Ireland

It is not our job to win the referendum for the government, says election tsar

In the next 20 months, Ireland is to hold every type of vote there is – starting with two referendums in March.

Chief executive of the Electoral Commission Art O’Leary said it is not the role of the new authority to win the referendums in March
Art O’Leary Chief executive of the Electoral Commission Art O’Leary said it is not the role of the new authority to win the referendums in March

The chief executive of Ireland’s new electoral authority has emphasised that it is not its job to win referendums for the government, as Ireland plans to hold every type of poll there is in the next 20 months.

Two referendums are to be held in March on whether the Irish constitution should be changed to provide for a wider concept of family, and on whether to delete a reference to the role and duties of women in the home and replace it with a new article on carers.

Local authority and European Parliament elections are to be held in June and a general election could be called in 2024 – although ministers have emphasised that they want the coalition to run its full term to the spring of 2025.

Added to that is the presidential election in 2025, the Seanad elections and several by-elections, as well as a new vote on a directly elected mayor for Limerick city.

The Electoral Commission, which was established in February 2023 after 30 years of governments suggesting the idea, is to provide information on and encourage people to engage in elections and referendums.

While acknowledging the challenges ahead, including on how to tackle disinformation, chief executive of the Electoral Commission Art O’Leary is not worried about resources.

He hopes to encourage people who are fed up with politicians to use their vote.

“We need to be eye-wateringly ambitious,” he told the PA news agency a day after moving into new offices.

“I like to to look at them (the series of elections) as a glorious opportunity for learning and to collect data.

“We’re kicking off a longitudinal study of electoral events which is to last, I’m projecting, for the next 25 years.

“We don’t know why people don’t vote and we don’t really know what the turnout rate is.

“We need to understand why people vote the way they do, and we need to understand if they have enough information to be able to cast their vote – we have no information on this.”

Once the Bill on the referendum wording passes both houses of the Oireachtas, the commission will formally launch its campaign to explain in layman’s terms what the government is proposing.

The campaign will involve encouraging people to ensure they are on the electoral register, giving information about the referendum wording and then encouraging people to go out to use their vote on the day.

Mr O’Leary said 16-page booklets will be delivered to two million households across the country, at least a week ahead of the plebiscites on Friday March 8.

Although the referendums are being proposed by the government, Mr O’Leary emphasised that the commission was established by the Houses of the Oireachtas.

Mr O’Leary said that it is “politically blind” to political parties and its job is to be “independent and impartial”.

“Our job isn’t to win this referendum for the government. Our job is simply to explain to the people what the referendum is all about, and people can make up their own mind. This is what democracy is all about,” he said.

The Electoral Commission does not yet have the powers to act in relation to online political advertising, disinformation or misinformation in time for the referendums in March, and possibly not in time for the summer elections.

Though those powers are contained in parts four and five of Bill, they have yet to be commenced, Mr O’Leary said.

But other powers the commission has may allow it to act on something that “is not right”.

Asked what would happen if there is incorrect information on a poster, Mr O’Leary said they would not be able to take down the posters as their powers relate to online information only, but they could release a statement to set the record straight.

“We’ll call it out, I think that’s probably as much as we can do,” he said.

Asked whether they would consider setting up a disinformation register, as Australia’s Electoral Commission has, he said: “We may do, it’s certainly an option.

“It is our job to provide trusted information to people and if we’re calling out disinformation and saying ‘what this person is saying, or what these people are saying is simply not correct’, then we may look at putting that on our website in a single place where people can go.”

Art O’Leary during a press conference at the Royal College of Physicians, Dublin, for the Electoral Commission
Ireland’s new constituency boundaries Art O’Leary during a press conference at the Royal College of Physicians, Dublin, for the Electoral Commission (Brian Lawless/PA)

He added: “The challenge for us is speed. During the white-hot heat of an election campaign, we don’t have time to sit back and luxuriate about whether something is misinformation or disinformation or not, because hours or even minutes might be important here. And this is why we need to build an organisation that is flexible enough and responsive enough to be able to manage those challenges.

“The technical challenge is we’ll still be writing the review of the referendum electoral experience during the local and European Parliament one, so the opportunity to learn from one to another won’t be maximised.

“We can’t look at this in isolation, the next two years are going to be extraordinarily busy, we accept that, but we’re building an organisation that’s going to last 100 years.

“People look back at the elections in 1981 and 1982, we had three general elections in 18 months then and the ceiling didn’t fall in – we’ll manage it.”

He added: “I’m not concerned about resources. We have enough people to do what we need to do for the moment, anyway.”

Mr O’Leary, who has a five-year contract in the role, spent seven years as secretary general to the President of Ireland and 20 years in Leinster House in various civil servant roles.

He designed the model for Citizens’ Assemblies and has run three of the six held to date, and advised on the others.

Asked about disillusioned parts of the electorate, he said: “I was at the Citizens’ Assembly on drug use during the summer, and one of the speakers there was a man who worked in an addiction treatment centre treating addicts.

“He said something that profoundly affected my thinking about this whole issue. He said ‘there is no such thing as hard to reach people or hard to reach groups, there are only hard to reach services’.

“So I think that we’ve been looking at this issue from the wrong end of the telescope for a long time – and we might say, ‘How will we get them to come to us?’. That’s not the challenge – we have to be in their communities.

“So we need to be on TikTok. We need to be on social media. We need to be telling the story in a way that appeals to young people and Travellers and immigrants and all of the people who are disillusioned and disengaged.”