Westminster’s voting system turns elections into a tactical guessing game

As voters go to the polls, we can be sure that tactical voting has the potential to play a decisive role in who gets elected.

Recent research commissioned by the Electoral Reform Society in Britain suggests that one in five electors there will vote for a candidate or party best positioned to keep out someone they disliked.

This is also a familiar feature of Northern Irish political life, with the truth being that in First Past the Post elections people often vote for the candidate they think is best placed to defeat those they least want to win.

While this is usually on the basis of nationalist/unionist competition, it has also historically been seen in places such as South Down, where unionists voters have buoyed the SDLP vote to ensure a Sinn Féin defeat – although this may change today…

While this undoubtedly reflects a certain level of sophistication among voters, it is also forces voters to try and second-guess how others will vote, rather than being able to simply back who they believe in.

This whole situation turns elections into a gamble around splitting the vote and trying to predict who (usually either on the unionist or nationalist side) is most likely to win.

Even if electors are generally unlikely to vote in a cross-community way in Assembly and other preferential elections, they at least have the capacity to vote in order of preference in line with their political position.

Under a fair and proportional voting system, people aren’t forced to predict the winners or predict how others will vote when they cast their vote.

Single Transferable Vote (STV), as used for Assembly elections – where seats match votes – allows citizens to rank their candidates, so that if their first choice didn’t have enough support, their second choice would be counted instead.

By adopting a proportional system for Westminster elections, we could move beyond the calls for electoral pacts that force people to choose somebody they don’t necessarily agree with just to keep somebody out that they dislike more.

Under STV voters can of course vote for all the unionist or all the nationalist parties, but they do so with the knowledge that they can express their preference without wasting their vote because they choose not to give their first preference to the winning candidate.

It’s time to abandon the archaic system of First Past the Post, and replace it with a system that can represent the diversity of views in Northern Irish society today.

Dr Edward Molloy is a Research Officer for the Electoral Reform Society