Does STV have anything to do with absence of “free votes” in Ireland?

The Irish Times states that “Ireland is now one of the few parliamentary democracies in which members of parliament are not allowed free votes on issues of conscience.” It cites many cases of free votes (also known as “conscience votes”) on issues such as homosexuality law reform, gambling, abortion, and numerous other matters in Britain, Canada, Australia and New Zealand.

Leaving aside the technicality that Ireland can be classified as semi-presidential–the presidency really is weak enough that we can call it parliamentary–is it possible that the use of the Single Transferable Vote (STV) to elect the Dail (parliament’s first chamber) is a factor?

The editorial correctly notes that such votes occur “where views differ strongly within parliamentary parties”. What might STV have to do with this? It would be a whole lot more dangerous for party leadership to open up its divisions to be recorded on the floor in a system where the members could then compete for votes on precisely these internal divisions.

Whatever the underlying cause in variation in the use of free/conscience votes, one thing is certain: such votes are called when the government wants them. This could be when it prefers not to be held collectively accountable for some issue (let it pass but don’t call it your program), or when the government favors the passage of some measure that enjoys majority support in parliament but divides its own caucus (be sure it passes, but let your MPs claim credit for having tried to stop it). In other words, when there is conflict between the individual interests of MPs and their parties’ collective interests. If the electoral system reinforces such conflicts–as STV surely does, but FPTP, MMP, and closed-list PR do not–then we might expect parties, when in government, to do what they can to keep such conflicts from spilling into the open.

In any case, the usual agenda control of parliamentary cabinets means that we can understand these votes only by understanding governing parties’ decision calculus. What are the conditions under which free votes are seen as desirable or risky by those who decide to apply, or not, the government whip on a vote?

17 thoughts on “Does STV have anything to do with absence of “free votes” in Ireland?

  1. I also heard that private members bills being introduced into the Dail are also very rare. This may have to do with the STV electoral system.

    Does other STV jurisdiction face this dilemma of the lack of free votes? Does the Maltese parliament or Australia’s Senate face this problem? It is sad that very few jurisdictions use STV, if only more countries use it, then one can see how it works in practice in other contexts and cultures.


    • It would seem that above-the-line voting and the presence of another co-equal house with a different electoral system would make the Australian case hard to compare on this effect. Maybe Malta would be of interest.

      More STV cases would indeed be useful for science!


  2. And, yes, I figured there would also be fewer private member bills. I would expect the prevalence of these phenomena would be closely related.


  3. I know that sometimes in Ireland an incumbent is defeated by a non-incumbent from his/her own party. But I understand it’s very rare. Do candidates ever explicitly run against another member of their own party and do they have the means to do so? What opportunity do candidates have to pursue intraparty competition during general elections? Don’t party’s publish suggested candidate rankings? Does each candidate have their own campaign manager and their own fundraising process?

    What I’m asking is whether this is really a matter of STV, MMP, list PR, FPTP, AV, etc., or whether it’s about the smaller details of how campaigns are run.

    Here in Canada where the federal government is currently experiencing a small backbench revolt, the calls for systemic change (although they’re not the focus of debate) are about eliminating the party leaders’ ability to approve (or withhold approval for) each of their party’s candidates. Britain, where the candidates apparently only require the support of the local party association, is held up as the example to follow.

    Just as free votes in an STV jurisdiction may lead to intraparty competition during general elections, in FPTP countries like Canada, free votes may lead incumbents to face nomination challenges prior to the general election.

    Parliamentary rules in Canada (I assume it’s the same in Ireland) give individual MPs the power to break party discipline when they feel they need to. They just have to make their stand. The question is whether their constituents will support them for doing so and whether they will be able to run as a candidate for their party in the next election.


    • Very interesting on Japan.

      Doug, yes, of course it depends on party organization and, in particular, how they select candidates and run campaigns. These rules are by no means fully endogenous to electoral systems, but they are at the very least strongly conditioned by them. They set the context in which ultimately seats are won and lost.

      In both Ireland and the former system of Japan, the non-list systems in multi-seat districts mean that parties need to “manage” their internal competition. Candidates, often including more than one incumbent, are competing for the same pool of votes, and so parties seek (sought) to “segregate” the campaigning of their candidates to different sub-party of the district. My point about free votes is that it would be very hard for parties to prevent incumbents from highlighting their different voting patterns, relative to co-partisans, if doing so might give them an advantage vis-a-vis their party. For these reasons, it would not be surprising if parties developed rules to (1) prevent candidates from directly competing for the same sub-constituencies of voters by having them specialize regionally or by interest; (2) limit opportunities on the floor of parliament for credit-claiming based on voting behavior.

