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What the election observers said about us April 10, 2011

Posted by Tomboktu in Irish Election 2007, Irish Politics.

Our media reports regularly enough on the findings of international election observers in places like Belarus, Moldova, or Sudan. However, I cannot find any Irish media report on the international observers’ assessment of last February’s general election in Ireland. It was a light-touch mission, consisting of three officials from the OSCE’s Office for Democratic Institutions and Human Rights (OSCE/ODIHR) who conducted a “Needs Assessment Mission” (NAM) between 7 and 10 February. Although the NAM identified shortcomings with the electoral process in Ireland, they concluded:

There is also a very high level of confidence of all stakeholders in the electoral process and the election administration. Based on the above and due to the short timeframe before the upcoming elections, the OSCE/ODIHR NAM does not recommend deploying an election-related activity for the 25 February Dáil elections.

[The reference to ‘the above’ includes some points I have not quoted — Tombuktu]

The report summarises the political institutions and electoral law, and contains — as standard for all OSCE/ODIHR election observation reports — sections on media coverage of the election, on women’s participation, and on national minorities in the election. (They don’t attempt a summary of the STV.)

The OSCE/ODIHR identifies two key weaknesses in the Irish electoral process: election funding and the quality of the electoral register, both of which had been identified in two OSCE/ODIHR reports on the 2007 general election: a Needs Assessment Mission Report in April 2007, before that year’s general election, and and Election Assessment Mission Report, published in September that year.

There are two problems with election finances. One is the identity of the sources of funding.

OSCE/ODIHR NAM interlocutors expressed particular concern about anonymous donations. Campaign donations under approximately EUR 600 for individuals and EUR 5,000 for corporations can be made anonymously and generally make up the bulk of all donations. In the 2009 European Parliament elections, no party reported any itemized campaign donations and in the 2007 Dáil elections, parties only itemized EUR 1.6 million of the EUR 11 million total in campaign donations. […]The Council of Europe’s Group of States against Corruption (GRECO) issued a report on party and campaign financing in December 2009, which highlights the need for increased transparency measures.

The second problem with election finances is the way in which the limits on spending work. The 2011 report notes simply “The OSCE/ODIHR made specific recommendations to improve the electoral framework in this regard following the 2007 elections, which have not been addressed”. A footnote refers to the following in the 2007 report:

Legal provisions on election spending limits and financial reporting establish an adequate framework for controlling campaign finance during the relatively short campaign period. […] However, practice shows that actual campaign spending begins long before the stipulated period, and some interlocutors expressed the view that spending during the pre-election period rendered limits almost obsolete. Consideration could be given to amending the 1997 Electoral Act, to extend the reporting period, and once the election is called, to undertake a backward review of accounts according to the established reporting timeframe.

And in 2007 they noted:

Originally, the Electoral Act 1997 had required reporting on all the expenditures incurred “at any time before the issue of the writ […] in relation to the election”. However, the Electoral (Amendment) Act 1998 limited the reporting period to that existing now.

On the quality of the electoral register, the OCSE/ODIHR found:

The accuracy of the registers was an issue that was brought up with the OSCE/ODIHR NAM by a number of interlocutors. There is no requirement to deregister in one constituency before registering in another area and it was assumed that there may be a number of double registrations. All expressed confidence, however, that although the registers could benefit from further improvement, their shortcomings would not be used for fraudulent activity, such as multiple voting.

The main problem, the people who spoke to the OSCE felt, would be that figures on the actual turnout would be inaccurately depressed because of double registration. The “all” referred to are those whom the OSCE met to conduct their assessment consisted of

  • 13 civil servants (from the Department of Foreign Affairs, the Department of the Environment, and the Standards in Public Office Commission),
  • two returning officers (the County Dublin Sherrif and the Louth/Meath County Registrar)
  • four party officials (FF, FG, Labour and Green),
  • four people with broadcast roles (three in the Broadcast Authority and one in RTÉ), and
  • six people from “civil society and commentators” (three from the Irish Traveller Movement, two from the Irish Council for Civil Liberties, and one “Noel Whelan, Barrister”).

The extent to which the OSCE’s view reflects their choice of interlocutor is left as an exercise for the reader!

I think two other recommendations are worth mentioning. One is the establishment of a permanent independent election commission or office, to consolidate responsibilities for the conduct of elections, the voter register, and campaign financing into one body. The second is that election law be changed to allow for the presence of international and domestic non-partisan observers.

The latest OCSE/ODIHR NAM report, its 2007 reports, and the Council of Europe’s report on political funding that is cited in the OSCE/ODIHR report provide useful data for anybody interested in the quality of the proposed bills on electoral reform, which the Government’s Chief Whip said on 5 April are expected to be published during the Summer Session.


1. WorldbyStorm - April 10, 2011

Tomboktu, this is a crucially important area in my opinion. For a range of reasons. Firstly that it’s vital that a democracy be self-reflective. What’s working, what isn’t. Secondly that as you note the range of those engaged with is striking, both for good and bad reasons. Thirdly because it’s pointing up serious structural issues, such as inter-election campaign spending which isn’t subject to limits. Having some experience of campaigns, both nominal and concealed – in the sense of before election periods – I think it’s fair to say that the latter are central to improving the prospects for election and/or reelection in a way which simply isn’t considered in sufficient depth.

Anyhow, great stuff and serious food for thought.


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