Monday, May 21, 2007

Election Day

This coming Thursday, May 24th, we have Ireland's greatest blood sport - a General Election.

As most of you know, here we have what is technically known as Proportional Representation by the Single Transferable Vote (PR/STV). I have heard the system criticised mainly because it increases the possibility of "unstable" coalition governments; the last time a party got a majority in the Dail was 1977.

You get your ballot paper, and mark in your first preference candidate. But you can continue to vote for other candidates by writing in numbers 2, 3, 4, etc, against their name. The transfers come in two possible ways; first, when a candidate exceeds the quota and is elected, the surplus of votes (difference between quota and votes received) are then distributed. The second way is by elimination: the candidate with the lowest votes is eliminated, and the votes distributed by second preference, and so on. This process continues until all the seats are filled.

It is possible to be elected without reaching the quota, because after successive candidates are eliminated, there might be only one remaining. Some voters will only vote for one candidate, so these votes are described as "non-transferable".

The whole system is in contrast to what they have in the UK for Parliament, the "first past the post system", where you can be elected with considerably less than half of the vote, especially if there are a lot of candidates.

Here, it results in what some regard as a fairer representation for smaller parties, and prevents the larger parties, especially Fianna Fail, from monopolising power. In the past, Fianna Fail in government has put forward to the people two referenda to amend the constitution to abolish the PR/STV system, and both times the people said No.

Apart from voting, my closest democratic experience has been two days as Poll Clerk, both over ten years ago. For the first experience, at a General Election, I was "between jobs" at the time, and following a tip-off, I went to the City Sheriff's office and told them there that I was available for election work. A couple of weeks later I got a letter appointing me as Poll Clerk at a polling station in Dublin, which was not far from home. Frankly, I was hoping to be counting the votes, which I suspected was more fun!

Polling stations in Ireland are generally the local schools, as this one was. We were in the constituency of Dublin Central in what would be regarded as a staunchly working-class - and socially-deprived - area of Dublin.

Each voting station in Dublin has different desks; each desk is assigned to certain streets, and depending on where you live, you go to that Polling Station, and find the desk assigned for your street/road. Each desk has a Presiding Officer and a Poll Clerk. They check your name on the register, (they may possibly ask you for i.d.) give you your ballot paper, and point to the ballot box into which you place your votes. There is a different box for different desks.
Each Polling Station also has a Supervisor - and a Garda on duty!

Sometimes, the desk may also have who is known as a Personation Agent. This is a representative of one of the political parties. When a potential voter comes in, they may ask the Presiding Officer and Poll Clerk to insist and ask the potential voter for i.d.

When I first did Poll Clerk, the Presiding Officer was a girl who worked in Dublin Corporation; and we had a Personation Agent, a lady whose husband was a Fianna Fail worker; she admitted to us that she really didn't have a clue what she was doing.

As I said, each desk has its own Electoral Register for that desk. When the voter arrives, the Poll Clerk or Presiding Officer gets a pencil and draws a line to cross out the name of the voter, thus preventing them from voting twice! What is significant here is that although voting is secret, and nobody knows what way you yourself voted, the candidates and the candidates' agents are entitled to see this document, so they know who turned out to vote, and who didn't!

In my time, the station was open from 0900 to 2100. Next Thursday, stations will be open from 0730 to 2230. In order to encourage higher turnouts, the hours have steadily been increased. Incidentally, today, voting actually took place on Co. Donegal's offshore islands.

So I had a twelve-hour workday. Being prepared, I had brought some food with me. You can't leave the station. Obviously, toilet facilities are in the building!

We were told to get there well before 0900 to set things up. Now the little wooden booths, to allow you to write up your ballot paper in privacy, were already there. We put up some official notices, left out pencils in the booths, etc. The equipment each table has was something I wasn't expecting: as well as the ballot papers, there was lots of string, wax, a box of matches, a waxing seal, and a small Bible. At the end of day, the ballot box is closed, the lid tied up with string, and the wax poured onto the string and sealed! Then the boxes are taken to overnight storage before counting begins next morning.

We never needed the Bible; I believe it is for use when someone comes in who cannot vote by themselves, such as someone blind, or possibly disabled with no use of hands. The Bible is used for a third-party, possibly the Garda, to declare publicly that they will fill in the ballot paper on behalf of the voter in accordance with the voter's wishes.

Our day went gradually and slowly; the lady Personation Agent left around lunchtime, and was replaced for a couple of hours by a young man. I never forgot one piece of advice he gave us; it related to our voting register. Our area included a nursing home run by nuns, and the register included the elderly residents, about fifty people. He told us that if anyone came and claimed to be one of the people on that part of the list, he told us to definitely ask them for i.d. All day, none of these residents came to vote.

The turnout at our table was about 50%, which would have been expected considering the area and the state of the country at the time. People in poorer areas tend to have a lower interest in politics, and a lower confidence in politicians.

And a high point of the day was getting to shake hands with the one and only Bertie Ahern!! Note that he was not Taoiseach at the time, so I have never shaken hands with a Taoiseach!!

I had one more day as a Poll Clerk; not too long after that General Election, there was a European Parliament Election. This time the City Sheriff made the first move and sent me a letter; I didn't have to go to his office! I was appointed Poll Clerk in another school in another constituency, but fortunately within walking distance of home. By coincidence, there was a by-election for the Dail in this constituency as well, and I remember we got to shake hands with two of the candidates.

And on both occasions, a couple of weeks afterwards, a cheque arrived from the City Sheriff. I can't remember how much, but on both occasions it was less than £100 in old money.

For 2007, I am in gainful employment, so there is no need to make a trip to the City Sheriff's office. But whereas 0900 to 2100 was manageable, I don't really fancy being there from 0730 to 2230.