In Ireland voting in the general election takes place this Friday and this means a weekend of ballot boxes, exit polls, tally men and counting. We use a system of proportional representation (PR) that is very fair but very complex. When you vote you mark candidates in order of preference on the ballot paper. You can go through all the candidates assigning a number to indicate 1st, 2nd, 3rd, 4th preferences and so on. You can influence the outcome of who gets elected by means of your later preferences. It is not unusual for the whole process to go through seven or more counts as the lower scoring candidates are eliminated and second and subsequent preferences from these votes are redistributed.
Although the whole process appears complicated it's based on some straight forward rules. It is important however that voters understand the process so that they can avail of the full extent of their democratic choice.
Normally we use civil servants and casual employees to work in the count centres - in many cases the local school is appropriated as the ballot station and even count centre. Legally, the returning officer is responsible for managing the count.
I argue that we should use 15 to 18 year old school students in all functions at the ballot stations and at the count centres.
There would be many benefits to this idea:
- The students become active participants in our democratic process and through this experience they appreciate its importance.
- The best way to understand the operations of the PR system is to be part of the counting process. In a very real way we will be educating our future voters.
- It can be argued that young people are the biggest stakeholders in the consequences of the result and as such they see how decisions are made.
- Participating students would be more likely to vote when they reach 18 and perhaps even to wish to stand for election themselves.
- The important connection between schools and civic society would be reinforced.
- Student's would learn about the operational and project management aspects of managing an election and count.
- The whole process would be cheaper and yes more reliable.
"Surely you can't be serious - it will never work! How could we rely on them. They'd surely let us down."
Yes, I suppose we can't blame the young people for thinking that about us!