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As ballot papers expand, is it time to reassess political nomination process?

As ballot papers expand to the size of phonebooks, is it now time to reassess the political nomination process?

With just 60 signatures and €1,800 anyone can compete for a seat in the European Parliament - a position which carries huge responsibility in shaping EU-wide policy.

Those who are elected to Europe in the coming days will represent 1.3m voters in the Ireland South constituency, 1.2m citizens in Midlands North-West and 900,000 people in Dublin.

It begs the question, can democracy sometimes be too democratic?

When you go to vote tomorrow, don't forget to bring your reading glasses and maybe a fold-out chair as you may be there for quite some time.

As well as ballots on the divorce referendum, the local elections and, in some cases, a directly elected mayor, voters will be greeted with an EU parliament ballot paper as long as their arm.

All in all, a total of 59 people put themselves forward for 13 seats in the three constituencies across the country, necessitating the extended ballot papers.

In Ireland South, the paper will be more than two feet long to include the names of all 23 candidates and will need to be folded four to six times to fit in the ballot box.

Some have pointed out that the threshold to stand for Europe is simply too low, but even broaching how it might be changed is extremely controversial.

Rory Costello, a lecturer in politics in the University of Limerick, believes the 60-signature threshold is "fairly paltry" suggesting that it should be examined as he said a significant number of candidates are simply using the elections as a platform to raise local and regional issues.

He said:

Increasing the number of signatures is something that should be looked at to disincentivise it alright, I wouldn't be in favour of raising the financial contribution, which would be problematic. Increasing the deposit would be one way to disincentivise it but you don't want to skew it so that only the wealthy can stand for election which would not be desirable.

Dr Theresa Reidy, a political scientist in the Department of Government at University College Cork, said: "In general in Ireland we have relatively unrestricted access to the ballot, so the threshold for getting nominated is very modest."

Dr Reidy pointed out that many candidates are well aware that they have little or no hope of being elected but use the campaign as a platform either to raise single issues or to further their prospects in another election, be that a local or general.

Some of our EU candidates this time are also standing in local elections being held today.

But she highlighted the importance of an open political system.

The European Parliament is an important forum for political debate and decision-making at EU level - it is not some local horse-trading forum where regional or even national issues can be thrashed out. That is why we have the Dáil, Seanad and local councils.

While MEPs represent the people of their constituency, they do so with regard to EU law-making and make sure other EU institutions are working democratically.

But a significant number of candidates cite domestic issues among their key selling points.

They run on a wide variety of platforms ranging from banning wifi in schools to the setting up of community banks in Ireland, to highlighting the failings in the HSE. Candidates are pro-life activists, anti-eviction campaigners, rural Ireland advocates and homemakers.

While each of the political parties put forward their own candidates, many others who appear on the ballot papers today have never been elected to any office, whether at local, national or EU level. Others have almost no presence online - no official websites or Twitter pages.

Mr Costello said:

I have been to some events, hustings and that, with some of the candidates and it has to be said not all of them have a very thorough understanding of the role of an MEP involves, so you would wonder are they standing in the right election, would they be better off standing in a national or local election when they are fighting on purely local issues, not even constituency-wide issues?

He added: "It can be confusing for voters when you are seeing a lot of faces that you don't necessarily recognise when you go to cast your ballot."

When asked about the current system this week, Fianna Fáil leader, Micheál Martin, said everyone should have a right to stand, but questioned whether all candidates should have a right to airtime on television and radio.

"I must say I am a purist and a fundamentalist in terms of democracy, I think people if they want to go forward should be allowed go forward. I think, however, in terms of debates there possibly should be some threshold in terms of the support base of political parties that would govern one type of debate, others could participate in another debate. When you have up to 10 candidates it's extremely hard to manage."

Dr Reidy also made the point that EU elections are invaluable to smaller parties, such as the Green Party, Labour or the Solidarity-PBP group use the election to "retain contact with supporters" and to keep their political message in the media.

However, she added that participation in politics and the level of engagement among the general public with the political system is a concern and upping thresholds could impact this further.

Weighing the right to put yourself forward for office against the necessity to have some public backing is almost impossible.

Democracy should always be protected and those who wish to represent and fight on behalf of the citizens of their constituency should have a means of doing so.

We are unique in Ireland in the number of Independents we have representing us at both local and national level. These Independent candidates, who often offer a fresh, different but representative view, should never be prevented from standing for public office.

But is a threshold of 60 signatures - which gives candidates access to a national media platform - adequate?

If you put it into context, many couples can easily find a couple of hundred guests to invite to their wedding, indeed many Irish people would have more than 60 first cousins and anyone who plays on the local GAA team or is a member of a golf club would have no issues rustling up 60 signatures.

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