement may not only be viable, but in some cases safer.
We live in the age of the e-signature, the online application form and the remote viewing of exam and healthcare results.
These core facets of life have successfully transitioned to such networks and with a steadfast and verifiable framework in place, remote voting needs could easily be incorporated.
Political alliances have rapidly changed of late; and the enhancement of online voting facilities will engage the modern voter, whether their electoral displeasure is a result of youth, distance or a loss of appetite for public representatives.
For these frameworks to succeed, this transition will require initial interaction with the prior physical structures in place with the current system. This can be achieved with the provision of postal feasibility studies encouraging adoption of these electronic means, or for information to be provided at centres of local government, and, in the case of the widely dispersed voter the closest diplomatic mission.
This has been most evident in proposed expansion of the Irish presidential vote to citizens abroad, and in Northern Ireland. Whilst we have been made aware in the early part of 2017, it is unlikely that such alterations will take place until 2025.
This change in policy aims to effectively a capture the Irish expatriate vote, regardless of international location – giving due weight to citizens to choose the country’s leading ambassador.
The electorate of both Ireland and the UK have, in recent years, indicated their desire for change; with growing efforts to alter the status quo.
Therefore more expansive elements of engagement are necessary, yet the Presidential option still displays reticence and there are, as of yet no intentions to extend this to General Election.
This will bring widely dispersed citizens within the remit of critical moments of national importance. Whilst some will object to non-residents being given a voice, such methods can also provide crucial engagement with diaspora who represent Ireland abroad and wish to retain their cultural and political connections.
Distance-based voting is not a new concept in Ireland; with a wide, yet remote constituency of eligible voters forming the electorate for Ireland’s upper house, An Seanad (The Senate).
The Irish Senate is noteworthy for its diverse range of voting panels, extending from national parties to alumni of a limited number of universities. The University panel, in particular has benefited from the use of the postal voting system – thus State endorsement of distance voting has already taken place in Ireland and would not be a foreign concept in the proposed reforms to the Presidential vote.
In order to appoint Senators to Ireland’s upper house the electorate is divided amongst Technical Groups, Political Parties and graduates of two sets of Universities (The University of Dublin and the National University of Ireland), interestingly given the adjudicative role undertaken by the Senate this particular form of appointment to the house remains relatively unsupervised.
The criteria for this postal vote is clear, to be a graduate of one of the aforementioned universities and secondly apply to join the register. The ballot papers are then sent at the time of election and votes are completed by returning through Ireland’s national posting system.
The future viability of the Senate itself was threatened in 2014 and its supervisory efforts are often detached from the ordinary lives of Irish people, and it is in this scenario where the problems of distance voting lie.
Yet there are many ways in a secure and encrypted form of distance (online) voting may be of merit whether it applies to overseas constituencies of national parliaments to decision-making in international bodies – here we can wait in anticipation for a universally-recognised effort of endorsement; until then it may be a system in a state of flux.
Christopher Walsh has a diverse background in Law, Management Theory and Children’s Rights. He has a professional background at The Hague, in Westminster, and a niche law & policy clinic.