13 observers were registered by Democracy Volunteers with the Department of Housing, Planning and Local Government (DHPLG) and local Returning Officers (ROs). They were divided into teams of 2 or 3, and made 126 separate observations of polling stations across Ireland. Observers from the UK, Belgium, France, Germany, Italy, Canada, China and Ireland made up Democracy Volunteer’s team for this deployment which consisted of 3 LTOs and 10 STOs. Our observers were granted permission to observe in Dublin County, Kildare County and Kerry County. Inside these geographies, observations were made in the following Dáil constituencies: Dublin Fingal, Dublin West, Dublin South-West, Dublin Rathdown, Dún Laoghaire, Kerry, Kildare North and Kildare South.
Each observation was conducted with two or more observers to allow for objective observation and the observers then agreed their opinions of the electoral process before submitting data to the central team. The survey was conducted online so data was collected, and could be checked, live by the core team.
The observations generally took between thirty and forty-five minutes per polling station as the observers were asked to ensure that they attempted to see the entire process, which included staff greeting electors on arrival at the polling station. This happened on every occasion.
In addition to polling day activities, two of our Long-Term Observers also visited multiple count centres across Dublin County and City in order to observe the counting process. Due to the STV electoral system used, this lasted several days and many constituencies’ counts were observed.
The general election of Saturday 8th February was called on January 14th by the incumbent Taoiseach, Leo Varadkar, to elect the 33rd Dáil. Elections to the Dáil must be held every five years under Irish law, with the last occurring in 2016. Elections operate under the Single Transferable Vote electoral system, whereby each voter may rank each candidate in their constituency: One, Two, Three etc. Each multimember constituency elects between three and five Teachta Dálas (TDs) to sit in the lower house of the Irish parliament. Across the nation, 159 seats were being contested in addition to the speaker being returned automatically.
Polling stations were open from 7am to 10pm, and voters on the register were sent a polling card, detailing where their station was located and the date of the poll. The country also allows postal voting for those with jobs preventing them from voting in person (Garda, defence forces and civil servants abroad etc.) and special voting for those unable to attend the polling stations due to physical illness or disability. However, these forms of voting are fairly uncommon, usually below 1% of the total electorate.
Verification and counting were conducted at a central location for each constituency, or in a nearby constituency. The verification and counting process began the morning following the election, and due to the need for multiple redistributions of ballots and multiple counts, often lasted for several days. This process was open and fair, in the constituencies observed by our team.
Oversight and legislative support for national elections in Ireland is conducted by the Department of Housing, Planning and Local Government in addition to local returning officers who provide logistical plans in their areas. In order for our observers to be granted attendance in polling stations and at counts across a constituency (or collection of constituencies), a written letter from the local RO was obtained or their agreement was confirmed via email, and in some areas a list of polling stations a group wished to observe was issued. As we will discuss in our recommendations section, in practice this system means observation is only permitted in different areas of the nation on a case by case basis, reducing the capability of observers to assess the whole democratic process. As such our group was only permitted to observe in 10 of the nations 39 constituencies after being unable to receive approval from the remaining returning officers.
Our electoral experts met with several election administration and political interlocutors in the days leading up to polling day. In every instance, interlocutors were very accommodating, transparent and professional.
Notwithstanding the issues noted below, all interlocutors expressed confidence in the ability of election administrators to successfully deliver the election.
During the interviews, several common themes about Ireland’s election administration emerged. They were:
- The lack of a centralised Electoral Commission to standardise the electoral experience across the country
- The register not being up to date resulting in duplicate registrations
- The flexibility in ID checks at polling stations.
Whilst we may have opinions on the first two of these issues, only the third issue is observable by an observation team on polling day and we will return to this later.
