This weekend, the Constitutional Convention will meet and discuss our electoral system and will consider recommendations for its alteration.
The electoral system is essentially the rules of the political game determining how the choices of voters are translated into the selection of our representatives to Dáil Éireann. In Ireland we use a rather unique system, shared only with Malta, known as Proportional Representation by Single Transferable Vote (PRSTV). Irish voters vote for candidates in order of preference in multi-seat geographical constituencies. Such a system has a number of effects on how politics works in Ireland.
Our electoral system is fundamentally proportional. This means that political parties’ seats in Dáil Éireann are allocated based on the proportion of votes received in the General Election. The threshold for entry into Dáil Éireann is low enough to allow a reasonable variety of political parties to win seats and therefore ensures a wide range of voices are heard in the Dáil chamber. Therefore, it encourages the development of a multi-party system where Irish voters can choose from a reasonable variety of different political platforms in elections.
In stark contrast are states, like the United Kingdom, with “winner takes all” systems facilitated by single seat constituencies. Here a candidate can only win a seat if they are the single most popular candidate in their constituency. It is difficult for more than two big parties to meaningfully compete in such a system. Smaller parties are largely squeezed out while the big two (Conservative and Labour parties) are heavily over represented. The result is a party system dominated by two parties with restrictive choice for the British electorate.
However, our system is not the most proportional. The Israeli parliament, the Knesset, is elected by a “list” system. The whole country is the one, single constituency where voters vote not for candidates but for political parties. Any party that receives 2% or more of the national vote is given seats in the Israeli Knesset in proportion to the votes they received overall. This system has encouraged the development of a varied multi party system in Israel with thirteen political parties holding seats in the current Knesset (there are currently four parties represented in Dáil Éireann as well as the United Left Alliance, a coalition of a number of left wing parties).
The major defence of single seat constituencies and non-proportional systems is that they lead to stable government. The current Conservative/Liberal Democrat coalition in Britain is the first coalition in that country since the 1940-5 War Cabinet led by Winston Churchill when the Conservatives actually had a majority on their own but formed a national government to avoid a 1940 election in the middle of the war.
Proportional systems, on the other hand, make single party government quite difficult to form. In Israel, the current government has five different political parties represented at cabinet. Coalitions are often considered less stable than single party governments. However, they also tend to be more representative of the overall population, by virtue of including a more diverse range of political opinion. In Ireland coalitions are the norm but single party governments have been formed in the past under Fianna Fáil.
The unique element of the Irish system is its method of ensuring proportionality. After the votes are first counted the candidate with the least votes is eliminated and their votes apportioned out to the remaining candidates based on the “No.2” choices on their ballots. This process is continued, taking into account third, fourth preferences et cetera if needs be, until the number of candidates remaining equals the number of seats available (such a number of candidates have reached the ‘quota’: the number of votes required to ensure election regardless of the elimination of further candidates).
This process means that it is quite difficult for any candidate to get elected based solely on votes supporting one party. In the 2011 General Election, Fianna Fáil struggled to get transfers from outside the party and ended up with fewer seats than their proportion of first preference votes would suggest. The result of this process is that adversarial politics is not as prominent as elsewhere and also extreme parties have never been able to gain a foothold in Irish politics.
It is also easier to gauge voter preferences as to coalition forming; the high transfer rate between Fine Gael and Labour candidates in 2011 was a strong indicator that a coalition between the two parties was the preferred choice of government for most Irish voters. As our constituencies are defined by geographical boundaries, it is ensured that regional interests are given a voice in political discussion in Ireland. It ensures that no one regional voice dominates, be it the interests of major cities or of rural populations.
However, some argue that it also leads to ‘parish pump’ politics, whereby TDs neglect their roles as national legislators and are concerned almost purely with ensuring that money flows into their local areas. Others argue that such an attitude by TDs is promoted more by our lack of strong local government.
Finally, in Ireland we vote for candidates rather than parties as would be the case in a list based system. The combination of broad proportionality and voting for individuals rather than parties facilitates the election of non-party TDs or independents. While independent parliamentarians are observed in many states, Ireland stands out due to our election of such a large number of them. In single seat constituencies, or list based systems, it is extremely difficult to get elected without party backing. The ability to vote for an individual rather than a party means giving Irish voters a choice within the major political parties.
Fine Gael, Fianna Fáil and Labour run more than one candidate in most constituencies giving voters an extra degree of choice not really apparent in list based systems. The identities of the candidates who take up a party’s seats in a list based system are largely decided by central party apparatuses rather than voters.
There are a broad range of options that the Constitutional Convention will likely consider. What is important to note is that every choice made in the formation of our electoral system will have significant effect in determining the nature of politics in Ireland.