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 youve taken part, an often exhilarating ritual.” But he goes on to gently chide: “But by God, its 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 weve a situation where votes cast for eliminated candidates are counted twice, or indeed multiple times. Whats also a feature here is that peoples tactical voting often passeth all understanding. I still cant figure out why appreciable numbers of Fine Gael supporters would transfer to Trotskyist candidates. (Outside of Dún Laoghaire, that is.) Its true, of course, that legally you can cast as few preferences as you like we dont have the Australian system, where you have to vote all the way down the paper but theres also a culture of being expected to do so. Thats 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 theres something wrong with a system where youre voting for people you actively despise.
Its 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 didnt 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 its fine to have a system based on returning the people you find least offensive, but it isnt 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 dont actually believe that FPTP is the abomination that its 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, theres always multi-member SNTV, where in a four-seater the top four win, and if the parties cant balance their votes then its 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 dont even get me started on Peter Emersons preferendum hobbyhorse.
And with a final lively kick: “Well, we can only be grateful they didnt gift us with communal voting rolls. Because that worked really well in Cyprus and Fiji, didnt it?”
Mick is founding editor of Slugger. He has written papers on the impacts of the Internet on politics and the wider media and is a regular guest and speaking events across Ireland, the UK and Europe. Twitter: @MickFealty