An independent Electoral Commission for Ireland – A step forward for democracy

Michela Palese, former Research and Policy Officer

Posted on the 12th January 2021

While in the UK the government has recently threatened our independent elections watchdog with abolition if it cannot be ‘radically overhauled’, across the sea, the Irish government has recently set out plans for establishing an Electoral Commission for the first time.

Currently, despite long-standing calls (including by the Irish Convention on the Constitution), Ireland does not have an independent electoral commission to oversee elections and referendums, with these responsibilities being undertaken by a network of assorted commissions, government departments, and parts of the Oireachtas (the Irish parliament). Following the 2020 election, the coalition’s Programme for Government included a commitment to establish an electoral commission by the end of 2021.

Last week, ministers published the General Scheme of the Electoral Reform Bill. This includes, among other things, the establishment of a statutory, independent Electoral Commission, the modernisation of electoral registration, and the regulation of online political advertising. The scheme will be submitted to an Oireachtas Joint Committee for pre-legislative scrutiny, after which a bill will be drafted.

What will the Irish Electoral Commission do?

The proposed Commission will be independent of government and report directly to the Oireachtas. It will be composed of between seven and nine members, including a chairperson. The Commission will have a broad range of responsibilities. It will absorb the functions currently carried out by the Referendum Commissions (temporary bodies, created in advance of a referendum, which have existed since 1995 to provide impartial information on Irish constitutional referendums), the Constituency Commissions (which are similar to the UK’s Boundary Commissions and advise on redrawing constituency boundaries), and Local Electoral Area Boundary Committees. It will also oversee the electoral register and register political parties.

The Commission will have new public information, research and advisory functions in relation to electoral matters, which will see the Commission responsible for voter education, encouraging voters to turn out, and for advising the government and parliament about reform of electoral law.

Most interestingly, the Irish Electoral Commission will be responsible for regulating online political advertising during election periods, with paid-for political ads being required to be clearly labelled as such. The general scheme of the bill sets out that online political adverts must include a clearly visible ‘button, icon, tab, or hyperlink with the text “Political Advert”’, linking to a page clearly displaying a ‘transparency notice’ of key information.

The notice must make clear who paid for the ad; whether it was micro-targeted and, if so, which criteria were used; whether a lookalike target audience was used; the total cost of the ad (including content creation and online placement, display and promotion); the number of days the ad ran; and the number of impressions the ad is intended to reach and the number of engagements by user. The information in the transparency notice is to be displayed in real time by the platform and, upon expiration of the ad, shall be transferred to an online archive or library, which is to be maintained for at least seven years to as a resource for ‘academia, the media, political parties and other interested parties between electoral periods.’

Lessons from Ireland

The new Electoral Commission for Ireland, and the general scheme of the Electoral Reform Bill, represent an ambitious proposal to modernise, simplify and consolidate electoral law in the country – something we’ve long called for in the UK as well. In addition to the creation of an independent elections watchdog, the general scheme also contains other important areas of modernisation. The registration process will be simplified, with an online registration option and a rolling (continuously updated) register. The general scheme also proposes to move to a single, national electoral register and to introduce provisional registration for 16- and 17-year olds. It also includes amendments to electoral law to facilitate holding electoral events if restrictions need to be put in place because of covid-19.

Though it is still very early days, the functions currently granted to the Commission in the general scheme of the bill, which are just a starting point and likely to be expanded in the future, represent an acknowledgement of the opportunities and challenges facing many democracies – including the rise of completely unregulated, year-round online political campaigning and the importance of ensuring there is high-quality information available to voters on elections and referendums. The Irish Referendum Commissions have been a major step forward in improving the quality of (impartial) information in constitutional referendums, though they have at times been criticised for interpreting their remit too narrowly and providing information in an overly dry or legalistic manner (which, of course, is in part due to the need to provide impartial and accurate information during a campaign) – the new Electoral Commission should ensure that it is bold and engaging in how it approaches voter information, raises awareness and promotes turnout.

Not only will the Irish Electoral Commission be tasked from the outset with regulating online political ads (something which the UK government has yet to take concrete action on), but it will perform an important educational, research and advisory role for government, parliament and the public – this, in particular, is an aspect which remains underappreciated in the UK context (the Electoral Commission’s initial and more explicit educational role was scrapped a decade ago), with the Commission’s post-election research and public opinion surveys providing valuable information on how our democracy is functioning and is perceived.

And there’s even more the UK could adopt from the recent Irish proposals – not least the importance of ensuring that so-called ‘attainers’ (16- and 17-year olds for elections with franchise at 18) are registered to vote. At the end of last year, we saw how a Lords amendment to the Parliamentary Constituencies Bill 2019-2020, which would’ve made some mild improvements in improving registration rates among attainers, was overturned by the government.

Though it has taken Ireland many years to set out concrete proposals for an Electoral Commission, the general scheme of the bill is a major step forward for Irish democracy – the UK should take note.

Image: Flickr, William Murphy CC

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