In conclusion our observation of Ireland’s General Election in 2020 revealed, through both interviews with key interlocutors and data collection on polling day, a free and fair election. As with any election, there are, of course, aspects which can be improved, however our deployment witnessed a very well run and well-resourced election. National authorities such as the Department for Housing, Planning and Local Government and those Returning Officers who granted us access to observe, made the process of accreditation clear and we would like to thank them for their assistance and guidance.
However, the transparency and accessibility of Irish elections for observer groups, and therefore the wider public, must remain a key concern for strengthening the electoral process going forwards. As a signatory to the Copenhagen Document of the CSCE in 1990, which outlines human rights and fundamental freedoms, the Republic of Ireland has the responsibility to allow observers from fellow CSCE states and private institutions and organisations to observe elections. Yet, in practice, local Returning Officers need to proactively agree to an observer groups presence prior to the election. This meant that our group, as well as any other seeking approval, was only able to observe in 10 out of 39 constituencies. It is vital that any western democracy allows its own citizens, and those of international observer groups, to scrutinise the electoral process so it may be transparent and enhanced.
Another issue raised by interlocutors is the lack of a centralised, independent Electoral Commission which would standardise the voting process and administration across the country. In addition, this body would have the ability to ensure the electoral register is maintained in order to ensure voters aren’t registered in multiple locations and oversee campaign financing. We are aware that this issue has been debated in government.
As with many of Democracy Volunteers’ observations, our group was particularly concerned at the high levels of ‘family voting’ at polling stations. Not unique to Ireland, this issue denies many people their right to vote in secrecy, often when a family member or other citizen oversees and/or directs them how to vote. The levels of this seen in Ireland were 7.4% and a number of our observers witnessed situations where disagreements between voters committing this offence and presiding officers were heated. We commend these presiding officers for attempting to intervene in some of these cases and recommend they are given further training for dealing with these challenging situations and have a clear line of practice for referring the details of those involved to the relevant authorities. We do believe that the presence of supervisory presiding officers also helped staff in these situations and praise their efforts to stop these breaches of the secret ballot.
The counting process was also observed at counting locations across Dublin County and City in the days following the election. Counts were well staffed and operated in the correct manner. A high number of party representatives were present to ensure counting was fair and party agents were consulted on questionable ballot papers.
A centralised independent Electoral Commission
Throughout our meetings with interlocutors, the need for a centralised independent Electoral Commission was highlighted. We are aware of the work already done by the government and the DHPLG in this area and recommend that if and when a commission is established, that accreditation of domestic and international election observers for the whole nation is one of its remits. This will allow for more effective observations and could highlight issues in areas where Returning Officers do not sanction election observation. In addition to this, many other arguments for an independent electoral commission were highlighted including, but not limited to: ensuring the register is up to data and duplication is eradicated; overseeing the re-drawing of constituency boundaries; monitoring campaign finance, and increasing understanding of the electoral process.
R1 Democracy Volunteers supports the creation of a centralised, independent Electoral Commission.
Access for Election Observation
The accreditation process for election observation groups, both domestic and international, and the accessibility they are granted to observe elections varies across Europe and the world. The approach taken can vary, for example, from Slovakia where no official accreditation is required to anyone wishing to observe inside polling stations, to the UK where formal accreditation is granted by the electoral commission, to other nations such as Austria where election observation is not allowed from groups outside of the OSCE/ODIHR. However, all nations who are signatories to the 1990 Copenhagen Agreement have agreed that ‘the presence of observers, both foreign and domestic, can enhance the electoral process for States in which elections are taking place’.
The process for accrediting observers in Ireland falls somewhere in between the measures taken by the aforementioned states. Each individual Returning Officer in Ireland must explicitly agree to having observers in their area of responsibility following a request being submitted to the DHPLG. For this election access was granted for our group to observe across just 10 of the 39 constituencies nationwide.
R2 We recommend that the process for election observation groups to gain accreditation is standardised across the country, guaranteeing access to all parliamentary constituencies in line with Ireland’s international obligations.
