Will someone deliver us from this hideously entrancing STV?

I think Splintered Sunrise has got at least one thing bang on the nose in his panegyric analysis of what’s screwed about the Irish Electoral system: “Irish political junkies just find the whole STV experience too much fun. The count is, if you’ve taken part, an often exhilarating ritual.” But he goes on to gently chide: “But by God, it’s not beyond the wit of the Irish to make up another excuse for a hooley.” You’d think not now, wouldn’t you?With Fianna Fail hitting historic lows, lost to its traditional hardline on a national question quietly put to bed by Bertie Ahern and the ubiquitous Peace Process, you might think in the Republic at least it could be time to reconsider a system “invented in Tasmania and imposed by the Brits”.

Splintered goes through the results north and south and notes basically how STV takes what could be read as an FPTP result and then flips it considerably, giving an immediate disadvantage to those parties who are seen as too extreme to attract votes:

If I was a Shinner, I would be deeply scundered at the outcome of the Euro-election in Munster, where Toiréasa Ferris managed an excellent third place, but still missed out on a seat, being overtaken on transfers. Ditto if I was a Fianna Fáiler in Dublin, where Joe Higgins leapt from fourth place on the first count (and having at one point been a good 15,000 votes behind Eoin Ryan) to take the third seat thanks to his superior ability to attract transfers.

He goes on:

So we’ve a situation where votes cast for eliminated candidates are counted twice, or indeed multiple times. What’s also a feature here is that people’s tactical voting often passeth all understanding. I still can’t figure out why appreciable numbers of Fine Gael supporters would transfer to Trotskyist candidates. (Outside of Dún Laoghaire, that is.) It’s true, of course, that legally you can cast as few preferences as you like – we don’t have the Australian system, where you have to vote all the way down the paper – but there’s also a culture of being expected to do so. That’s why you find pensioners from Twinbrook setting out for the polling station with the intention of voting Sinn Féin, and then ending up giving a number four or five to Jeffrey Donaldson. I think there’s something wrong with a system where you’re voting for people you actively despise.

It’s also true that the STV system favours the inoffensive and the ostentatiously moderate, which is maybe why the Brits were so keen to introduce it here back in 1919. Ladies and gentlemen of the jury, I give you the Stormont election of 1982. On that occasion, Sinn Féin polled 10% of the vote and returned five seats – all in constituencies where they made the quota, because they didn’t get any transfers. Alliance, with a lower first preference, racked up an extraordinary ten seats. This is because STV in the north favours Alliance who, as long as they can get enough critical mass to survive to the later counts, will pull in a wheen of transfers from all across the board – they have six MLAs in the current Assembly, of whom only one made quota on first preferences. The same used to be true of the Greens in the south, although maybe not for much longer. Some people may think it’s fine to have a system based on returning the people you find least offensive, but it isn’t very inspiring.

Not very inspiring and it leads to a not very politically savvy political, media and wider polity. The ‘game’ becomes the thing, not the politics of it. When confronted with a genuinely political problem (ie the Lisbon Treaty Referendum), the system effectively cowpes (just like Slugger when confronted with a lunchtime surge of visitors).

Where I slightly depart from him is when he suggests that STV does not favour small parties. It does, but generally only in the middle, not at the radical edge of politics. A glance at the two big FPTP parliamentary systems in the west (US and US) and you see little tolerance from the electorate for voting for anyone other than national winners. I’m not as convinced as him that Joe Higgins would actually ride to victory on that system since a lot of the indirect advantage he gets from STV would be taken from him.

But, he argues, anything has to be better than what we have:

I don’t actually believe that FPTP is the abomination that it’s sometimes made out to be. In some moods, I like the open-list systems the Scandinavians favour, where you can not only vote for your party of choice but also for your candidate of choice within the party list, rather than being bound by party ordering. Or, if you want something familiar, there’s always multi-member SNTV, where in a four-seater the top four win, and if the parties can’t balance their votes then it’s their own look out. Or you can have any mixture you like. I would just like a system that was based on voting for who you like instead of doing a finicky ordering of those you dislike least. And don’t even get me started on Peter Emerson’s “preferendum” hobbyhorse.

