The spread of online disinformation in the run-up to electoral events is “one of the most serious threats to our electoral system in Ireland”, the Minister for Housing, Local Government and Heritage Darragh O’Brien has said.
Mr O’Brien was speaking in the Dáil on Tuesday evening, as the Electoral Reform Bill 2022 was being debated, which will provide for “greater transparency” in relation to online political advertising during electoral periods.
“It [THE BILL]will ensure transparency in political advertising and help protect our electoral processes from hidden interference,” Mr O’Brien said.
“These provisions entail bringing the online electoral advertising space into line with our existing regulations around more traditional forms of advertising.”
The Bill will also establish an electoral commission and provide a legislative basis for the modernisation of the electoral registration process – “modernisation that is long overdue”, the minister said.
“It will make registering to vote more accessible and streamlined and enable online registration in simplified forms and a continuously updated, or rolling register so people can update their details at any time,” he added.
The proposed legislation also includes measures to assist returning officers in running electoral events should public health restrictions be in place due to a pandemic, such as Covid-19.
Mr O’Brien said the Bill was “a significant reform” of Ireland’s electoral legislation, processes and structures.
“It makes our system more accessible and inclusive,” he said. “Its provisions harness the opportunities presented by technology while addressing the challenges that it also presents.”
Sinn Féin TD Eoin Ó Broin said his party was committed to lowering the voting age to 16 years and urged the minister to consider it.
Mr Ó Broin said it had been tried in other jurisdictions and would not only “be enormously positive for the political system, but also encourage young people to get active and get voting as early as possible”.
The Dublin Mid-West TD said he welcomed the legislation and could see no reason why the Bill “could not be fully passed and enacted by the summer recess”.
“The composition of TV debates at election time always give rise to concern. If you are excluded, as Sinn Féin were for example at the early stages of the last general election, that can be used to a party’s advantage and create momentum behind its campaign,” he said.
“That is understandable, every party in that position would do the same. We have seen that in the recent past.
“Debates are regulated in the US by the Debates Commission. If we are now regulating paid for online material it would be no extra burden to take on the part function at least, of managing the TV party leaders debates with, for example, the input of the Broadcasting Authority of Ireland. ”