Entering the Polling Station
Many of our observers noted that the large number of individual polling stations located inside the same building caused confusion for some voters on their arrival. This confusion often led to large queues forming at polling places, meaning that some voters needed to wait a long time to cast their vote. Whilst the supervisory presiding officers present at locations with over five ballot boxes was commended, the more widespread use of extra polling staff in polling stations would be welcome. This could include having more than one supervisory presiding officer in especially large polling places.
R3 We recommend that the number of staff present in large and busy polling places is increased in order to ‘triage’ voters on arrival. This will allow simpler access for voters. Increased numbers will also allow a staff member/s to check polling booths for political material and prevent voters engaging in activities outside the legal framework such as family voting (see below).
R4 Clearly identify the polling stations table number voters are expected to go to on arrival on their polling card. This should be in large font to be as clear as possible.
R5 Number polling station tables in numerical order so that they follow a logical succession (like a clock face, but with 1 on the left of the door as the voter enters with the highest number to the right of the door) around the room.
This confusion can also lead, especially in the larger polling stations, where over 10 ballot boxes can be found, to voters placing their ballot paper in the wrong box. This was observed on several occasions. Sometimes the ballot box can be at some distance from the staff issuing the ballot paper.
R6 Ensure that voters are informed that their ballot paper should be placed in the ballot box associated with the staff who issue them with their ballot paper. This box should be as close to the staff issuing the paper as possible.
As was discussed with interlocutors there a specific method of checking ID in Ireland whereby one in four voters is checked. We discovered this practice varied from one place to another.
R7 Ensure all polling staff are made aware of the recommendation that one in four voters is due to have their ID checked.
Family voting is one of the biggest issues Democracy Volunteers observes at elections across Europe, providing a crucial challenge to polling day integrity. This electoral offence denies some voters their right to a secret ballot as two or more voters enter a polling booth together to collude or oversee/influence each other’s vote. This was the case on 67 different occasions on our observation across the 123 polling stations. Therefore 7.5% of voters were involved in this offence – either knowingly or unknowingly.
This issue is very difficult to eradicate for polling staff for many reasons such as: a lack of knowledge they should intervene; a lack of training on this issue; overly aggressive voters committing the offence; a lack of public awareness of the issue, and understaffing at busy periods.
Family voting is often asserted as happening in specific communities but the evidence of our observation is that it happens across communities and geographies. This disproportionately means guiding/overseeing how to vote, though this is by no means the only form it takes.
R8 As part of presiding officer training before polling day, polling staff should be trained on how to spot family voting and their responsibility to intervene.
R9 Where possible, more than two polling staff should be stationed at each polling station to reduce the chance the offence will go unnoticed at busy times. This can be done by employing extra staff, more supplementary supervisory presiding officers, or Garda.
R10 Increased signage should be produced and piloted, similar to that for cameras and phones in polling stations, to show that using the same polling booth is illegal.
Sealing of Ballot Boxes
As one of the most important aspects in securing a valid poll is conducted, the issue of unsealed or incorrectly sealed ballot boxes in any numbers should be of concern. Whilst there is no suggestion that any foul play occurred in the instances where boxes were unsealed, this is a particular area for concern.
As correctly sealing ballot boxes is part of training for presiding officers, it is not necessary to simply state this as a recommendation. However, there are some actions which could be taken to report these instances and ensure a box’s seals are easily identifiable by the public. This will prevent these instances potentially undermining the integrity of any election in the future.
R11 If, on arrival at the central count a ballot box is discovered to be incorrectly sealed or unsealed, this should be immediately made known to election agents and candidates so that they are aware of this problem.
R12 This box should then be verified and checked by the returning officer to check that no foul play has occurred, and those observing should be told the turnout for that one box, so it can be checked against the final result.
R13 All ballot boxes should have their secured seals easily identifiable to the public and observers to improve trust in the process.
 (Copenhagen Document, CSCE, 1990, p.7)