Damned with faint support

Underwhelming voter turnout needs to be addressed, says Juno McEnroe

THE independent referendum commission will meet tomorrow to discuss not only its own recent information campaign but the methods used by others, including the Government, in recent weeks.

Previous no votes have resulted in government departments commissioning their own research into why voters reject an amendment. This occurred following the rejection of Lisbon, as well as last year’s Oireachtas inquiries poll.

It now looks like the only research that may shed light on the low turnout in the children’s rights referendum over the weekend will be conducted by the commission.

But clearly there are questions to be asked as to why this was the third lowest turnout ever for a referendum and why the no campaign gained such support — 42% — given its limited campaign.

A spokeswoman for Children’s Minister Frances Fitzgerald yesterday said her department had no plans for any independent research.

Last year’s Oireachtas inquiries referendum saw Red C and a number of academics conduct research for the Government. This found that two reasons why people voted no were that the yes campaign was poor and that some voted no for reasons unrelated to the referendum itself.

Similarly, the referendum commission’s report found information guides circulated by the commission were complicated or unhelpful for voters. The report recommended that “it may be appropriate to further simplify the guide in an almost Ladybird-like guide to the referendums” for future votes.

According to reports this week, the commission’s latest report, on May’s fiscal treaty vote, will find that the Government’s own information booklets confused voters.

It is understood this report, which has been with the Department of the Environment since September but has not yet been presented to Cabinet, will be critical of the booklet, which was released after the referendum.

Clearly, a number of reports have found fault with information guides and the methods used to inform voters before referendums.

Some ministers blamed the 33.49% turnout on the fact that the poll was held on a Saturday.

But this overlooks the level of understanding voters had on the day, as well as their level of interest.

Theresa Reidy, a political scientist in UCC, said more research will be needed, especially with several referendums, including the vote on abolishing the Seanad, coming up.

“This is a campaign that really didn’t get off the ground at all,” said Dr Reidy. “There was very little coverage on the national airwaves and it was almost entirely ignored by local newspapers and local radio.

“Some of them [voters] won’t have known there was a referendum on. For some others, it would have been difficult to get information and they wouldn’t have been fully informed about the issues at play. In those circumstances, that makes it much more likely for them to stay at home.”

The expectance of an easy victory for the yes side would also have affected turnout, said Dr Reidy, one of three academics who examined why people voted no in the Oireachtas inquiries referendum for a Department of Public Expenditure report released in February.

“We’re in the middle of a series of referendums at this point in time so it’s important in relation to the information campaign that we really get to heart of the issue about how we can best inform the public and provide information in an accessible and useful way,” said Dr Reidy.

She said it was important to find out how far voters were informed, where they received that information, and how it was used.

“We can send out lots of information, but the research that we did last time did suggest that a lot of voters didn’t find the information they got terribly useful.”

International models of informing voters should be examined, said Dr Reidy. The Government could also empower the referendum commission to provide funds for both the yes and no sides. At present, many of these groups must self-finance their campaigns.

In the meantime, the referendum commission will this week finalise what market research it will carry out on the children’s rights referendum, as well as how to examine the types of information both sides provided and the methods they used.

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