Referendum Commission calls for more notice for referenda

Referendum Commission calls for more notice for referenda

The Referendum Commission started printing its guide to last year’s blasphemy referendum a week before the Government had announced the polling day - because it feared it would not have enough time to produce the leaflets due to the delay in declaring the date.

It has admitted that a late change of heart on the Government’s part could have rendered its information guides “unusable” but that it took a “pragmatic decision” to print early.

The incident has led to the Commission calling for more notice for referenda to “ensure Commissions have sufficient time to do their work properly".

The Commission, which is the independent body tasked with explaining referendums to the public revealed its predicament in its Report on the referendum on blasphemy, which was held on October 26 last year to coincide with the Presidential Election.

The Bill in relation to the blasphemy referendum was passed by the Oireachtas on September 20, a little over a month out from the poll, and the next day Local Government Minister Eoghan Murphy made the order to set polling day for October 26.

“However, in order to ensure the information guide was printed in time for distribution to every household prior to polling day, it was necessary to commence printing on 14 September,” the Commission said in its report.

“The Commission took the pragmatic decision to begin the print run on September 14, even though there was a possibility that the date or proposal would change prior to the bill being passed by the Oireachtas, thus rendering the information guide unusable,” the report said.

In her foreword to the report, Commission Chairperson Ms Justice Isobel Kennedy said uncertainty as to whether a referendum would also be held on the Constitutional provision concerning women in the home was also unhelpful:

The time available to the Commission to finalise the detail of its public information campaign was restricted because of the wait for a decision on whether a referendum on the Constitutional provision concerning women in the home would be held on the same date as the referendum on blasphemy.

“The late stage at which the date of polling was confirmed provided a further challenge to the Commission’s need to finalise and have printed accurate information.

"Earlier certainty as to the detailed subject matter of a referendum or referendums and the date on which they are to be held is recommended to give a longer lead time to future Commissions,” she said.

“This would ensure Commissions have sufficient time to do their work properly, and particularly to prepare and distribute an information guide,” the report read.

The Commission’s report also noted how, at 43.8%, voter turnout was “considerably lower than for the referendum on the regulation of termination of pregnancy held earlier in 2018, which had 64.1% turnout”.

That referendum which led to the repeal of the Eighth Amendment had the highest turnout since the first statutory Referendum Commission was established in 1998.

The Commission said: “The low turnout on this occasion partly reflects the relatively low level of public debate about the blasphemy referendum proposal.

"Turnout would undoubtedly have been lower still had the Presidential election not taken place on the same day.”

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