ireland at home cafe!

Saturday's feature.
Meanwhile, back here in Ireland...
Cormac MacConnell
Once upon a time in North Roscommon, in the crow coal country of Arigna, there lived a legendary local politician called Peter Tim Lynch. He was a member of Roscommon County Council in the sixties and, no matter where he might have been born in the whole wide world, Peter Tim would have been a valued member of the local county council or its equivalent. His ability as a representative for his people, the coal miners and farmers of Arigna, was unmatched. His ability as a vote-getter in the Council elections was on a par.
I have heard it said that on one occasion, on an "old" electoral
register in a certain part of Arigna, there were 103 names. Arigna was
an area with an ageing population, then and now, and so, on a register
which was several years old, quite a number of the Arignans would have passed to their eternal reward since the document was drafted. Maybe thirty or forty of them had died and many others would have emigrated or even migrated to Dublin and Cork. But when the boxes were opened for The Count, and all the bits of paper were counted and sorted, there were 103 votes there to behold. And every one of them went directly and without question to Peter Tim Lynch. Even the dead, it appeared, had arisen from their graves and Paradises and come back to honour and support one of their own.
The Arigna Box and its leathery tallymen and the sheer pen-and-pencil
elemental humanity of past electoral contests at every political level
should be well embedded in history in l997. In this high-tech
computerised age they should have no place except in the social history books. The tallymen with their pencils and notebooks should be gone.
Paper voting, probably, should be gone in the sense in which it has
existed in the past. The tortured PR counts by hand and by human head should be gone. We have slipped well past that age. Computers and the attendant technology, surely, were almost custom-built to take on elections at all levels, to process the voting vagaries instantaneously
and accurately, and to deliver results almost instantly.
But incredibly, on the eve of another Presidential Election and
Referendum in this State, all the old ways, with all their failings, are
still with us. It boggles the imagination. It defies belief. Yet it is
the way. If Peter Tim Lynch were to come back for the Count at the end of this month he would see almost exactly the same archaic systems in play as he saw on that Roscommon afternoon when the Arigna Box opened its metal mouth and delivered unto him those 103 votes of the living and the dead all those years ago.
There are still the tallymen...though their background people now do use computers.....but the tallymen are there with their pencils and jotters and their boxes of "X's" as they watch the counters' fingers across the barriers. There is still, in the middle of the counting arena, that same old table with the same gaggle of humans bent over registers and rulebooks, any computers they have very much in the supplementary mode.
The counting, the Count, is still a laboriously slow and human exercise.
Fingers, frequently dipping themselves in damping pads, rubber bands,
those pigeonholed bundles of votes....little has changed. The Returning
Officers are still, as always, in control of a paper process, a process
which has not yet felt the byte, so to speak, of the new era.
It is ridiculous. It can be guaranteed, almost for certain, that this
election will again show up the flaws of the human systems. Bundles of votes will be lost and entire counts will have to be done again. Because
of the fallible humanity of the process, candidates agents at some count centres will demand recounts, especially in cases of eliminations. Those same agents, in a truly computerised process, would seldom challenge the counting machine. And the whole bloody business will drag on for
probably two days of gradually slowing human computation when, as
everybody knows, the technology now exists, foolproof, to produce
results, both local and national, and accurately, within minutes of the
last vote being cast.
The ironic reality, meanwhile, is that while the formal and oh-so-slow
paper count drags on, the TV computers in RTE and elsewhere, inside the first half-hour, and working only on incomplete received "paper"
information, will be accurately forecasting not only the result but also
the voting patterns and swings in all the constituencies. As I say, it
boggles the mind.
In the United States and elsewhere, for many years, elections have been automated and computerised with great benefit to the electorates
involved.  (What about Florida !!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!)There are States in the USA where you enter a booth, make your selection, punch it in, pull a lever or push a button, and, ballot secrecy preserved, total accuracy ensured, you just walk away home to find the regional results already waiting for you. Here in Ireland, unfortunately, though our high-tech systems are as good as anywhere else, and the infrastructure exists, the electoral process is still, relatively speaking, back in the era of the quill pen and the parchment.
In strict legal terms, under antiquated regulations, it is probably
still necessary to have voting by some kind of retained document, ie a
ballot paper. But surely, even if this is a fundamental requirement, and
likely to remain so, some system could easily be devised whereby the
ballot paper, instead of going into a mute ballot box, could be returned
to the Polling Officer in controlled circumstances and inputted into a
system which would, there and then, add it to a constituency counting
process and, through it, into the national process. There are so many
other ways in which the process could be brought up to date and
dramatically improved.
Personally I have always had a soft spot for the tallymen of the Irish
electoral process. Give them the smell of a bundle of votes and they
could tell you which way the electoral winds were blowing. But their day
is now well and truly over. It is time, and long past time, for change.