The kindly and unkindly science of voter transfers in STV…

I remember Iain Dale remarking on one Doughty Street election broadcast we pulled together for the 2007 Irish general election that what shocked him was the public informality with which people refered to their politicians… Bertie, Enda, Eamon, Gerry…

Perhaps one reason is the fact you get minus points for nastiness (at least as a party), in the complex STV voting system the south shares with the north… Where they lead, perhaps we’ll follow… In an excellent piece by one of the few who fully understand how it works, Nicholas Whyte explains how the politics of transfers actually works:

The most spectacular example of transfers making a difference in 2007 was the Upper Bann count, where George Savage, in eighth place with only 2,167 first preference votes, was pulled ahead of the trailing DUP candidate on transfers from his own party colleagues, and then was pulled ahead of the second SF candidate once the DUP transfers trickled to him, taking the last seat by a comfortable four-figure margin.

There were four other constituencies in 2007 where one of the top six candidates on first preferences failed to get elected, in all four cases losing out to the SDLP whose candidate had placed seventh: in West Belfast and South Antrim, the losers were the DUP, and in Fermanagh & South Tyrone and Foyle, Sinn Féin candidates similarly lost. The SDLP deserve good marks in general for their vote management, which however went awry in West Tyrone where three SDLP candidates with a quota of votes between them failed to transfer between each other and allowed Independent candidate Kieran Deeny to retain his seat. Sinn Féin, of course, did even more impressively, getting five candidates elected in West Belfast, with less than five hundred votes separating Gerry Adams’ four running-mates.

If you’re not impressed with Sinn Fein’s online offering, you can also access the Stratagem count toolkit…

  • Framer

    Remember how Esmond Birnie was taken out in the last Belfast council election by .75 of a vote in Balmoral ward.

  • ayeYerMa

    Can any of you STV boffins explain to me how the transfers work if my 1st preference has been elected/eliminated, but my 2nd and 3rd preferences have also already been elected/eliminated? Does my transfer automatically go from my 1st preference to 4th preference, or does it just look at my 2nd preference and not be counted at that stage?

  • Tochais Síoraí

    Goes to your 4th.

    However if your first pref is elected rather than eliminated, only those votes over the quota will be counted as transferable. But I don’t get the boffin hat because i’m not sure if assembly surpluses take a random sample of the 1st prefs to detemine this or count them all and divide proprtionately to get the exact number. Anyone know this?

    Hope you voted for AV anyway!

  • Its an Art rather than a Science.
    Ive been writing about transfers since mid 1980s and the more I write, the less I know.
    Yet again no Political Leader has stood up and said……give your #2 to…….as always its bland and ambiguous.
    Party activists (and political observers) see things totally different from actual voters. The Party may wish to “lead” but the voters simply wont follow.
    To some there is a fledgling coalition of DUP-SF-AP and obviously its in the interests of the junior partner to talk that up on websites but hardly on the doorsteps.
    Likewise there is no fledgling UUP-SDLP “coalition”.
    Whether a Party wants it or not, the voters simply dont want it.
    They are…..oops WE ARE locked into the familiar Spectrum
    with TUV and dissident republicans at the side.
    In reality people win and lose votes from people on either side.
    Thats where the transfers come from. Thats where the transfers go.
    Party members……eg UUP……might THINK that DUP are rivals and even enemies on barely speaking terms but thats not how it is “on the ground”.
    Today as always most voters will transfer as before.
    Indeed Sinn Feins Upper Bann strategy is about talking up THREE nationalist seats. The implication is thats what they want which means dont transfer to AP, UUP or DUP.
    We are I am afraid…….Hypocrites.
    We have designations at Stormont….unionist, nationalist, neutral……..but like to pretend that voting is “normal” as in any western democracy.
    Either we should abolish designation (and we CANT) or face up to the apalling vista that we need the same designation for voters.
    Counsel of Despair? Yes.
    Honesty? Yes.

  • Tochais Síoraí,

    In Northern Irish elections all transferable votes in a surplus are transferred, at a fractional value calculated to two decimal places. (I’d support any proposal to change that to three decimal paces.) In the Republic, of course, random sampling is used (except for Senate elections which do the three decimal places thing).


