The Irish Electoral System

The history of our electoral system.

Gerry Costello

The Ballot Box
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The Single Transferable Vote Voting System:

The history and usage of the Single Transferable Vote voting system has been a series of relatively modest periods of usage and dis-usage throughout the world, however today it is seeing increasing popularity and proposed implementation as a method of electoral reform. The Single transferable vote has been used in many different local, regional and national electoral systems, as well as in various other types of bodies, around the world. The concept of transferable voting was first proposed by Thomas Wright Hill in 1819. The system remained unused in public elections until 1855, when Carl Andræ proposed a transferable vote system for elections in Denmark. Andræ’s system was used in 1856 to elect the Danish Rigsdag, and by 1866 it was also adapted for indirect elections to the second chamber, the Landsting, until 1915. Although he was not the first to propose a system of transferable votes, the English barrister Thomas Hare is generally credited with the conception of Single Transferable Voting, and he may have independently developed the idea in 1857. Hare’s view was that STV should be a means of “making the exercise of the suffrage a step in the elevation of the individual character, whether it be found in the majority or the minority.” In Hare’s original STV system, he further proposed that electors should have the opportunity of discovering which candidate their vote had ultimately counted for, to improve their personal connection with voting.

Hare System:

The noted political essayist, John Stuart Mill, was a friend of Hare and an early proponent of STV, praising it in his 1861 essay Considerations on Representative Government. His contemporary, Walter Bagehot, also praised the Hare system for allowing everyone to elect an MP, even ideological minorities, but also added that the Hare system would create more problems than it solved: “the Hare system is inconsistent with the extrinsic independence as well as the inherent moderation of a Parliament – two of the conditions we have seen, are essential to the bare possibility of parliamentary government.” STV spread through the British Empire, leading it to be sometimes known as British Proportional Representation. In 1896, Andrew Inglis Clark was successful in persuading the Tasmanian House of Assembly to adopt what became known as the Hare-Clark system, named after himself and Thomas Hare. In the 20th century, many refinements were made to Hare’s original system, by scholars such as Droop, Meek, Warren and Tideman.

Proportional Representation:

Proportional representation by means of the Single Transferable Vote is used for all public elections in the Republic of Ireland, with the exception of single-winner elections (presidential elections and single-vacancy by-elections) which are conducted under Instant Run-off Voting (that is, an STV election in which there is only a single winner). The most important elections in the Republic are those to Dáil Éireann, the lower house of the Oireachtas. The Dáil is directly elected from constituencies of between three and five seats. The Irish constitution specifies a minimum size of three seats and, although there is no maximum size, there have been no constituencies of more than five seats since 1947.

The Senate and the STV:

In the Senate, the weak upper house, six University seats are filled from two three-seat constituencies, while 43 vocational panel seats are filled on a restricted franchise from five panels of up to eleven seats. The panel election rules depart from true STV by requiring a minimum number of candidates to be elected from each of two sub-panels; in the 2007 Cultural and Educational Panel election Ann Ormonde was elected despite having fewer votes than Terence Slowey when Slowey was eliminated. STV is also used in local and European elections. In elections in the Republic voters are permitted to rank as many or as few candidates as they wish on the ballot paper. All direct elections and are counted by hand; an experiment using computer ballots in three constituencies in the 2002 general election was not repeated. All use the simple Hare method of surplus transfers, except for the Senate panels, which use the Gregory method. STV is also widely used among private organisations, such as student unions. STV was first used in Ireland in 1918, following the recommendation of a Speaker of the House of Commons conference on electoral reform in 1917. Although efforts to introduce STV across the UK had been abandoned, STV was adopted for use in local elections in Sligo in that year, as well to elect the two Members of Parliament returned by the University of Dublin constituency; STV was extended to all Irish local elections later. STV was then used in the Irish general elections of 1921, and subsequently adopted for all elections by the Irish Free State in 1922. Part of the reason for this was to ensure that the new state’s Protestant/Unionist minority received adequate representation in the legislature, but this did not occur in practice. Initially 46% of Dáil members were elected from constituencies of seven, eight or nine seats, until 1935 when seven seats became the largest size. Since 1947 Dáil constituencies have been no larger than five seats. The First Seanad, the senate that existed during the Free State, was originally intended to be directly elected in a popular vote. However this plan was abandoned within a few years so that only one direct senatorial election was ever held. This occurred in 17 September 1925 when, in an event without historical or international parallel, the whole state voted as a single nineteen seat constituency. In the election the ballot paper listed of over seventy candidates, and the count took approximately two weeks to complete. The ultimate results, contrary to the results that might have occurred under a List PR system, strongly favoured non-party candidates.

Attempted Change:

Two attempts have been made by Fianna Fáil governments to abolish STV and replace it with the ‘First Past the Post’ plurality system. Both attempts were rejected by voters in referendums held in 1959 and again in 1968. In the past, gerrymandering was also attempted by several governments, in particular by varying the sizes (that is, the number of seats) of particular constituencies. This attempt backfired, however, in the 1977 general election when a larger than expected vote-swing caused a tipping effect resulting in disproportionate losses for the government. This botched attempt at Gerrymandering became known as the “Tullymander” after minister James Tully. Today constituencies are drawn up by an independent commission. Contrary to the common experience with proportional representation, single party (Fianna Fáil) governments were common in the Republic after the maximum constituency size was cut to five seats, holding power in 23 of the 33 years from 1948 to 1981. However since the 1981 general election coalitions have been the rule.

(Research: Wikipedia)

 

This page was added on 11/02/2015.

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