A psephological interlude


Fianna Fáil once abolished the Senate, and it was a good day’s work. Although, as we know, the slippery buggers then resurrected it as a sinecure. What’s probably more significant is their failure to abolish the STV electoral system. Which is kind of a pity, because notwithstanding the Irish people’s sentimental attachment to STV, it’s not a system I particularly like.

The system does of course have its advantages. It’s reasonably proportional, while retaining a local link. It makes representatives work extremely hard for their votes, though this also has the side effect of turning TDs, councillors and (in the north) MLAs into glorified social workers, and not even very good social workers. Certainly it’s a hell of a lot better than the undemocratic closed-list PR system the Brits have introduced for European elections. But what winds me up more than anything else is what’s often claimed to be the system’s best point, the transferable bit. I’ll explain by illustration.

If I was a Shinner, I would be deeply scundered at the outcome of the Euro-election in Munster, where Toiréasa Ferris managed an excellent third place, but still missed out on a seat, being overtaken on transfers. Ditto if I was a Fianna Fáiler in Dublin, where Joe Higgins leapt from fourth place on the first count (and having at one point been a good 15,000 votes behind Eoin Ryan) to take the third seat thanks to his superior ability to attract transfers. I say this without rancour, because I would myself have voted for Joe and I’m very pleased that he’s won.

Or look at the north. Leaving aside Bairbre de Brún, the sole candidate to make the quota, the order of the next three candidates on the first count was Dodds-Nicholson-Maginness. On the second count it went to Maginness-Nicholson-Dodds, as Alliance and Green transfers favoured the SDLP and to a slightly lesser extent UCUNF; thus, the hapless Diane Dodds slipped from second to fourth. And on the third count, with Jim Allister’s transfers being distributed, the lineup was Nicholson-Dodds-Maginness. Noteworthy, for the purposes of this argument, that Allister mobilised 66,000 anti-agreement unionist votes which then transferred to pro-agreement lundies, which sort of defeats the point.

So we’ve a situation where votes cast for eliminated candidates are counted twice, or indeed multiple times. What’s also a feature here is that people’s tactical voting often passeth all understanding. I still can’t figure out why appreciable numbers of Fine Gael supporters would transfer to Trotskyist candidates. (Outside of Dún Laoghaire, that is.) It’s true, of course, that legally you can cast as few preferences as you like – we don’t have the Australian system, where you have to vote all the way down the paper – but there’s also a culture of being expected to do so. That’s why you find pensioners from Twinbrook setting out for the polling station with the intention of voting Sinn Féin, and then ending up giving a number four or five to Jeffrey Donaldson. I think there’s something wrong with a system where you’re voting for people you actively despise.

It’s also true that the STV system favours the inoffensive and the ostentatiously moderate, which is maybe why the Brits were so keen to introduce it here back in 1919. Ladies and gentlemen of the jury, I give you the Stormont election of 1982. On that occasion, Sinn Féin polled 10% of the vote and returned five seats – all in constituencies where they made the quota, because they didn’t get any transfers. Alliance, with a lower first preference, racked up an extraordinary ten seats. This is because STV in the north favours Alliance who, as long as they can get enough critical mass to survive to the later counts, will pull in a wheen of transfers from all across the board – they have six MLAs in the current Assembly, of whom only one made quota on first preferences. The same used to be true of the Greens in the south, although maybe not for much longer. Some people may think it’s fine to have a system based on returning the people you find least offensive, but it isn’t very inspiring.

Now let’s look at the functional issue of voting reform. Fianna Fáil’s efforts along these lines in decades past failed on the argument from opposition parties that the introduction of FPTP would assure Fianna Fáil government forever. But it ain’t necessarily so. In any case, that’s a function of the party system more than the electoral system. Under STV, you can very nearly have Fianna Fáil government forever as long as they can muster about 75 TDs, or even fewer, and are better placed than the main opposition to form a coalition. (Recall here that Fine Gael hasn’t actually won a Leinster House election since 1982.) Under FPTP, they could win a decisive majority, but then they could also be decisively defeated. It all relies on the voters.

Nor does STV necessarily give small parties a fairer crack of the whip. If they have trouble winning transfers, it doesn’t. You need a geographical concentration, while on a party-list system a thinly-spread national vote might be enough. Anyway, is it inconceivable that, say, Joe Higgins couldn’t be elected a TD under FPTP? I would suggest not. He’d only need to get perhaps 35-40% of the vote in a small constituency instead of 15% in a big one, and that’s not beyond his capacities or those of the Socialist Party. Besides which, tactical voting will manifest under just about any system.

