State Papers 1986: Widespread abuse of postal voting system in 1985 local elections

The Cabinet was divided over the merits of allowing postal voting after reports of widespread abuse of the system during the 1985 local elections.

State Papers 1986: Widespread abuse of postal voting system in 1985 local elections

The Minister for the Environment, John Boland, recommended in September 1986 that draft legislation to introduce postal voting on health and occupations grounds should not be proceeded with.

Mr Boland told other ministers he had grave reservation about the measure as there had been was serious organised abuse in a number of areas during the previous year’s local elections.

He claimed the worst reported incident occurred in Donegal where only 635 out of 3,325 applications for a postal vote were accepted.

Mr Boland said the abuse took place at every stage of the process, despite various in-built safeguards to make postal voting as secure as possible. Applicants’ signatures, medical certificates and signature of peace commissioners were forged, said Mr Boland.

Medical certificates were signed without the patient being examined or even known by the doctor, he added. Mr Boland said there was also evidence of undue pressure being exerted on individuals to apply for a postal vote and then being further pressurised to vote in a particular way.

He had also received reports of a few post office workers interfering with postal votes.

Mr Boland said the experience of the 1985 local elections showed that it was not possible to devise a postal voting system that ensure the security of the vote and the ballot paper and at the same time provide an accessible service to those who needed it.

“Under our voting system the destiny of seats at Dáil elections is frequently decided by a mere handful of votes. Organised abuse of postal voting in key marginal constituencies could have a significant effect,” he observed.

Instead, Mr Boland proposed that the Government should consider approving a system where the physically disabled would register as special voters.

He proposed they would have ballot papers delivered to where they lived by a special presiding officer accompanied by a garda sergeant. He estimated the cost of such a scheme as £150,000 per election.

Mr Boland also expressed reservations about proposals contained in a draft Postal Voting Bill to allow state and semi-state employees living abroad and their families to have a postal vote.

The minister said it would be difficult where to draw the line on who would be eligible, as well as the fact that any abuse would “effectively be out of reach of our courts”.

State papers show the Minister for Justice, Alan Dukes, opposed any garda involvement on grounds of principle, policy and manpower, while the minister for finance, John Bruton, objected to the scheme on cost grounds.

Mr Boland responded that Garda involvement was an essential part of the scheme. He agreed with Mr Dukes that the scheme was costly and cumbersome.

Minister for health, Barry Desmond, favoured the arrangements to assist people with disabilities to vote at elections while Minister for foreign affairs, Peter Barry, was supportive of the measure to extend postal voting to civil servants posted abroad and their families.

Mr Barry said he believed that the disenfranchisement of such individuals was unjust, discriminatory and “almost certainly unconstitutional”.

Currently, people with a physical illness or disability as well as full-time students living away from home may be entitled to a postal vote.

It also applies to prisoners as well as anyone unable to vote at a polling station because of their occupation.

Irish diplomats and their partners, gardaí and full-time members of the Defence Forces are also entitled to apply for a postal vote.

There is also a special voters list which is open to people living in hospitals, nursing homes and similar institutions.

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