This Broadsheet column appearing online first on June 5th 2018.
Type #HomeToVote into Google and you will find pages and pages of links to news items from around the globe detailing the stories of thousands of young Irish emigres travelling back to vote at the recent referendum.
You need to dive a few pages into the results to find items relating to the 2015 origins of the hashtag during the Marriage Equality campaign. Its history, in so much as there is a history, is set out on pages 158-159 of Ireland Says Yes: The Inside Story of How the Vote for Marriage Equality Was Won (One of the books on my 2017 Summer political reading list).
#HomeToVote spontaneously appeared late in the afternoon on the eve of polling day. The campaign had its own #BeMyYes campaign which had generated tens of thousands of messages from people committing themselves to Vote Yes, including many from young Irish people abroad considering returning home.
But back in 2015, #HomeToVote was unplanned, and was all the more effective for that. Within hours the slow trickle of posts turned into a viral sensation, one commemorated by the great Annie West #HomeToVote cartoon. Between 5pm on Thursday May 21st and 5pm Friday May 22nd (polling day) around 72,000 messages were posted online using #HomeToVote.
As a campaign awareness tool, it was superb. Its viral reach brought the story of the campaign to news sites and online journals across the globe in the final hours of the campaign.
But its greatest strength was as an online mobilisation tool for what campaigners call GOTV, getting out the vote. Not just because of the many voters who returned home to vote but because of the many more people it motivated in the last day of the campaign to get out and vote Yes.
The message was clear: there are young people prepared to travel from half way around the world to vote to secure the rights of others, so the least you can do is to take 30 minutes to get to the polling station and vote.
Where the 2015 marriage equality #HomeToVote was spontaneous and unexpected, the 2018 incarnation was not just planned, it was an important element of a well-honed campaign strategy.
That is not a criticism. This is what successful campaigns do. They see what works elsewhere and adapt it to their own situation.
Both sides, Yes and No, saw the success of the campaign the first time around and realised that they both needed their own #HomeToVote operation – only one side did it much more effectively.
The 2018 cohort was as motivated and determined as their antecedents. Their 8th Ref #HomeToVote stories of the enormous lengths they went to, just to get back to cast their ballot were every bit as moving as those of 2015.
There were two differences, though and both relate to this being a planned operation, rather than a spontaneous one. Neither of these undermine the validity of the exercise, this time around, but do raise questions about any third outing for #Hometovote.
The first is the 18-month rule. Travelling back to vote is not an open-ended invitation. Section 11.3 of the 1992 Electoral Act says that Irish citizens may retain the right to vote at home, for up to 18 months after moving away, but only on the condition that they intend to return to Ireland within that timeframe.
The second difference was the added element that well-intentioned third parties might be willing to offer help to those considering returning home-to-vote but finding the cost a barrier. There were various suggestions that flights or travel costs could be crowdfunded.
I don’t question anyone’s motives here, but I do think suggestions of paying for those going to vote is approaching the point where #HomeToVote ceases to be a positive GOTV campaigning tool and comes very close to straying over the line.
Section 135 of the above mentioned 1992 Electoral Act sets out what constitutes bribery at an election, specifically a Dáil election. It makes it illegal to
“give valuable consideration to induce a voter to vote, or to procure the election of any person or the vote of any voter, or on account of a voter having voted”
It then defines “give”, “induce” and “procure” to include agreeing or promising or attempting to give, induce or procure directly or indirectly. Similarly, it defines “valuable consideration” as including the giving, lending or agreeing to give or lend, or the offer or promise to procure any money, money’s worth or valuable security or any valuable consideration or any office, place or employment to or for any person.
So, is offering to pay for one’s flight home to vote an offence in and of itself? What is the situation if it is only on the condition that they vote a certain way? And what if you offer to pay for the flight and also throw in a few Euros to cover meals and drinks?
How would we feel about a #HomeToVote operation in a constituency where party X only held its seat by a dozen or so votes, or where party Y was just a handful of votes short of the final seat the last time out?
Would we all be as understanding of a #HomeToVote operation that was so narrowly focussed and financed? Would we see it as positive and altruistic?
It is not as if we cannot imagine such situations arising. It is almost exactly a year since allegations of voter fraud were flying about in the Derry constituency of Foyle when the sitting SDLP MP, Mark Durkan was beaten by just 169 votes.
Those allegations focused on the surprising increase in the number of proxy votes issued. In Northern Ireland, and the UK, people can apply to vote by proxy (i.e. appoint someone to vote on their behalf) if they are going to be at work, away or have some other reason that prevents them from getting to their polling station.
The number of proxy votes applied for in Foyle, in 2017 was about 300% higher than the 2015 general election figure, roughly equivalent to 1,000 extra votes. Remember the winning margin was 169 votes.
Not only that, but the distribution of these extra proxy votes was not exactly even across the constituency. They were concentrated in specific areas, with some of these having a proxy vote rate more than 17 times the UK average.
It is a reminder that a well-intentioned scheme to encourage greater participation can be abused by unscrupulous individuals and outfits.
#HomeToVote was too iconic to be allowed fall into the same hands. It has done its job, now it should be let slip into retirement.
But the cause of increasing voter participation should not be allowed slip away with it. This is yet another reason why we need the immediate establishment of the independent Electoral Commission promised back in February 2011.
It is well past time we took the electoral process more seriously by giving it the resources it deserves and stop leaving it up to a few over stretched officials scattered across the councils.