      It seems that, while the specific rules by which parties adapt are different, their adaptations on both campaigning and legislative voting are consistent with the challenges these electoral systems place in the way of reconciling individual and collective incentives.

      Thanks for the comments.


    • And, yes, the larger irish parties do publish recommended rankings, and rotate them in different areas of the constituency. (The small parties don’t usually nominate more than one per district.) My understanding is that voter compliance is high, but far from perfect, and thus intra-party defeats do happen and parties sometimes fail to elect as many members as their collective votes would allow, given an optimal division of first-preference votes and full internal transferring. (Various works by Michael Marsh and Michael Gallagher address these practices.)

      I believe Malta has close to 100% internal transferring–that is, it is far rarer than in Ireland for voters to rank a candidate of another party than that of their first preference ahead of other candidates of the first-preferred party. It is not immediately clear how that might affect the incentives for free votes that we are discussing here.


  4. I’m tempted to say the decision to impose free votes is endogenous to elec systems.

    Under the more personalistic system used by Japan, the ruling party developed the bottom-up policymaking rule such that backbench MPs could veto bills before the cabinet submitted bills. Thus the govt could propose only those bills that were supported unanimously by LDP members. No need for free/conscience votes, as the party did not have to impose discipline. Defections on major legislation were rarer than in Westminster democracies (UK, CAN, AUS, NZ), though interestingly defections happened for investiture votes and votes of confidence.


  5. It would indeed be ironic if one reason discouraging parties from allowing free votes was an electoral system that could enable voters to actually hold MPs accountable for those votes.
    In theory, voters can hold SMD representatives accountable for how they vote on stem cells, euthanasia, etc but in practice this is very random. There will almost always be a Big Red Party and a Big Blue Party candidate in every constituency; but if you’re pro-abortion and both the two main candidates in your area are anti-abortion, or vice versa, then your vote’s not going to influence the makeup of the Parliament on that issue. (It’s easier for a 2% or 3% or 5% bloc to swing the district between one of the Big Two than to elect its own nominee in their own right.)
    Ditto for closed or rigid party tickets, whether the List-PR or the pseudo-STV kind.
    It is hard to argue that there is any democratic legitimacy in a vote taken by a Parliament on an issue where neither the parties nor individual candidates took a stance on it in their platforms at the preceding election. It then comes down purely to the representatives’ personal taste, with no link to the ballots cast, in which case it is hard to see why not give the decision to some randomly-selected jury of 200 or 300 or 500 citizens instead. If the issue, for example, has one side that is favoured by individuals who are prepared to sacrifice their family life to commute hundreds of miles to attend legislative sittings, then a decision by a citizen jury has less bias than one made by MPs.

    The case may be different if the MP made it clear, for example, on the hustings that “I’m Labour but I oppose abortion”, or “I’m a Conservative but I’m going to vote to legalise same-sex marriage”, etc. But if the issue simply comes up unexpectedly in the middle of a parliament, and cuts across party lines, then counting MPs as individuals is no more representative of society’s values than counting them in party caucuses with a “unit rule”.

    There might be some chance of accountability in a flexible- or open-list PR system. In a system with SMDs and primaries, ironically, especially with a purely presidential executive, US experience suggests the problem is the other extreme – every vote is a “free vote” and there is little that either the floor leaders or the head of government can do, other than threaten to deny pork for the district or committee slots for the individual representative. But I’m not a huge fan of primaries. (For various reasons. One is that they seem to seriously compromise the secret ballot, and to promote the partisan politicisation of sections of society – like the public service and the judiciary – that shouldn’t be party-politicised. Here in Australia, apart from the occasional HV Evatt or Alastair Nicholson, it is very hard to definitively tell a judge’s party affiliation. Studies of the socio-political bias of the judiciary have to resort to proxies like “Only 20% of judges live in Labor-held electoral districts.” In the US, the media can report quite openly that “Judge X is a registered Democrat” and this seems to me to undermine public confidence in the rule of law.)


  6. I’m not a fan of primaries, for the reasons Tom states. I am a fan of requiring parties to nominate candidates by a ballot of all party members.

