Nothing mentioned, nothing gained

The Fiscal Compact – The View from the Count Centre

The Fiscal Compact, arguably one of the most contentious referendums this country has seen in recent times, is finally over. The posters will come down and the campaigners will hush. I returned to my native constituency to vote, and also to work at my constituency’s count centre painstakingly sorting, checking and counting votes from all over my county and the neighbouring one.

Our constituency’s results closely mirrored the national average, with 60% of voters voting in favour and 40% voting against, but I have worked on four referenda counts now, and this one felt different.

Turnout is always recorded as being low, but from my experience working on polling stations, I doubt official figures. The register of electors is not frequently updated, and voters lost to death or emigration stay on the register for years. Many voters turn up who have two voting cards and who are listed twice – if they changed their address, for example, or if a woman changes her name after she married. A perfect example of this is the 2011 general election. A glance over the register at the end of the day suggested approximately 65% turnout for our polling district. Out of curiosity, we took a closer look, and when we had eliminated people whom we knew to be deceased or abroad, real turnout surpassed 90%.

However, turnout for this election was low. Probably not as low as the national figures suggest, but judging from the number of votes we pulled out of the ballot boxes today compared with elections and referenda from the last three years, turnout was very, very low. This is a real issue for Ireland – turnout is always much lower for referenda than for elections. Referendum count days just don’t have the same nervous tension to them – for local and general elections, the place can easily become a pressure cooker, with too many people, too excitable and with nerves that are too much under strain, gathered in the one space where most of the day involves observing the count to make guesses about how the results will turn out, and long periods of waiting. We divorce ourselves slightly in order to enable us to work accurately and efficiently (if you have canvassed for a political party you are not permitted to work in the count centre), but your every move is watched. During a recount at GE2011, two of us were under four hawk-eyed political party representatives, separated by just a wire railing. You can’t help but feel the tension, and you feel both very watched and oddly voyeuristic – at GE2011 it was like being an uninvited guest at five difficult births and twenty-one wakes. But even at this referendum, despite all of the drama and controversy leading up to it, very few party people were there tallying up estimates of the result. The hall, which had been packed for the last few elections, was mostly empty, with just a handful of mostly indifferent tallypeople in attendance. I worked as presiding officer for the presidential election in late 2011, and two referenda were also run on the same day. Many people came to vote for president but handed back the referenda papers.

This trend of indifference and lower turnout for referenda needs to be tackled, because while the results of an election can be temporary, something that gets put into the constitution could stay there forever. The people who handed back the referendum papers did so, overwhelmingly, with the simple question “Sure what does that have to do with me?”

This is the real problem. Our constitutional amendments are shrouded in verbosity, in highly technical terms inaccessible to most voters. Presiding officers at polling stations are given a handbook, and in this handbook there is a paragraph we are to read verbatim if a voter asks for an explanation of a treaty. These paragraphs are also highly technical and utterly inaccessible.

There’s a great risk in ignoring that paragraph when a voter requests an explanation. Arguably, you are violating the terms of your contract, and leaving yourself open to accusations of trying to influence voters. However by playing by the rules you are preventing people from making an informed decision because you are giving people information they cannot understand.

We need to demand more transparency and less jargon. This referendum ultimately failed to explain itself to the general public. When your life is more and more under strain, when there’s no certainty about where your next meal or bill payment can come from, if you’re one of the many families in Ireland who are at breaking point, then you cannot be expected to care about GDP and national economic policy. It just doesn’t matter. What matters is how the treaty will affect you if it is passed and the consistent failure by the yes side to provide this information is why I did, after much thought, vote no.

One of the reasons that it can be so fascinating to work on an election count is that clear patterns can be seen that are lost in the national averages. Boxes came in from the same towns, but although they were geographically close they were politically different. Urban centres voted yes, rural areas voted no. Ballot boxes that came in from council estates and more deprived areas had pitifully few votes in them, but these votes were predominantly nos. This low-income, low turnout pattern is standard course for referenda – even though on this occasion, it is exactly those people who are most economically vulnerable who are most likely to be affected by this treaty. But they are also politically forgotten, and likely to be less educated. Less education means that the terms of the treaty are less accessible to them, a greater struggle to survive means that national economics just aren’t immediately relevant. I can’t help but feel that every referendum we hold is under-representative. The language in which they are presented and the way their everyday, real-life relevance to the ordinary person is skimmed over effectively limits the voting pool to the more educated middle classes.

Spoilt votes were very few compared to previous counts I’ve worked – remarkably so. In general there are fewer spoilt votes in referenda as people tend to either vote or stay away. But the spoilt votes I saw in this referendum were unusual in that they were all very definite protest votes, with most of the “spoliers” going to great pains to articulate their reasons for spoiling. It was a far cry from the usual deluge of swear words and unfocused anger, crude comments about female candidates/politicians, and of course, the inevitable 1 beside every box and the “I did exactly as I promised” tagline (it is clever and funny the first time. The problem is we typically get hundreds per count, and it stops being original very quickly).

One of the first votes I pulled out, at 9 am on the 1st, was a spoilt vote. Neither yes nor no was ticked, instead it said:

“Is there a strategy for when the euro fails and we have to go back to the punt or other alternative? That’s the real issue here. The euro bubble will be the undoing of Fine Gael and Labour the way the property bubble was the undoing of Fianna Fail.”

I’m still pondering that now.

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