And with a final lively kick: “Well, we can only be grateful they didn’t gift us with communal voting rolls. Because that worked really well in Cyprus and Fiji, didn’t it?”

  • PJM

    Having lived there for many years, I can testify that the people of the south will not give up STV without a fight. It allows them to punish candidates in a wide variety of ways – many of us fill our ballots from the bottom up. The biggest problem with the southern Irish version is that it is not proportional enough: particularly for MEPs, the use of 3 seat constituencies makes the whole thing almost random. Ideally you need 5+ seats. If Ireland had 1-2 Euro constituencies not only would the result have been more proportionate but the localism of the electorate would have been diluted.

  • I must be one of those irredeemable political junkies, for I, too, can spend hours with the spreadsheets of transfers.

    Surely Splintered Sunrise has it awry:

    votes cast for eliminated candidates are counted twice, or indeed multiple times. What’s also a feature here is that people’s tactical voting often passeth all understanding. I still can’t figure out why appreciable numbers of Fine Gael supporters would transfer to Trotskyist candidates.

    The first batch of transfer will be any surplus, redistributed according to the balance of the whole vote. Then, yes, eliminations take place, and votes are redistributed according to the whole expressed second (or third or … ) preferences of that candidate.

    Equally, because of the sheer size of STV multi-member constituencies, there is an element of the beauty parade — probably, after the purely parochial favourite-son factor, the third most significant motivation.

    And the intervening second factor?

    That’s the joy of the system: the “Anyone but that bastard” moment. There is something supremely satisfying in deciding who gets the very, very last preference. You know it’ll never be counted; but — oh! bliss! — that moment of inner warmth.

    Not for nothing is the Irish electorate by a long Irish mile the most sophisticated around.
    This was the moral of a story that came to me from a tue son of Kinnegad. General Seán MacEoin had been elected (as SF, CG and FG) for his home patch, Longford-Westmeath, ever since the Second Dáil. In 1965 he lost out.

    The legend I was fed is that, mid-afternoon of election day, solicitous strangers simultaneously sauntered into every bar in the constituency. As said stranger mournfully mouthed his pint, he murmured that it was sad, sad about the poor “Gineral”. What was sad? Ah, had not the poor ould soul just dropped dead?

    The result of this untruth was a drop of nearly a thousand first preferences. Paddy Lenihan took the final seat for FF in the (in)famous “long count”.

    If it’s not true, I don’t want to be disillusioned.

  • Mick Fealty


    I know exactly what you mean. Anything lesser feels like your intelligence as a citizen is being questioned/insulted. (I seriously dislike party lists, for instance). But it’s also a question of the deficit it delivers in political life of the nation.

    As a public rep you have to keep a focus on your bit of the constituency; which has led to the development of a class of magnificent glad-handers, and a political class who continually palm off real decision making to bodies like An Bord Snip agus An Bord Snip Nua. And most latterly, NAMA.

    That’s not a dig at FF btw, it’s a generic problem across the parties.

  • YelloSmurf

    STV = Power to the people. I may elucidate when I’m more awake

  • STV is a great enabler of Heinlein’s adage that you should always vote – even when there’s not someone to vote for, there’s someone to vote against (see Ferris, Toireasa). Multi-member larger constituencies are notionally less prone to parish pump although candidates still insist on staking out territory rather than running and serving as “at-large” candidates.

    FPTP here in Canada is farcical because it entrenches regional strongholds like the Conservatives in Alberta and causes huge seat swings in contested areas on 1-2% of the vote. The Green Party got 937,613 votes nationally out of 13,834,294 and not one seat out of 308.

    However, there is opposition to STV “too complicated, only tinpot countries use it” and List/Mixed Member “I’d rather vote for a parachuted candidate from Party Head Office than, er, a party list made up of candidates devised by Head Office”. STV was twice defeated in BC referendums and MMP defeated in Ontario in the last decade.