Andrew Lynch: How government has failed us on getting the Electoral Register right
It's the most important general election this country has seen in decades -- and most of us want to have our say.
As things stand, thousands of potential voters are in for a nasty shock when they go to their polling booths on February 25. Thanks to the scandalous state of our electoral register, people who should be perfectly entitled to vote will be told their names are not on the list -- and with less than a month to go, the Department of the Environment is doing virtually nothing to prevent this recipe for political chaos.
The message is simple.
A new register of electors was published last November and anyone who has even the slightest doubt about their eligibility can go to www.checktheregister.ie and look up their name.
A draft register is also available at all city and council offices, garda stations, libraries and post offices.
If your name isn't on the list, it's still not too late.
There is also a supplementary register, which you can apply to go on any time as long as you submit the form 15 days before the election (excluding Sundays). This form can be downloaded from the same website or obtained from your local authority, but it must be signed in the presence of a garda who can verify your identity.
So why is the Department of the Environment not doing more to get this basic information out there?
A national advertising campaign should be under way by now, targeted at students, immigrants and people who have never cast a ballot before. Instead, the political system expects people to do all the hard work themselves -- an insult to the men and women throughout Irish history who died for our right to vote.
The outgoing government blew over €50m on voting machines, which have been rotting in warehouses ever since.
Only a small fraction of that amount was spent on cleaning up our notoriously unreliable electoral register.
The result is an official list of eligible voters every political canvasser knows is a shambles.
It contains the names of people who died years ago and others who have moved to another constituency, while leaving out people who just happened not to be at home when the council officials called. Civic groups such as the Union of Students in Ireland are running their own registration drives, but their resources are obviously limited and they shouldn't have to do the State's job anyway.
One recent study estimated that the Dublin register could be short by about 80,000 adults. That's enough to change the outcome of an election where the last seat in many constituencies is decided by a handful of votes.
While successive Ministers for the Environment have admitted there's a real problem here, they seem powerless to do anything about it.
The obvious solution is to create a central database based on PPS numbers, which would ensure nobody could be on the register more than once. Other reforms could include holding elections over a whole weekend and giving absentee ballots to people who are on holidays.
Voting fraud is not exactly unknown in this country.
Charlie Haughey's election agent was accused of casting two ballots in one general election, earning the nickname 'Pat O'Connor Pat O'Connor'.
Bertie Ahern has claimed there are houses in his constituency with more than 80 people registered to vote.
In Northern Ireland, Sinn Fein were notorious for stealing thousands of votes from dead people.
While organised voting fraud is obviously a concern, first we have to get the basics right.
A general election should be the perfect opportunity for the Department of the Environment to register people's details. Instead, they seem to be asleep on the job -- which means people are set to be deprived of their most fundamental democratic right.
If you want to make your voice heard in Election 2011, check the new register without delay and make sure your name is on it. It's depressingly obvious by now that the State is not going to give you any help.