Your Print Off and Keep Guide to Following Tally Information in the Irish Stability Pact Referendum

Voters in the Republic went to the polls for a referendum on EU related issues today for the third time in 4 years. Although polls have just closed, the result will probably not be announced until well into Friday afternoon. However, those involved in the various campaigns will have a sense of how the result is shaping up from mid-morning. With my handy print off and keep guide, you can keep track of how the tallymen’s estimates compare with the actual election results in the two Lisbon Treaty referenda in 2008 and 2009, as well as checking how they compare against the sort of results the Yes and No campaigns need in each constituency to prevail nationally.

The guide is in MS Word 2002 format – nearly all computers should read it OK but if yours really can’t try this graphical format from Google Docs.

Real Irish election nerds can probably stop reading at this point, just print off the guide, and bookmark the RTÉ Referendum Twitter account in preparation for tomorrow’s frenzy of tally Tweets. For those who don’t list election results as one of their primary leisure pastimes, the information below might be helpful.

The explanation for people who more-or-less understand how Irish elections are counted.
While official figures from tomorrow’s referendum will probably arrive during the early to mid afternoon (counting referenda is quick because they have a very short ballot paper with only two options), tally figures will start being circulated online or in the broadcast media from mid-morning. At first these will be partial tally figures covering a certain proportion of the ballot boxes in that constituency; buy from around 11 a.m., tally teams will start releasing full tallies.

Those used to Northern Ireland election counts should bear in mind that the tallying process in the Republic involves much more co-operation between parties and much more co-operation on the part of election officials than is the case on this side of the border. Tallies are correspondingly more accurate than we are used to in the north.

It is very easy to tally in a referendum when the counting officials are trying to be helpful. Many tallies will be accurate within a few votes.

As tallies are released, you can use the guide check how the results compare against the referenda on the Lisbon Treaty held in 2008 (defeated by 46.6%-53.4%) and 2009 (passed by 67.1%-27.9%).

I’ve added a metric called “estimated winning post 2012. An evenly split vote would have required a 3.4% swing to the Yes side in 2008 and a 17.1% swing to the No side in 2009. The “estimated winning post” was arrived at by adding 3.4% to the 2008 Yes vote in each constituency, subtracting 17.1% from the equivalent 2009 Yes vote, and taking the average. It isn’t intended as a contribution to academic psephology, but it gives a broad indication of how Europhile or Eurosceptic each constituency is.

If the tallies are mostly ahead of the winning post, then an overall Yes vote is almost certain, if they are mostly behind a No vote is almost certain, and if they are clustering close to the winning post, then we all have a long and exciting day ahead of us and a basic comparison tool such as this will tell us nothing other than the result is likely to be very close.

Not sure where to find out tally information? @RTE_Referendum on Twitter will probably offer the best balance of being comprehensive and easily accessible. Those with more time on their hands might consider the boards on

Adding to the complication is that there have been boundary changes since the 2008 and 2009 referenda. Fortunately, 19 constituencies have unchanged boundaries and can be compared directly – these are marked in yellow in the guide. A further 9 have only minor changes, with less than 5% of their previous population moving, usually a few small villages or a small city neighbourhood. Comparisons here should also be pretty straightforward and these are marked in dull orange. I would advise a little more caution in comparisons for the 6 constituencies marked in bright orange, where between 5% and 10% of the population have moved since the previous EU referenda. And I would not read much into any comparisons in the 9 constituencies marked in red, which have either had radical boundary changes or are entirely new.

If you don’t live in Ireland and all this seems completely bizarre…
In most countries, votes are counted in the polling station once the polls close. In Ireland, like in the UK, ballot boxes are taken to central counting centres for each constituency and only opened once they arrive there. While in Britain boxes are opened and votes counted as quickly as possible on election night, in Ireland the complexities of counting votes under the PR-STV system means that counting traditionally starts at 9 am on the day after the election.

Official results for any given constituency are only released once the entire constituency has been counted and verified. Unlike most other countries, voting figures by ballot box or election precinct are never released.

The first step in the count is that each ballot box is opened and polling staff check to see whether the total number of ballot papers in each box matches what the officials in polling stations said there should be. This is a basic protection against ‘box stuffing’. While this is going on, party workers stand in front of the table where the votes are being checked with clipboards and, quite literally, mark bar gate tallies of the total number of Yes and No votes in each vote. Some dude with a laptop then bangs the results into a spreadsheet, does a bit of basic maths and produces an estimated result, usually very accurate, hours before the official results are produced. In the days before laptops, they did this with pencils, long division, and the inside of empty cigarette packets…

Parties also get the benefit of seeing which way different areas vote and can tailor their own campaigning and canvassing strategies appropriately. This must seem a very odd process to people in the majority of the world’s democracies where this information is provided as a matter of routine and is seen as an important anti-fraud safeguard. It is, however, part of the charm and magic of Irish election counts, the world’s greatest spectator sport.

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