SOAPBOX: How fair by-elections can be held when a Councillor or MLA resigns? (Scott Moore)

Scott Moore is a former council election candidate for the Alliance Party from Strabane, speaking in personal capacity. He studies International Politics and Conflict Studies at QUB.

Currently in Northern Ireland, when a Councillor or MLA dies, resigns or otherwise vacates their seat, their party appoints (co-opts) a replacement. Or, in the case of an independent, a substitute is selected from a list provided in advance.

Before the 2016 election, a fifth of MLAs in the Assembly had been co-opted rather than elected. It is not unlikely that politicians have resigned who would not have done so if it meant their party would face a by-election, and the risk of losing the seat.

When a Westminster MP vacates their seat, it is filled via a first-past-the-post by-election, with the same method used for Council seats in Britain, and for constituency seats in other devolved assemblies.

Dáíl Eireann uses ordinary STV by-elections, but these can unfairly change the political balance of a constituency mid-term, giving a disproportionate advantage to the largest parties in a constituency ,  which is why Northern Ireland, to date, has preferred co-option.

From 2011 to 2016, roughly 20% of MLAs vacated their seats, compared to around 2% of MPs from 2010 to 2015 (excluding politicians who died). The fact that MLAs do not have to face a by-election when they vacate their seats, and that the Assembly has a far higher rate of mid-term resignations, is no coincidence.

In general, a politician should serve their full term unless they have a necessary reason for resigning — they should not resign purely for career-related reasons.

Recently, I published a paper: A method for holding fair by-elections in single transferable vote systems. It proposes a modified version of STV, called single transferable vote with differential quotas (STV-DQ), which would allow for fair by-elections to be held for Assembly and District Council seats, and solve the problems affecting ordinary STV in by-elections, giving each party a level playing field and removing the disproportionate advantage for larger parties.

It changes the ordinary STV system in a few ways. Firstly, as the name suggests, STV-DQ gives each candidate a different quota depending on how many seats their party already holds in the area. Secondly, if voters for a large party try to vote for a small party or independent with very similar views in an attempt to exploit their lower quota and thereby get a disproportionate influence on the results, the system will detect this, and apply penalties to even things out.

There are two penalties – a floor penalty, which in principle is applied to parties whose voters transferred to a candidate that was eventually elected and currently holds a seat, to stop them essentially getting to ‘double spend’ their vote; and an increase penalty, applied to those parties that have had an increase in their percentage share of vote if a ‘flight’ of votes is detected from larger parties that already have seats.

All this might sound undemocratic – but in a by-election, it may be a small party’s representative resigning their seat. A large party may already have a number of seats in the area reflecting their share of the vote, and an additional seat would mean they’d be overrepresented. It’s easy to see how this could happen – if PBP MLA Gerry Carroll resigned in West Belfast, and an ordinary STV by-election was held, Sinn Féin would probably win the seat easily – resulting in five out of five Assembly seats in West Belfast for Sinn Féin, despite Sinn Féin having 50-60% of the vote. This would be clearly unfair, and my system would address that unfairness.

When a politician vacates their seat, voters should elect a replacement through a by-election, rather than party officials or members deciding instead. However, this should be subject to the ability of a by-election to produce a fair and democratic result. I do not believe ordinary STV meets that criterion — but that my method, at the very least, provides the basis for a system which does.

I call on all political parties in Northern Ireland to support a review of the co-option procedure, and to consider whether my proposed system would provide the basis for by-elections to be held instead for Assembly and District Council seats that are vacated here.

You can find out a lot more about the detail of my proposals by downloading and reading the full paper.