    It’s an adaptataion of the realities of the situation to political ideals. Designation is voluntary for elected representatives, rather than compulsory for voters. Some form of ensuring a government with cross-community credibility had to be engineered, and while this may not be the best possible solution, I’ve certainly seen worse elsewhere.

  • ayeYerMa

    Thanks guys – was too late for me as voted already but that’s what I had always assumed as to how it worked. One thing I quite can’t understand is how the cognitive load that this sort of thing places on the people manually counting the votes is managed – I mean, is it not too easy to make mistakes having to scan through every voter’s preferences and having to remember which candidates have already been elected/eliminated as well as having to work-out which of an individual voter’s preferences have already been taken into account and which haven’t? An electronic counting system I could understand, but to me it just seems way to complicated to be doing manually!!!

    FJH – why “can’t” we abolish designation? It would be quite easy for politicians to force its abolition, simply by making a mockery of the current system. e.g. DUP could designate themselves as “nationalist” or Alliance could randomly switch between being “Unionist” or “Nationalist” when they see fit (as they have done in the past).

  • The Assembly’s Education service have a good leaflet on STV for A-level politics students and Slugger readers needing a revision aid for the morning.

    Nicholas – isn’t there something in STV that if the value of a elected candidate’s surplus is so small that it couldn’t theoretically push anyone over a quota it isn’t counted until it would matter. So in the Euro elections, de Brun’s surplus was never transferred as it was going to be quite small. Instead at each stage they eliminated candidates from the bottom of the list.

  • Its actually in the interests of the politicians to maintain the system. Under what other system other than neutrality could the alleged democrats in Alliance claim two Executive seats from nine Assembly seats?

  • Reader

    ayeYerMa: making a mockery of the current system. e.g. DUP could designate themselves as “nationalist” or Alliance could randomly switch between being “Unionist” or “Nationalist” when they see fit
    The DUP wouldn’t do that because it would leave the UUP as holders of the unionist veto, while probably leaving themselves to be rolled over in the nationalist designation by actual nationalists.
    The Alliance trick can’t be used again – I think as of St Andrews, an individual can’t change their expressed designation once they have declared it.

  • ayeYerMa

    FJH, De Hondt is hardly a normal democratic system. Alliance claiming more than one executive seat is more in-line with what would happen in normal coalition negotiations all around the world. Now all that needs to be done is for UUP and SDLP to agree to go into opposition formally and were almost at a normal coalition (albeit in reverse!).

    Reader, if the DUP did that they would at least neuter Sinn Fein’s influence – I’m sure many Unionists would commend them for that and if they understood the longer-term thinking behind forcing reform, then I think the DUP would be commended for it. The DUP and UUP could of course both agree to designate as “nationalist” together, and then we’d almost have a normal parliament! It’s thinking outside the box – I’d totally be impressed if they had the balls to do something like this and showing up “community designation” for the sham that it is!

  • 40,000 votes =2 Executive seats.
    100,000 votes =1 Executive seat.
    Alliance Party Democracy.

  • ayeYerMa

    FJH, no normal parliament in the world puts all parties in the cabinet and allocates their seats based on who gets the most votes. Standard democracy is such that all elected members can vote on any legislation that the cabinet proposes AND that the electorate can also kick-out the government and replace them with the opposition.

    Alliance Party Democracy = near-standard democracy.
    SDLP Democracy = quackery.

  • ayeYerMa

    … not to mention FJH how that in “SDLP Democracy” Alliance representatives don’t actually get to vote on legislation at all!!!! (being “others” and all that)

  • liamascorcaigh


    The Stormont Assembly is neither “normal” nor “a parliament”. It’s a form of political quarantine. Keep all the infected isolated in one place until the plague runs its course or a cure is found.

  • ayeYerMa

    I’m well aware of that liamascorcaigh. However, the more normal the democratic system, the more permanent any peace and stability will be (especially now that the combatants requiring such quarantining have signed up to law and order). The current system entrenches division, and is inherently unstable – it will eventually crumble apart if a more normal democratic system is not put in place sooner or later.