Tomorrow will be the first time I vote in Ireland—and the very first time I vote in any country other than the United States.
Ireland has a two-house parliament, known as the “Oireachtas.” Tomorrow’s election will be for the lower, most powerful house, which is directly elected at least once every five years under a “single transferable vote system of proportional representation in multiple seat constituencies” or “STV” for short.
Coming as I do from a country with a two-party system where “winner takes all,” this mouthful was a bit hard for me to wrap my tongue (and head) around. Now that I understand it better, though, I really like it!
Here’s a pretty good explanation (despite an appalling number of typos!) of how it works:
Single” is crucial – because we each really have only one vote, despite the fact we are asked on a ballot paper to vote 1,2,3… in the order we prefer the candidates. The preferences 2,3,4, etc are our instructions to the election counter, the returning officer, on what to do with our “single” vote if our first preference candidate is not in with a chance of election. Or if he/she, in being elected, has amassed more votes than he strictly needs.
In either case, the whole vote, or part of it, is “transfered” [sic] to another candidate.
Crucial to understanding how this is done is the “quota” – this is simply the number of votes needed to get elected and it varies with the number of seats in a constituency.
In a single-seat constituency – like the presidential election – the quota is 51 per cent of votes cast.
Clearly, only one candidate can reach this figure, so another way of defining the quota is that it is “the number of votes which can only be achieved by the number of candidates to be elected.”
In a two-seat constituency, it would be possible for three candidates each to have 33 per cent of the vote (33 x 3= 99), but only two can possibly have as much as 34 per cent (34 x 3= 102). So 34 is then the winning line, or quota.
In a three-seat contest, using the same logic, it is theoretically possible for four candidates to each have 25 per cent of the vote. But we only want three elected – only three candidates can achieve 26 per cent, the quota in this case.
If candidate A reaches the quota he/she is deeemed [sic] elected and the returning officer then subtracts the quota from A’s vote to calculate the surplus.
That surplus can then be divided between the remaining candidates in proportion to A’s second preferences – this ensures that votes for A are not wasted if there are more than enough to elect him.
Similarly, if there are no candidates elected during one of the many counts that the system usually requires, the returning officer counts the second preferences of the candidate with fewest votes and distributes them accordingly.
The two processes – distribution of surpluese [sic] and eliminations – are repeated, often many times, carrying on through the available preferences, until the required number of candidates is elected.
At the end of the election it often happens that the last elected is elected without reaching the quota – this happens because voters often do not use all their preferences up and so votes end up transfering [sic] nowhere.
This feature of the system has two effects – it lowers the effective quota at the end of the counting process allowing some candidates to be elcted [sic] without reaching the quota, and it means that those parties or individuals who are better at attracting lower preferences get a bonus from the system in terms of seats.
Ok, I don’t totally understand it! What is clear, however, is that it offers a voter a much better chance at representation than the system currently in effect in America. It also guarantees small, alternative parties or independent candidates a shot at getting elected.
So, here is a list of choices for my district tomorrow. Four of them will be elected:
As you can see, my district’s three outgoing TD’s (“Teachta Dála” or deputy—one TD is not standing for re-election) run the gamut from far right (Michael McDowell, who I’ve previously compared here to Karl Rove or Dick Cheney) to far left, Daithi Doolan who is Sinn Féin.
For the first time in my political life, I feel like I have choices who actually reflect my politics.