Not, I hasten to add, that I have a much better system to pull out of my left ear. I don’t actually believe that FPTP is the abomination that it’s sometimes made out to be. In some moods, I like the open-list systems the Scandinavians favour, where you can not only vote for your party of choice but also for your candidate of choice within the party list, rather than being bound by party ordering. Or, if you want something familiar, there’s always multi-member SNTV, where in a four-seater the top four win, and if the parties can’t balance their votes then it’s their own look out. Or you can have any mixture you like. I would just like a system that was based on voting for who you like instead of doing a finicky ordering of those you dislike least. And don’t even get me started on Peter Emerson’s “preferendum” hobbyhorse.

You know what I think? I think Irish political junkies just find the whole STV experience too much fun. The count is, if you’ve taken part, an often exhilarating ritual. But by God, it’s not beyond the wit of the Irish to make up another excuse for a hooley. It’s just a little curious that we’ve become so attached to a voting system invented in Tasmania and imposed by the Brits. Well, we can only be grateful they didn’t gift us with communal voting rolls. Because that worked really well in Cyprus and Fiji, didn’t it?


  1. Mark P said,

    June 10, 2009 at 12:16 am

    I can assure you that nobody was finding the counting process all that exhilarating by 4 AM.

    STV has advantages and disadvantages.

    Sure, the Socialist Party could win seats in West or North Dublin under FPTP now and for the last while, but it may have been a lot more difficult to get into a position where you can win in the first place. The biggest advantage of STV is the absence of the “wasted vote” argument, which often cripples smaller parties when they are trying to develop a base in the first place. “The people you really hate will win if you vote for the party you actually like” is an argument that’s particularly hard to make fly under STV even as compared to most forms of PR.

    In general FPTP as compared to any proportional form of voting tends to produce a system with few viable parties. Normally you get two (or one) dominant party, possibly with a bit of regional variation. PR in any form tends to make smaller parties electorally viable.

    As an aside, any form of proportional representation would have left FF best placed to form a government after almost every election for the simple reason that they have a huge voting base. FPTP by contrast would have left them with an overall majority most of the time. Well, for a while anyway, as you may well have seen a reconfiguration of the party system so that Labour and Fine Gael merged in order to become competitive.

    I agree though that STV tends to reward the bland more than other forms of PR.

  2. Doloras said,

    June 10, 2009 at 9:11 pm

    The real question with PR is what kind of threshold is necessary to win a seat. In Irish STV, the effective threshold is about 20% of [1] votes in a three-seater, or maybe 12% in a five seater. Compare that to New Zealand or Germany’s mixed list/FPTP systems (5% nationwide), or Israel’s pure list system (1.5% nationwide). Compare that also to FPTP’s 35-40% in a tiny area.

    Interestingly, historically socialist/social-democratic parties got a foothold in FPTP systems because of the massive geographical concentration of the working class in those days. Not any more. Green parties only get anyway under PR, on the other hand, because their middle-class liberal base is so widely dispersed.

  3. Jack said,

    June 10, 2009 at 9:14 pm

    Actually, STV does not force the voter to vote for someone she despises. It gives her the option to specify where her vote (or fraction of it) should go if it cannot go to a more preferred person. In sum, it allows the voter to express her range of preferences. This is empowering, as can be seen in contrast with SNTV. which does not allow for this. Under that system, the voter has no say over the prospects for a candidate she despises but many other voters nonetheless strongly prefer.

  4. Tom Griffin said,

    June 11, 2009 at 12:26 pm

    The biggest advantage of STV is the absence of the “wasted vote” argument, which often cripples smaller parties when they are trying to develop a base in the first place.

    Perhaps that would be put a stop to arguments like the interminable moaning going on at the moment about how the Socialists/Socialist Labour/No2EU ‘let in the BNP’.

  5. derek said,

    June 18, 2009 at 6:24 am

    If you don’t like full STV and you aren’t that keen on FPTP, why not advocate a system where the vote is single and transferable, *once*? The voters gets to vote for their quirky favorite, and a ‘safe’ tactical fallback choice, and that’s all. No nonsense about filling in dozens of options.

    I notice the London Mayoral elections have this system, but I haven’t seen analyses of how satisfactorily it works. And I was disappointed, as a data junkie, to learn that they just stop counting up the second choices once they stop affecting the result any more. I’d have liked them to tally it all so I could see the results in a matrix of first against second choices.

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