As the Taoiseach Leo Varadkar briefed his Fine Gael colleagues on Tuesday morning following his decision to dissolve the 32nd sitting of the Dáil, posters in his Dublin West constituency were already beginning to go up. Thus, launching the campaigning phase of the 2020 General Election.
It was expected that an Irish election would be called sometime during the Spring or Summer months, however it appears that recent by-election defeats have meant that Fine Gael’s position in the Dáil has become untenable. The party will hope that they will also get a boost from voters due to their handling of Brexit negotiations and the role they played in restoring government to Northern Ireland through their engagement in the talks process leading to the ‘New Decade, New Approach’ deal launched two weeks ago.
What is particularly notable about this election, however, is that it will be held on a Saturday. It is not uncommon for referendums in the Republic of Ireland to be held on a Saturday (for instance, the Nice Referendum in 2002 and the Children’s Referendum in 2012), although this will be the first General Election to be held on this day since the historic 1918 election. This election saw over 70 representatives reject Westminster rule and establish a parliament in Dublin, with a huge surge in popularity that saw Sinn Féin sweep to power.
But what will this do for turnout? Will voters rush to the polls due to the majority being off work? Or will they already have weekend plans they can’t get out of?
Varadkar has proposed that a Saturday polling day will mean parents will not have to set up childcare arrangements, as schools – often used as polling stations – will be closed to students for the weekend. He also hopes that a weekend polling day will mean students will find it easier to vote due to many being back home for the weekend.
However, Varadkar has faced criticism for this. Many students may not be able to afford to travel home for the weekend to vote or may be working on weekends in order to fund their studies and so may miss the hours the polling stations are open. The polling day, Saturday 8th February, is also the day Ireland are set to take on Wales in a Six Nations match at Dublin’s Aviva Stadium, which may negatively impact turnout.
In speaking to The Irish Times, the Deputy Director of National Youth Council of Ireland, James Doorley, noted that Saturday voting could actually see an increase in voting from young people. He urges that it is typically causes not parties that motivate young people, and so parties who campaign on issues that often lead to the politicisation young people (climate change, homelessness, mental health issues) could see an increase in the youth vote coming their way. This could be a good sign for parties who are further to the left, such as the Green Party. It could also, theoretically, cause issues for the two biggest parties, Fianna Fail and Fine Gael.
Ireland has endured a housing crisis under the current Fine Gael government, with issues around rent and housing prices causing protest against the government. Fianna Fail have also been criticised for their support of the current government, and the division within the party over their stance during the Repeal the 8th movement could lead to reduced support from young people.
On the other hand, a recent Behaviour & Attitudes (B&A) poll for the Sunday Times on 19th January put Fianna Fail with a 12-point lead ahead of Fine Gael, who received their lowest B&A poll result to date. This shocking poll result shows that Irish politics may continue to go between Fine Gael and Fianna Fail governments. Therefore, turnout on election day will be closely monitored to see if a Saturday polling date leads to a change of power, or if the day does not matter in terms of the overall result.
Interestingly, the most common polling day around the world is a Sunday.
In Australia, where elections are always held on a Saturday, turnout continues to be high. This cannot be said to be wholly down to the day, as in Australia voting has been compulsory since 1924. However, the way in which voting is framed in the country can provide a framework for other countries toying with weekend elections, such as Ireland.
The most recent 2019 Federal Election saw a 91% turnout in the country, where more than 96% of eligible Australians are enrolled to vote. Those who fail to vote are fined $20, with this fine increased in line with the number of votes that have been missed.
“Voting in Australia is like a party”, says a citizen of Queensland in talking to the New York Times. An electoral tradition in the country is a BBQ held at polling centres, affectionately dubbed “democracy sausages.” This provides a further incentive to vote, as once you exercise your democratic right, you’re treated to a BBQ right at the polling centre. This is something that could be easily transferred to voting in Ireland (democracy sausage rolls, anyone?)
All jokes aside, voting in Australia is taken seriously and their voting culture is one that should provide a framework for all countries who are interested in looking at weekend voting. Once you can incentivise people to the polls, it becomes almost second nature in the national psyche.
Although critics of compulsory voting have stated that forcing those who do not care about political issues to vote can cause a dip towards populism, political scientists have noted that the opposite tends to be true: forcing people into the voting process increases their knowledge of the candidates and the issues at stake. By giving people easy access to the mechanisms of power, they can become empowered, with even President Obama noting that if voting was compulsory in the US it would be “transformative”.
All in all, the jury is out on whether Saturday voting by itself will or will not increase voter turnout. When coupled with other factors, as seen in the Australian system, it can provide high voting levels. However, simply changing the polling day may not have much impact on turnout in the Irish General Election. On the other hand, if this change in polling day is coupled with other mechanisms over time to incentivise the electorate to vote, real change could be visible in the country.
Jane Corscadden is a 22 year-old student currently studying MA Journalism at Ulster University, having previously graduated from Queen's University Belfast with a BA in Politics. Jane is passionate about politics in all forms, with particular experience in covering Northern Irish politics.