    Maxine McKew, who defeated John Howard in his seat of Bennelong, recounts being asked if it would be the NSW Right or her husband who would own her vote if she were elected. Political parties need to be accountable to the electorate and the best way to achieve that is to ensure a high degree of democracy and transparency within the party. The ALP would not be in its current dire state if its leadership were determined by its members rather than a narrow oligarchy.


  7. Tom, I’m not sure I understand why primaries the secret ballot.

    Alan, how is that different from a (closed) primary?


  8. JD, because a government body has an electoral roll stating that “These people are registered supporters of the Democratic Party, these people are registered supporters of the Republican Party, people are registered supporters of the Libertarian Party, etc.”

    With the usual caveat for any statement about US electoral laws – “it varies from State to State” – I understand that these rolls are public and open to inspection.

    And not merely hard-core committed supporters (in Australia, each party need only show 500 of these to get registration) but anyone who wants a voice in the first ballot of what I would (pace some contrary opinion on this blog) class as the first round of a particular subspecies of second-ballot system. Indeed, success in a party primary is often a precondition to contest the general election, whereas success in a preselection ballot of committed, paid-up party members is not, in most other systems. In France, you don’t need to legally register as a Gaullist to decide which right-wing candidate to vote for on the first ballot.


  9. What Tom said, except that I’d add that the major parties in Australia have a habit of subverting their own rules by imposing candidates through ’emergency’ action by their national executives. The ALP has had so many ’emergency’ preselections lately that you could argue that preselection by the national executive has become the norm.

    In Power Crisis: The Self-Destruction of a State Labor Part, Rodney Cavalier states that a group of around 100 people determine all federal and state preselections in NSW. The NSW ALP is currently dealing with the backwash from hearings into a mining scandal in which the Independent Commission against Corruption is alleging misconduct in the granting of mining leases where sums of up to AU$1 billion were made. The two situations are not compeltely unrelated.

    Probably the most famous contemporary example was Julia Gillard’s ‘captain’s pick’ (yet another Australian Football League analogy) where she persuaded the national executive to unseat a senator and preselect an indigenous athlete instead for one of the Northern Territory senate places.


  10. Tom: So you mean primaries as practised in the US. I don’t think primaries are understood to include this provision anywhere else, even where they are open to non-party members. Is there anywhere else where voters are registered in this way?


  11. Yes, JD, I was thinking “primaries” in the original sense. Though you’re right that in the last decade or two, the term has gone global – although in two different senses:

    (a) In two-round single-seat systems, it’s not uncommon to hear US reporters use terminology like, eg, “The primary will be held on May 1 and the runoff, if necessary, on May 14.” (Eg, the last Polish and French presidential elections).

    (b) In party-list systems, it’s used for a direct ballot of all financial party members to select and rank the candidates on the list (eg, Israel).

    In most cases, these diverge from US usage. (a) is wider since any voter can vote for Hollande on the first presidential ballot even if the voter has not registered with a governmental body (let alone, been approved by the party after paying a membership fee) as an official supporter of the Socialist Party. (b) is narrower since parties usually insist on no representation without taxation, so to speak.

    (There’s exceptional cases, trialled by the UK Conservatives and advocated by some in Australian Labor, where self-identified party supporters who aren’t members can vote in a “primary”. Usually however there are stipulations attached – eg, that you can’t actually be a member of a different party, so no Rush-style “raiding”, and/or that the paid-up members have their votes specially weighted so they have something to show for their fifty dollars per year besides dull branch meeting.)


  12. Tom: There is far more variety than that. You have for example the compulsory primaries in Argentina, parties having primaries closed to party members (or in some cases open to all these signing a simple declaration of ideals, as with the French PS) to choose all kinds of candidates, including for the presidency, and finally parties in List-PR countries that only hold a primary for the leader (first position on the list).

    But are there any countries that have a party-affiliation registry as in the US?


    • I was sort of hoping this thread would be about free votes and STV’s possible role in them, but whatever…

      Uruguay has primary elections mandated by the constitution for presidential candidates. This was part of the replacement of the “double simultaneous vote” with majority runoff some years back. I believe Uruguay registers voters by party. It is possible that some Argentine states do, too. And maybe Costa Rica.

      Note that not all US states have registration by party. In fact, that is why some states have open primaries; it is the only kind they can have.


  13. Tom @11:

    ‘With the usual caveat for any statement about US electoral laws – “it varies from State to State”…’


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