Where your votes go

Alan Smith attempts the unenviable task of explaining Ireland’s proportional representative system, to arm students with knowledge of where their numbers are going.

When the Irish electorate go to the polls on Friday 25th, we will be met by that familiar sheet of paper. Some might wonder why they can’t just put an ‘X’ next to their favourite, while others might enjoy ranking their prospective TD’s in numerical order. What does it all mean though? And how does this electoral system work?

Proportional Representation by the Single Transferable Vote, otherwise known in abbreviated form as PR-STV, has been used on this island to elect our local, national and European government since gaining independence.

Basically, PR-STV is considered to be a more democratic electoral system in comparison to, say, the British First Past the Post (FPTP) system because it is based on proportionality. FPTP can sometimes bring up unfair results (like the 2005 UK election where Labour picked up 35% of the vote and around 55% of the seats, but the Liberal Democrats got 22 % of the vote and just 10% of the seats.)

In its simplest form, you rank candidates in order of preference by marking a number next to their name: ‘1’ for your favourite, ‘2’ for the next best and so on. However, this is where some people get lost, how does it work from there and why does the counting process seem so damn complicated to the casual observer?

While it is perhaps unnecessary for regular voters to understand the full mechanics of the system, it does help to figure out what the process is behind the scenes in City Hall when the count begins. Indeed, counting halls will appear wonderfully chaotic on Saturday week, and it is worthwhile to pop your head in the door for a look and embrace the madness of it all.

Firstly, before you can pull on your anorak and act all nerdy, you’ll need to have some grasp of how it all works. The basic logic behind PR-STV is that in each constituency, a quota is set and candidates must reach that figure to be elected.

The ‘Droop Quota,’ which actually sounds like a wicked consequence of an over-the-top RAG week,  is the total number of votes cast, divided by the amount of seats plus one, plus a further one. Take a three-seat constituency, such as Cork South West for example, and the quota would be 25% of the vote + 1. Simple!

Well, maybe not. But what it does guarantee is that the system is incredibly proportional and fair. Let’s presume that we are in a mini little constituency now, where there are two seats up for grabs. Just 30 people vote, and using the above formula, the quota becomes 11 votes for the first seat.

On the first count, each voter’s first preference will be counted. If a candidate reaches the quota within that amount of time, then his surplus votes will be transferred over to the others. The surplus, basically, is the amount of votes over the quota a candidate obtains in the round. So say John Smith needs a quota of 1,000 votes to be elected, but ends up with 1,234: the surplus of 234 will be transferred in the second round.

If no candidate reaches the quota, the person with the lowest number of votes will be eliminated, and the same method is applied where those second preferences from all the eliminated candidates’ votes, rather than a surplus seeing as they haven’t reached a quota, will be transferred in the next count.

Now, this is where your number two comes into play. Whether it is because of elimination or a candidate is elected, your second choice preferences will be transferred over into the second round and the same formula is implied again and again until the required amount of candidates reach the quota.

If there still isn’t a candidate elected by the end of round two, which is unusual, then the lowest hopeful TD will be eliminated and the same formula will be applied again. The same methodology goes for a candidate elected on the second count, only difference being that it is your third preference that is being counted next time round.

And that in itself is the reason why you should put down more than one choice on the ballot paper, because even a second preference vote will count if your first choice is eliminated or elected.

Still a little bit confused? I can’t blame you. Nevertheless, even a brief knowledge of the workings can be a benefit to you as you go to the polls on Friday week, and with an unprecedented turnout expected, you can impress (or maybe scare off) those around you with your impressive knowledge of the count.

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