Ireland’s Election Explained

For the overseas audience, I should explain why our vote continues late into the night, through what appear to be endless recounts. Our system is called ‘Single Transferable Vote’, which means we only have a single vote between all of us. So we have to fight over it.

OK, I’ll be serious. We have a vote each. But rather than just give it to one candidate, we list the buggers in an order of preference. The count is actually a (fairly) simple mathematical game that transfers a vote from one to another until it settles into a comfortable position. The idea is that if you can’t have your first-preference candidate you may get your second – etc.

The system requires multiple-seat constituencies to work (you’ll see why later), the norm is three to five seats. Votes are checked for validity and counted, and the total number of valid votes is divided by the number of seats in the constituency. So say there are 50,000 valid votes cast in a 5-seat constituency, that gives 10,000. You need one more vote than that to “reach quota” and be elected.

The votes are then sorted into piles according to the first preference (or “number 1”) – which is the state of play shown here below, for the current election and the previous one:

First Prefs Graphic © Dave Fahy, Blacksquare.ie
© Dave Fahy, Blacksquare.ie

Quite a change, eh?

As you see, Fianna Fáil did not get a majority of first preference votes in a single constituency this time. If we used a simple First-Past-The-Post voting system here, they would win no seats at all. Before you say it’s a shame that we don’t then, I should point out that if we did use FPTP, Fianna Fáil would have won every previous election before today.

Every. Single. One.

Under our more scrupulous STV system, their percentage of the seats will be fairly close to their actual percentage of the vote. (About 17%, the way it looks at the moment.) The system is as fair as it’s possible to be in this respect.

If none of the candidates makes the quota on their first preference votes, the next move is the elimination (or ‘exclusion’) of the lowest-polling candidate. The votes in their pile are transferred to whoever is listed as the next preference. (Each vote is a list, remember). If after this redistribution someone reaches the quota, they’re elected. If no one does, the next-lowest candidate is eliminated, and so on.

(In practice, several of the lowest-polling candidates’ piles will often be redistributed at once.)

So what happens when a candidate is elected? Naturally, they almost always get more than the quota on the count that elects them, and the extra vote is called the “surplus”. Say the quota was ten thousand and a candidate has eleven thousand votes. They have a ten percent surplus, so ten percent of their votes are chosen randomly and distributed to the candidate listed as the next preference.

(The random part introduces a slight approximation, but it’s precise enough with large numbers.)

If the surplus doesn’t elect someone else they go back to eliminating people again. And so on until all the seats are filled. It’s somewhat baroque but hey, it’s fair – and it’s fantastically dramatic to watch.

Its disadvantage? Multi-seat constituencies mean local representatives are in competition with each other – not just at elections, but all the time. Even when they’re members of the same party. That makes politics… different. More on this some other time.

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3 thoughts on “Ireland’s Election Explained

  1. The City of San Francisco uses an alternate vote (AV, also known as instant-runoff) voting system that’s not too dissimilar from this, except that it’s all for single-winner constituencies, so the losing candidates keep getting dropped until one candidate passes the 50% threshold. I recall explaining this to someone, who said it sounded needlessly complex. I answered “As opposed to the process of your votes being counted up in a statewide election where the results determine which campaign gets to pick that state’s portion of the four hundred and thirty-eight people who will cast ballots a month later and are the only votes who actually technically count?”

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    1. AV is the system they’re talking about using in the UK. It has the advantage of not pitting local representatives against each other, or delivering a candidate that a majority hate, but the results suffer a lot of the same distortion as FPTP. Designing the perfect electoral system is harder than you might expect.

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