Before the local government election notice of election was published on Tuesday 26th March we started to see the familiar sight of election posters appearing on lampposts across Northern Ireland. Love them or loathe them, posters are a mainstay of elections in Northern Ireland and in the Republic in a way that they are not in GB. Parties compete to be the first to get their posters up to ensure they get the best positions; at busy junctions and outside polling stations, churches and schools, so that they can tweet their picture with #toppingthepoll. The danger of going up early is that posters get damaged the longer they are up, and there is always the danger that a rival party could ‘accidentally’ damage your poster when they are putting up their own. And then there are the constant posts and stories about candidates posters being defaced or removed.
In my experience, a poster has never once swayed how someone will actually vote, but they are the most simple way for candidates to tell the public at large that they are running for election. They are not cheap, with the average price of a standard candidate poster coming in at £5 each and, when the average spending limit for one candidate running in a DEA is £1400, it doesn’t take many posters to eat into a candidate’s budget. But what postering really tells you about is a party’s vote management strategy when they are running more than one candidate in a DEA, as it indicates how they have split the area.
Vote Management 101
If a party is running more than one candidate in a DEA it may be doing so to get both candidates elected (which seems obvious), or with the intention of getting Candidate 1 elected and using Candidate 2 to bring in votes that the Candidate 1 may not have been able to secure. Candidates and parties will generally agree a split of the constituency where Candidate 1 asks for first preference votes and the Candidate 2 for the second preference vote, and then flips this on the other side of the constituency. However, problems can arise when the candidates cannot agree on the split, generally because they feel their running mate is getting a ‘better’ split than them. This is usually worst when one of the candidates is the incumbent and the second candidate is running in the hope of picking up the extra seat. In situations where a party has about 1.5 quotas there is a fair chance that they will only end up with one seat so both candidates will want to ensure that they are the one to take it. This is where a vote management strategy comes into its own as the best chance of winning two seats is to have as even a split on the first votes as possible, as this allows both candidates to stay in the race longer in order to pick up preferences from others. In the example I have presented you can see that in the first scenario, despite outpolling Party B 2.5:1, both parties end up with one seat because Party A did not balance their vote well. In Scenario 2, when they have their vote management system working better, Party A is able to take both seats as both their candidates were ahead of Party B’s candidate. Generally the parties do a good job at keeping internal squabbles behind closed doors but sometimes they seep into the public domain, usually at the top of a lamppost.
In many areas you will see posters from different candidates of the same party on either side of a main road, which usually indicates that in the internal split one has all the area on the right and the other has all of the area on the left. This can appear confusing to the voter as it looks like the party isn’t sure what their strategy is. However, this pales in comparison to when one lamppost has posters on it from different candidates in the same party, as this is always an indication that the vote management strategy is in tatters and both candidates are out to maximise their own personal vote from the same area – competing with their running mate, and not other parties, for votes. And as bad as the ‘two posters on the one lamppost’ situation is, the worst is when parties print posters and leaflets simply urging voters to ‘vote in order of preference’, as this is often a clear sign that they couldn’t agree on a vote management strategy in the first place and have let it be a free for all amongst their candidates. Given the value of an effective vote management strategy, as highlighted in the example above, this could be really damaging come the count, when those conducting tallies will be watching to see how the votes are stacking up from each ballot box. If the first preference votes aren’t balanced well, sitting councillors could find their seats in jeopardy, or their running mates could feel had done by at the results.
Niall Kelly is a former Belfast City Councillor who has worked on various political campaigns during the past 15 years. He has an interest in politics and data, and how they interact with each other. Follow at @nkbelfast