Three ballots on the same day

So despite Peter Robinson’s concerns that it will confuse voters if the ballot on voting reform, it seems that the AV Referendum will happen on the same day as both the Assembly Elections and the local council elections – 5th May 2011.

Following the totally unpredictable SNAFU around local government reform, readers will recall that the plans to condense the current twenty six local authorities down to eleven super councils next year has meant that Councillors in NI have been without a real electoral mandate since 2009 when elections should have been held.

These were abandoned in anticipation of the 2011 changes at which the number of councillors was intended to fall (though not as dramatically as the number of Councils – the super councils were expected to have a larger number of Councillors each leaving Northern Ireland with about 80% of the original 528 elected positions surviving).

So it could reasonably be expected that Northern Ireland will have a much larger than average turnover of Councillors in 2011. The longer electoral cycle will be one factor. A larger factor – one that I picked up at a National Association of Councillors meeting a while ago was a widespread feeling among councillors (admittedly, before the 2011 reforms fell through) that the reduced number of places and the changes meant that it was time for a change. As Alan picked up a while ago, there are already a lot of co-options there facing their first electoral test (both in the Assembly and local councils) and a larger number of older councillors than usual will be standing down this time.

So this will be a much more disrupted election than most. The confusion caused by AV, the higher-than-average lack of incumbency and the amount of water that has flowed under the bridge will all, in turn, have some knock-on to the Assembly results.

One question that I’m not entirely clear upon: How strongly are the NI parties going to campaign on the AV referendum – and how is this going to impact on the results? I suspect that SF regard it as an unwelcome distraction and the UUP will follow the Tories in campaigning against it (though I’m happy to be corrected on both of these points). The DUP are opposed and the SDLP are in favour of it. Will they want to distract from their wider message by spending much time talking about an issue that will have a low priority for the voters?

As Brian noticed a while back, this puts Northern Ireland in an odd position: The fact that the referendum is happening on the same day as a big election in Northern Ireland means that there is likely to be a larger turnout for the AV vote by comparison with the rest of the UK. It is, however, an issue that local politicians are likely to downplay in order to de-clutter their message. So we will have a situation where the place that has had the lowest quality of debate on the subject will have a disproportionately high impact on the result?

And I’ll finish off with an opinionated provocation for you: I hate referendums. They’re profoundly undemocratic for a variety of reasons and I regard the idea of using them to decide our electoral system is about as good an idea as using trial-by-combat to pick a Nobel Peace Prize winner. Northern Ireland’s disproportionate impact on the UK’s AV decision is another argument to add to the list.

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  • Brian Walker

    Paul, A certain correction:
    “The fact that the referendum is happening on the same day as a big election in Northern Ireland means that there is likely to be a larger turnout for the AV vote by comparison with the rest of the UK”

    Than England, not “the rest of the UK” I suggest – but even there, who knows? Turnout may be higher than you’d think if voters treat it as a referendum on the coalition. The parties are already preempting that possibility by refusing to treat it as such.

    The Scots and Welsh will have quite a lot of mixing to do with their devolved elections. But you’re right, there’s an awful lot of politics to play out before May .

    I don’t see how you can change the electoral system, a constitutional measure, without a referendum.

  • fudged

    UUP should be in favour of AV on basis of general election calculations at the time which suggested UUP would have taken three seats.UCUNF would have been a triumph .In fact the first past the post exagerates the polarization in elections allowing DUP/ Sinn Fein scare tactics eg Upper Bann DUP ‘s success in squeezing out UUP with’ Vote UUP get Sinn Fein’.Similarly South Antrim Sinn Fein’s possibility of squeezing through if the unionist vote had split evenly may have swung votes to DUP at the end . UCUNF was not the failure most pundits suggest it was a good first outing for the joint ticket 102,000 votes excluding the FST candidate and under AV would have been a success with 3 seats.

  • Well that delusional thinking will keep me suitably amused to get thru friday afternoon.

  • Gah! Yes, of course. I intended to correct that before I hit pubish and I thought I had – the phone rang and distracted me (or something).

    That said, the Welsh at Scottish will have different turnout levels as their regional elections will have different importance levels locally so there is still an asymmetry of sorts.

  • I think you’re working on the basis that elections are some kind of contest in which there’s a prize for getting a lot of votes all over the country. If that were the case, the BNP, UKIP and the LibDems would have had brilliant UK elections in recent years.

    Change the rules and I suspect the DUP would adapt to achieve the same result under the new ones. The UUP are in much deeper trouble than I think you’re admitting here?

  • Neil

    UCUNF was not the failure most pundits suggest it was


    a good first outing for the joint ticket

    In a way you could describe it as ‘a first outing’, but equally accurately you could describe it as the oldest political party in NI, continuing it’s steady decline. To zero seats.

