2007 Irish Elections

10:08 Sun 27 May 2007. Updated: 14:44 27 May 2007
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Over the last few days, especially on Friday, I watched the count of the Irish election results. The difference from the American system is quite significant, and although there are many reasons for that, a key one is the voting system itself, Single Transferable Vote, which gives individual voters more influence than the winner-takes-all system used in the United States.

In the US system, you vote for one of the candidates, full stop, and whichever of them gets the most votes wins. In Ireland, you vote for candidates in order of preference, and the first round counts all the first preferences. After that, the second round counts second preferences, etc. It’s somewhat more complicated than that, but the Single Transferable Vote Wikipedia article covers it fairly well. The impact of this is to eliminate “wasted” votes, such that if you spend your first preference on an unpopular candidate who never had a chance of being elected, your second preference will still come into play in the race between more competitive candidates. This frees the individual voter, to a certain degree, from having to worry about what candidates have “realistic” chances of election, and instead allws the voter to express their actual preferences.

In addition, in Ireland there are multiple seats per district—for example my district, Dún Laoghaire-Rathdown, has five seats. This is much more advantageous to smaller parties than the US system, because the suport of 20% of the votes (or less, in quite a few cases) can secure a seat, whereas in the US 20% support evenly spread across every Congressional district would result in no wins at all.

In combination, these lead to a political landscape that requires a lot more consensus, and which accommodates a wider range of voices than the US system. I think the additional nuance involved is quite healthy.

There are 166 members of the Dáil (the Irish Parliament). The largest party, Fianna Fáil, have 78 seats, not enough for a majority on their own. This means that they have to go into coalition with other groups in order to govern. Every Irish Government since 1989 has been a coalition of parties. This can grant the smaller parties significant influence, and provides some protection against abuses by the dominant party. On the other hand, it also means that the makeup of the Government is not directly determined by the popular vote, but by maneuvering amongst the parties after the election. In this case, it looks as if Fianna Fáil will ally itself with a number of Independent candidates and one extremely small party (with two representatives) in order to secure a majority, which will give Fianna Fáil a freer hand than joining with a single other party to for the majority. There’s still an outside chance that they would ally with the Green Party, which I’d like to see, but I don’t think this will happen.

The Single Transferable Vote system requires a lot of manual labor to count, and takes a long time. I think that this is a good thing. It involves more people in the democratic process, and is quite transparent—you can go to a voting center and see people doing the counts in the open, and in addition the various candidates all have their representatives present and watching over operations. Because the count takes a long time, and because each round’s tally is publicly announced, there’s a very strong sense of every vote mattering. Overall, the entire process provides a strong sense of democracy as well as the fact of democracy. So I’m rather opposed to the notion of eliminating all of that with e-voting machines, as the leader of Fianna Fa´ wants to. (And this is quite apart from all of the fraud-related problems with those machines, which are also significant.) He seems to have two reasons, both of which I find unconvincing: one, it makes Ireland “look bad” compared to the rest of Europe because we don’t have modern fancy electronic systems, and two, the politicians have to suffer the stress of waiting a long time for the results. The first reasons is quite facile, and in fact Ireland should be very proud of having one of the most openly democratic systems in the world rather than a black box whose results are taken on trust. As for the second, the suffering of the politicians is more than offset by the importance of each voter feeling that their votes matter, which is magnified by seeing the counts swing dramatically after each round.

2 Responses to “2007 Irish Elections”

  1. John Cross Says:

    As well as reducing the number of wasted votes STV also reduces the need for tactical voting and gives voters more choice than under first past the post.

  2. Tadhg Says:

    While I definitely agree that it gives voters significantly more choices, and is a more democratic process, I don’t know if it reduces the need for tactical voting. Rather, it reduces the need for tactical voting in which the voter’s true first preference is given no representation at all, and it makes tactical voting more nuanced—both of which are good things.

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