The single transferable vote – Irish style


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The single transferable vote, which is the form of proportional representation we adhere to in oder to elect our politicians, is a sensible and effective means of democracy. Or is it?

The argument is that it is worth going down the list of candidates in order of preference so that your voting intention can be fully played through in a multi seat constituency.

The notion is that if you want Eamon Gilmore to be elected first in Dun Laoghaire and Ivana Bacik to be elected second, you vote 1,2 and once Gilmore is elected your vote transfers to Bacik. Makes sense. Except that is not how the system works at all.

If Gilmore is elected on the first count with 20 per cent more votes than are needed to reach the quota, the sensible thing to do is to take all of his number one preferences, divide them between the number two preferences, and transfer 20 per cent of their value, including fractions or rounded down, among the remaining candidates. But that would in fact be too sensible. Instead, in a typically easy short cut sort of a fashion, the election officials will take a random sample of the number one preference votes and distribute on that basis.

Now, instead of my second preference vote being accounted for, there is every likelihood it will just be scrapped along with all my other preferences. only if the candidates are eliminated in exactly the order that I have voted for them to be elected will my single transferable vote actually transfer as I intended, albeit without any electoral success. Any other way it’s a single vote which may be transferred in part if it catches the returning officers eye. But that is not quite so catchy.

There is no reason why the transfer of votes cannot be done as the description suggests and the electorate probably believes. In fact the variant of the sytem used to elect Senate candidates in the Republic as well as in Northern Ireland elections does precisely this. It may take a little longer but it is more democratic.

There has been much talk of political reform in this campaign. An easy way to start would be to credit the electorate with the right to have their votes used as they intend. We may be good at taking the lazy short cut but in this case it is not good for us.

Photo courtesy of Red Mum’s Flickr photostream.

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4 Responses

  1. Roasted Snow

    February 22, 2011 3:46 pm

    Always wondered how surpluses were divided given the possibility of a wide range of choice. Thanks for this. Good to know it works better in the North.

  2. paul

    February 22, 2011 4:26 pm

    Surely the problem would come in the third count?
    Lets say Bacik is eliminated, and her votes distributed – how would something like .25 of a vote that she inherited from Gilmore be counted.

    If she was elected with a surplus, it would be even more complicated.

    I’m not sure it couldn’t be done, but I fear my head will explode if I think about it for too long…

  3. Rob Hartnett

    February 22, 2011 5:10 pm

    It would certainly be complicated but my point is that this should not be enough to just not bother. I would look on your example not as a vote she had inherited from Gilmore but rather the stated preference of the voter that when Gilmore was elected or eliminated that the vote should transfer to Bacik.
    Yes there would be fractions of votes but many fractions make a whole and should be counted as such. Of course the easiest way to make it happen would be to have something very fancy such as computerised voting but sure we would never go for that, would we?

  4. Gramsci

    February 23, 2011 9:22 am

    Would like to point out that as far as I know the much-derided e-voting machines would have corrected this anomaly.