Electoral Reg (A slight return)

OK. In an attempt to make this interesting to the kids, I’m ripping off Jimi Hendrix lyrics.

The Sunday Business Post reported over the weekend that up to 170,000 people may have been taken of the Electoral Register in error. Apparently politicians of all hues are trading war stories of bungled clean ups on the electoral register. Apparently, amongst other things, entire housing estates have been taken off the register and dead people have resurrected and re-registered to vote. The Minister in question, Dick Roche, has even had to acknowledge that he knows of an incident of a disappearing housing estate in Wicklow (wouldn’t it be ironic if it was up on Turlough Hill muses the author, mixing his Irish geography).

The Fianna Faíl TD for Meath, Johnny Brady, has commented that:

  • huge numbers of elderly voters have been removed from the Register in his area
  • no letters were left to inform people they were being taken off the Register (or at least people don’t recall getting such a letter).

According to Mr Brady “Some of the field officers who called to houses decided that if they were not at home, they were taken off”. This suggests a degree of inconsitency in the approaches between local authorities… in my earlier post on when the people came knocking I pointed out that they hadn’t spoken to me, but as of today I’m still on the Register. Therefore it would seem that different rules are being applied in Meath and Wexford.

Divergences in work practices in maintaining the Register is one of the contributing root causes to the whole original mess. Anecdotes of Local Authorities using the Obituraries in the local and national papers to identify dead people were mentioned in dispatches not so long ago.

And the treatment of the dead is clearly one of the key root causes for the original shambles… with 30% of Waterford’s voters being members of the daisy pushing brigade. Of course, this discrepancy is matched by the inconsistency between the numbers on the register now and the population as measured by the Census.

Good grief. What a mess.

Way back in the summer I wrote that the proposal to rebuild the register by going door to door would not address the actual deficiencies in the register. The key approach should have been to tackle the root causes – such as wildly varying work practices in different local authority areas and then to push out cleansing of the register. This should have been done in a clear and transparent manner.

However, at this point it is important to bear in mind that often the answer you get to a problem isn’t necessarily the answer you want. The Opposition parties seem to have had an expectation that there would be no collateral damage in the clean up of the register. A cliche involving eggs, omlettes and breakage springs to mind. Rather than engage in debate based on anecdote the Opposition parties should try to ‘speak with data’ and to identify clear examples of where people have been taken off the register in error and get evidence of what process or inaction on the part of the Minister or Local Authorities lead to the error.

For example, Gay (Gabriel) Mitchell (Fine Gael TD) reported his personal experience where he wrote to the Local Authority officers responsible for the Register to tell them that there were two people resident at his address with the same name (his son is also called Gabriel). However only one Gabriel Mitchell was left on the Register. Why? Did Deputy Mitchell forget to include the respective dates of birth? Did his letter fall through the cracks?

Dick Roche attempted to clean the register by running en masse a broken process. Throwing people at it to perform door to door checks did not address key root causes (like the fact that you can’t change your name on the Electoral Registration form – it only allows for changes of address). When you throw into the mix that the door to door checkers:

  1. Don’t hang around long enough to talk to people (in my personal experience)
  2. Call during the day when people are at work (might that explain why entire estates in the commuter belt of Dublin have disappeared off the Register?)
  3. Seem to have an inconsistent practice as to how to deal with people who don’t answer the door

then this whole process is a phenomonal white elephant that may have served to make a bad situation slightly worse.

However – with regard to people who have been taken off the Register in error… there is a question of personal responsibilty here. If they wish to be registered to vote then they should check the register at their local libraries or Garda stations or online (if they are in the 50.7% of people who have internet access) and get themselves registered.

If you are not in you can’t win. If you’re not on the register you can’t complain about the government you get. And by my reckoning that’s what we have at the moment.

2 thoughts on “Electoral Reg (A slight return)”

  1. One of the problems with checking online would be if they misspelled your name then you wouldn’t show up unless you know the form of the mispelling and entered it. Surely, PPS numbers and the information the revenue has for people would have been a good source to cross reference with the register.

  2. Dan,

    You are perfectly correct. One of the biggest problems with name and address matching (in any context) is different spellings of a name or common mis-spellings. Now, in most circumstances a margin of error is acceptable. For example, if Dan Sullivan is mismatched to Danny O’Sullivan in a direct marketing list, it is an annoyance but you can remedy it by contacting the company and asking that they either correct their error or remove you from their lists (which could mean that Danny O’Sullivan doesn’t get junk mail either).

    In other areas there is less margin for error. For example Healthcare – mixing up two patients (which does happen – more than we might want) can have disastrous consequences (fancy a stomach removal instead of your tonsils out?). Likewise, the electoral register requires spot on accuracy, not ‘close enough for government work’.

    The PPS Identity (which is more than just your PPS Number) is a candidate ‘master identifier’. However it too is fraught with problems:

    1) PPS numbers can be miskeyed, with digits being transposed or letters being misread from forms.
    2) I am aware of cases where people have a PPS number, are getting stuff sent to their homes by Welfare and Revenue but when they go to use their PPS Identity in another government process, it turns out there is no name and address associated to the PPS number. This shows a significant risk in PPS Identities as a set of master data which needs to be addressed.

    Ultimately, a total root and branch review of the Electoral Register processes is required, including issues such as ownership and governance of the Electoral Register, standardisation of process and a rigorous look at what the process and controls need to be for a 21st Century, Information Age Electoral Register.

    Check out my other posts on this topic for more information (Information Quality/Electoral IQ)

Comments are closed.