Thursday, May 17, 2007

Republican Politics Irish Style

Republican Politics, Irish Style
Published May 17th in Metro Eireann By Charles Laffiteau

In my first very first column for Metro Eireann, I said that while I was here in Dublin “I hope to familiarise myself with the political landscape of Ireland.” Having lived here in Dublin, Ireland since last September, now that it is Election Day in the Republic of Ireland I guess it’s time for me to share an American Republican’s perspective on Irish politics.
But before I discuss Ireland’s political parties and my views about their electoral prospects, I want to weigh in with some opinions on the mechanics of the voting process itself. For starters, I think it is much more difficult to exercise your right to vote here in Ireland than it is back in the States.
What gives with this Irish voting procedure that only gives you 2 days to cast absentee ballots? US citizens, within and outside the US can cast absentee ballots by mail for 30 days prior to Election Day, which for all national elections every 2 years is on the first Tuesday following the first Monday in November.
For reasons of both convenience and cost, the vast majority of state elections are also held that same day in conjunction with the national elections for Congress and (every four years) for the US Presidency. Furthermore, many states (including my home state of Texas) allow voters to visit designated polling places and cast their votes in person during that same 30 day window prior to Election Day.
One of the main reasons for allowing these early voting dates (including Saturdays) and absentee ballot procedures is to encourage more citizens to vote in local, state and national elections. Many states refer to them as “no excuses” voting measures in recognition of US citizens’ explanations for why they don’t vote more often, if at all.
In spite of these as well as other steps to make voter registration easier, in the last national election only 55% of eligible Americans bothered to vote. As dismal as this number is, the percentage drops to around 40-45 % in state and local elections if there isn’t a national election being held simultaneously. Worse yet, local elections for Mayor or city councils may draw as few as 20% of eligible voters to the polls.
The reason I am dwelling on this issue is because I see Ireland following this same path as the US, in terms of declining voter turnout over the last 30 years, from almost 78% in 1970 to under 63% in 2002. What I don’t see are steps by the government to address this issue. Calling for a national election on the Thursday before a bank holiday doesn’t strike me as a tactic designed to encourage voter turnout. In fact if I may be so bold as to make a prediction, I think participation in this year’s national election will probably drop below 60%.
On the other hand, I do like the fact that Ireland allows non-Irish citizens the right to vote in local elections. On this point, the US still has a long way to go, since only US citizens can vote in any local, state or national elections. Many US states go even further and do not allow US citizens who have been convicted of a felony to vote either. I find it shameful that while Ireland may one day allow its non-Irish residents the right to also vote in Dail and national elections, the US still won’t allow all of its own citizens this same privilege
I am also aware that Thursdays are the traditional election days here in Ireland much like the first Tuesday after the first Monday in November is back in the states. But I find it ironic that this same government justified its decision to schedule Ireland’s first ever nation-wide Saturday election in 2002 in order to facilitate voting by students and younger workers in Dublin in a second vote on an EU treaty.
The government said it wanted to give them time to travel to their homes outside of Dublin and vote on a EU treaty. It must have worked since voter turnout was 50% higher in the second election, but apparently Bertie doesn’t feel as strongly about them voting in Ireland’s first national election in 5 years. I wonder why?
Could it be that the government was aware that those students and workers living in Dublin were more likely to vote in favour of this EU Treaty, (which the government was backing), than other voters in rural and western Ireland who had not experienced the same benefits of EU membership? Hmmm, I think it could be.
Is it possible that this same government is also aware that those students and young workers in Dublin do not remember the bad economic times, which makes them more sympathetic to charges that the current government has been wasteful and slow in improving health services and thus more likely to vote in favour of changing the governing coalition? Hmmm, this appears to be quite plausible to me as well.
What I can tell you with a high degree of certainty, is that my own Republican Party in the US, is very wary of high voter turnout in urban areas. Why? Because students and younger workers in urban areas tend to vote for the opposing Democratic Party in addition to the Democrat’s historic constituency of organized labour, lower income minorities and the urban poor.
Up until the 1970’s Democrats also received a majority of the lower to middle income working class votes as well. But that traditional Democratic constituency started to vote Republican in the southern and western parts of the US when Nixon was elected and has been solidly Republican ever since Regan was elected in 1980.
Republicans currently rely on older, middle and upper income constituents who live in suburban and rural areas as well as the working class voters in the western and southern states for most of their voting support. Since a higher percentage of older voters tend to go to the polls than younger and or minority voters, a low voter turnout also gives the Republicans and their constituents an edge in close elections.
Next week I will discuss my perspective on Ireland’s political parties and coalitions in what looks to be a very close and tightly contested national election.

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