STV-PR: They’re Counting On Your Vote

Well, what now?

It’s all very well to issue a single sustained clarion blast. It’s a little tougher to actually gather forces and have a clear idea of what to do with them.

Nonetheless the last few days have seen the bare, tentative sketching of the kinds of things a push for change would involve.

I warn you, here comes the science bit.

The Single Transferable Vote (STV) version of Proportional Representation (PR) which it is our good fortune to work within is a beautifully crafted tool for ensuring that the range of opinion within both constituencies and the Republic as a whole are broadly represented.

No vote is wasted and on aggregate we get a set of representatives who reflect their constituents. Not only is no vote wasted, but the STV system also ensures that small margins of victory are commonplace, putting a premium on every vote and every preference expressed within that vote.

I’d like to run through the method and meaning of this system at some length for the benefit of people who have been busy living their lives and may have missed that day in primary school. I am far from an expert and there are certain subtleties (such as the method of distributing surpluses) which defy short description even if I had the required knowledge. But for the time being, this may stand as a rough guide to voting in Ireland.

Using the STV-PR system is simplicity itself. You read the list of candidates standing in your constituency and rate them in order of your preference from one to however far down the list you want to go.

The further down the list you go, the greater potential your vote has in affecting the result. Let’s take Tipperary North from the last election as an example. The candidates were.
Coonan, Noel (FG)
Dwan, Bill (PD)
Hocter, Máire (FF)
Lowrey, Michael (Ind)
O’Meara, Kathleen (Lab)
Smith, Michael (FF)

There are three seats available.

I could just plump for Michael Lowrey, writing a 1 beside his name in honour of him showing those Dublin Tribunal barristers a thing or two (sure, wasn’t it his own land he was building on?). Or I could vote all the way down the ticket using whatever criteria I feel like. Maybe I’ve decided to match the candidate’s policies to my own beliefs and vote all the way down in order of how closely they match. Or, I vote for people according to how close to my house they live. Or how lovely they look on their posters. Or I’m a strictly-along-party-lines voter.

Any and all of these factors can be decisive in deciding who gets elected. Who knows what the 340 people who voted for the PD candidate first and gave their second preference votes to Labour’s Kathleen O’Meara felt was their top priority. But whatever it was, our system allows them their opinion and gives it equal weight to all others. Any system so accommodating of personal whim is a joy in itself.

So, you’ve voted and the great count day has arrived. What now?

Well, now things get really fun. Its time to start stacking piles of first preference votes up. Depending on the number of votes, and the number of candidates and whether the moon is in the eighth house of Aquarius, a quota is determined- that’s the winning line.

Discarding spoilt votes, we end up with six piles in Tipperary North. Bill Dwan (PD) gets the lowest score (1,446) so his votes are distributed to the other piles according to their second preferences.

It turned out that PD voters in Tipp-North have catholic tastes. Three hundred odd votes were doled out to each of the remaining candidates. (Not Michael Lowry- he was elected on the first count with more than the 10,242 quota).

Well, nobody has reached the quota line yet so the next smallest pile is eliminated and those votes sent to their next home. And so on until 3 people have reached the quota or they’re the last man standing.

Getting elected on your first preference votes is unusual. Most candidates’ chances of success will depend on their ability to convince people that they’d be acceptable as a second, third or even fifth best choice.

Of course, this also means that if you find a particular candidate uniquely loathsome you can vote for everyone else available, to ensure that your vote will definitely assist one of their rivals. In the 2002 election you would have had 14 chances not to vote for Michael Mulcahy in Dublin South Central, to pick an example almost at random.

I might not have taken all of the chances, but the choice was there.

So, what do all these numbers add up to? In sum, so to speak, the clear realisation that
(a) every vote really does count and
(b) on minor decisions, well down the voting preference list, elections are won or lost.

In 2002 there were two constituencies where the margin of victory for the last seat was less than 10 votes. Cork South Central saw Kathy Sinnot lose to FF’s John Denehy by six votes. And in Limerick West, one of FG’s candidates beat the other by just one vote.

Only 9 seats had a margin of victory of less than 500 votes back in 1997. By 2002 that had risen to 18 seats. I think that will rise further by 2007.

The next election will be one where, depending on your constituency, you, your family and your friends may be a large enough voting block to decide the last seat. And given our tight Dáil arithmetic, that may be enough to decide the government.

Irish voting doesn’t force us to choose between the pragmatic (who is most likely to win?) and the ideal (who would I like to win?). Our system allows us to express our answers to both questions though intelligent use of our preferences.

A successful campaign will have to involve a message that all votes are welcome. But more basically than that, it will have to involve ensuring that as many people as possible get the chance to vote.

-Exploring those questions of demographics and registration will have to wait for another day here. But perhaps someone else might want to take up the baton?

(featured image by Anthony Catalano)

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