    A real success story. As FD says, delusional at best.

  • PrivateBob

    OK, I’ll bite..why are referenda ‘profoundly undemocratic’? Surely the most democratic way to approve or disprove any legislation is by a referendum? You know..democracy..from the greek dêmos and Kratos meaning people and power?

    I know that referenda have flaws, especially when they are alongside elections..but calling them profoundly undemocratic sounds like you don’t understand the definition of either referendum or democracy (or profound).

  • PrivateBob,

    OK. I could write my own list, but Wikipedia’s one is fairly comprehensive.

    In summary, I’d argue that referendums actually result in voters having *less* power than they would in a representative democracy (which I’d defend strongly). It’s the main subject of my (admittedly wilting) blog.

    Referendums hand enormous power to media owners and anyone with convening power and they almost entirely remove any deliberative element of policy-making.

    If you wanted an argument that doesn’t appear in the textbook criticisms of referendums, I’d agree with Cass Sunstein’s view that – when policy issues become explicit and are opened out to wider debate, the nuances fly out of the window and you are left with two extreme polar opposites. I’d argue that a large volume of mild preferences (the ones that influence politicians) are a much better way of identifying what is The General Will than a plebiscite that gets a disproportionate input from people who feel very strongly.

    On an trivial note, I’m told that the plural of ‘referendum’ is ‘referendums’ – apparently ‘referenda’ is a fairly recent invention.

    Whatever they’re called, I hate them.

  • Quintin Oliver


    I’ll not take you up on your throwaway aside on the value of referendums (but yes, you do have the correct plural, at least!) as a whole – see as but one example.

    But, the three votes on one day is certainly wrong, not only for the awkward logistics (I bet the Electoral Commission and the Electoral Office aren’t too chuffed) but because:

    – Any referendum deserves a full and uncluttered debate, separate from election dynamics

    – This referendum will be dominated by the English, from Westminster especially, for whom different voting systems are new, unlike Scotland, Wales and NI where we are more familiar with them

    – How can the media separate a debate on candidiates, constituencies and local issues, from a huge constituutional question? In the same studio, with the same politicians, almost in the same sentence, but with overlapping alliances and positions?

    – How will the legalities of funding and spending be separated, with wholly different rules applying to the elections and the UK-wide referendum?

    – Why are we judging this by cost and turnout? Does increased turnout automatically be good (as debated previously, that’s questionable)

  • Nuances need not fly out the window – as long as you have more than two options to vote on. Rank half a dozen solutions, and you will find what people will settle on, as Peter Emerson has conclusively demonstrated in the deBorda preferendum (

    The problem with referendums is that they force you to answer the question some politician or official has designed in order to come up with his or her ‘right answer’.

    Imagine, instead of voting yes or no on one voting system, then looking to change again after the next election, we could rank all the voting systems at once.

    But as the preferendum was invented first in revolutionary France, then again in Northern Ireland, it will be ignored in Westminster as “not invented here”.

  • Seymour Major

    “Turnout may be higher than you’d think if voters treat is as a referendum on the coalition”

    How can you treat it as a referendum on the coalition when one coalition partner is in favour and one is against?

  • Seymour Major


    I think there are only two seats where the result may have been different last May with AV. Belfast East where I think Peter Robinson would have sneaked it. In South Antrim, Sir Reg would probably have won the seat. I agree though that if AV had been in place, the parties would have played it differently.

    It is possible that the system could work against Sinn Fein. It would require high concept tactical voting by unionists. In a seat where only Sinn Fein could win, they might transfer enough first preference votes to the SDLP so that they are not eliminated and all the rest of their second preference votes.

  • fudged

    I was trying to say was that if UCUNF concept(or better named equivalent)held its nerve ,they could reap better electoral rewards through AV .Also Harry Hamilton may have sqeaked through in Upper Bann as the DUP last minute threat of Sinn Fein winning(remember ‘vote Hamilton get Sinn Fein’) would have been neutralized and not have polarized the vote.Also Nesbitt in Strangford would have been close after transfers?
    Depending on your politics there are some good things ( tackling excessive waste , reducing deficit and satisfying international bond markets to avoid PIG status) coming out of our new national UK coaltion government which whether you like all or not it is the first government elected by more than 50% of UK electorate sinve the war.It must be regrettable that we have litlle influence in discussions on the level of public spending allocated here and to tax,welfare,defence and foreign policy matters. We in NI have no means of supporting our national government and participating in national politics save however through Alliance with their their loose connection with the LIberal Democrats,The ultimate irony being that UUP have no influence in the House of Commons and Alliance do!Has any one heard UUP’s view on AV which one would have thought would have benefitted them,what is going on in Fermanagh HQ?