How to avoid spoiling your vote: More than 100,000 votes ‘invalid’ in last elections

Here are some easy steps to follow to exercise your democratic right without any risk of error

In the space of an 18-month period, Irish voters will have the chance to cast their ballot in every type of election that can be held – local, European, national and presidential – as well as likely byelections if Oireachtas members are returned to the European Parliament. And you can add to that further planned referendums.

The Electoral Commission is launching a major drive to ensure people know about the mechanics of voting ahead of this period, in the light of data that shows more than 108,000 votes were “spoiled” in the last local and European elections in 2019 – the equivalent of the combined population of Drogheda, Dundalk and Sligo.

Why am I hearing about spoiled ballots now?

The commission says it was approached about the issue by returning officers who see huge amounts of invalid ballots cast at every election. Some are spoiled on purpose as a political statement.

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What are the common mistakes?

The chair of the commission, Ms Justice Marie Baker, said most are done in error, with two problems particularly prevalent – first, that people did not identify their first choice, with no number one preference marked anywhere on the ballot paper. This renders any other marking or indication on the paper invalid.

The second problem most often seen is that two or more number-one preferences are identified, meaning no first choice can be discerned.

Is that it?

No, there are many ways to spoil a ballot, but the Electoral Commission also flagged examples where someone continued expressing a preference across two ballot papers for separate elections – so, for example, voting all the way down a local election ballot and beginning a European paper as though it was a continuation of the same vote (rather than starting again on the second paper, with a number-one preference).

Another example would be putting anything that could possibly be construed as an identifying mark on the paper, which would be deemed to be violating the secrecy of the ballot.

What is the best approach to preparation?

Ms Justice Baker advised that people should think carefully about their first preference in each election before going to the polling station and be prepared to indicate at least that, increasing their chances of that vote being recorded. Also, to study each ballot paper and to remember that each paper is for a separate election: local, European and if you’re in Limerick, the mayoral race as well.

You will need to have registered to vote, but you don’t need your polling information card to vote. You can check your status or register on checktheregister.ie

Is there help available in the polling station?

Yes. Presiding officers at the station will offer help if it’s needed and, if the situation demands it, can even assist and clear the polling station in order to maintain the secrecy of the ballot, said Art O’Leary, the chief executive of the commission.

What if I make a mistake on my paper?

If you make an error, you can hand back your paper to the presiding officer who puts it in with spoiled ballots and gives you another paper – so it’s not a problem and you can have another go.

Can I mark with an ‘X’?

An X or a tick will only be effective at recording a first-preference vote.

Can I sign my ballot?

No, it will be deemed an identifying mark and therefore a violation of the secret ballot and not counted.

The Electoral Commission has a guide to voting and video explainers on its website.

What are the next major votes after these ones?

The next Irish general election must be held by March at the latest, while 2025 will also see the staging of the next presidential election. The Government has yet to set a date for a planned referendum for the ratification of the EU agreement on a unified patent court. A referendum on the right to housing has also been proposed, although that looks unlikely in the lifetime of this government.