A lot of us are confused by the voting system in Ireland. Catherine Gallagher explains the PR-STV system.
The voting system in Ireland is a system that leaves many voters confused with regards to the mechanics behind it.
We operate a PR-STV (Proportional Representation by a Single Transferrable Vote) electoral system which is a process by which seats are allocated on the basis of votes casted. It is unique due to the fact that currently only Ireland and Malta use this model.
From the point of view of the voter, understanding how to cast your vote is quite simple. You are presented with a list of candidates and you are required to indicate your order of preference among them. Your first preference is marked as #1, your second next preference as #2 and so on. Essentially, you are instructing the returning officer what to do with that one vote; to allocate each candidate in the order which you specified.
Our PR-STV system is such as it is best served in multi-seat constituencies, i.e. when more than one candidate in a constituency is to become elected. It is not simply a case of who achieves over 50 per-cent of first-preference votes. This would really only work where there is just one seat to be filled.
The quota required for a candidate to become elected changes year-on-year. Why is this the case, you might ask?
The quota is calculated as follows:
Total number of valid votes
-------------------------------------     + 1
Number of seats + 1
Once a candidate has reached this quota, they are declared elected.
Once the first preferences have been counted, we move on then to the second count. Let us take an example; candidate A received 12,000 first preference votes in the first count, which exceeded the quota of 10,000. They are now elected. That means that there are 2,000 surplus votes that are now redundant to them as they are elected. Those 2,000 surplus votes are the redistributed to the other candidates, according to the second preferences of the supporters of candidate A.
If these surplus votes result in another candidate being elected, the process is repeated until there are no extra votes to be reassigned.
The next step is to eliminate the candidates with the lowest number of votes. The votes of an eliminated candidate are then redistributed to their next highest preference.
This operation is repeated until either:
a) All available seats are filled or:
b) The number of candidates remaining is equal to the number of seats available.
Essentially, in scenario (b), this may technically allow candidates who have not reached the original quota to become elected. Eliminating a candidate(s) when there are no more votes to be reallocated and there are still available seats would not be an option as this would result in a constituency not being represented effectively.
In essence, in particular with the process of transferring votes throughout the counting procedure in an election, it is a system that does not necessarily favour the larger parties. PR-STV does not easily facilitate single-party governments, the last of which was the 1987-89 Fianna Fáil administration. It allows for more diverse voices and perspectives from both small parties and Independents respectively.
As we saw in the 2016 General Election, it was regarded as a shift in traditional Irish politics as we knew it to be. The two historic power parties could not, by themselves or in coalition with another party, form a clear majority government.
The results were such that Fine Gael and the Independent Alliance formed a government. However, they are only in power with the assistance of Fianna Fáil. This comes as part of the confidence-and-supply agreement. This was marked as historic ground in Ireland. Fianna Fáil’s condition of support was that, for example, a budget could not be passed without Fianna Fáil’s approval of a given budget or abstention from the vote.
There are those who criticise the PR-STV model for turning it into “personality” politics rather than “party” politics. With this, voters may identify candidates on the ballot paper more closely with their local agendas rather than the political party they are associated with. TDs may in turn feel under pressure to “deliver the goods” to their constituencies by bringing local issues to the attention of even government level.
However, it cannot be overlooked that due to the fact that party identification is declining, PR-STV manages to maximise the power of the voters. It allows them to present a wealth of information about their evaluation of parties and candidates alike. They have more freedom express opinion, rather than saying just “Yes” to one party and “No” to the rest, as is the case in other electoral systems.