Irish election 2016

Ireland’s 2016 general election will be held 26 February. The current coalition of Fine Gael and Labour is not doing well in the polls. However, neither is the main opposition party, Fianna Fail. The RTE seat projection currently has Fine Gael on 55 seats (based on just 28% of the vote), Labour on 13. Fianna Fail is barely holding off Sinn Fein for second place, 33 to 29 in the projection (20% and 18% in voters, according to the poll of polls).

The assembly size has been reduced. It was 165 in the last election (2011), but will be 157 in this one (not counting the seat of the Speaker). Fine Gael’s 2011 result was 46% of seats; they may not make it over 35% this time.

So worried is Fine Gael that it is “devising a risky battle-plan aimed at salvaging as many seats as possible,” according to the Independent. The plan is to ask senior members of the party to reduce their own personal vote by shifting votes to weaker co-partisan candidates.


Fine Gael is devising strategies in a series of constituencies, which involves divides of territory and asking loyal supporters to vote for one candidate over another in a particular area.

Although this tactic has often been used in the past, it hasn’t been employed in such large numbers before. And the decline in support levels make if far more difficult to pull off.


The article has a list of strong incumbents who are being asked to sacrifice voters, and notes that the party is attempting to use Facebook to target reliable voters who would shift.

Of course, all this vote-management reminds us that the Irish single transferable vote (STV) is not dramatically distinct from the old Japanese single non-transferable vote (SNTV). In either system, parties can be hurt, relative to the seats that their collective vote totals could deliver them under a list system, if their leading candidate obtains too large a share of the party’s total votes in a district. With votes overly concentrated on one candidate, the weaker ones could be eliminated too early to benefit from vote transfers from other candidates, including the co-partisan strongest one. (I assume this also implies that not enough voters for the leading candidate can be counted on to list co-partisans second. Otherwise there would be little need to manage first-preference votes in this manner.)


Labour is banking on “locking down” its traditional core vote of 10pc and its TDs coming ahead of the second Fine Gael candidate to benefit from transfers.

Yes, there is an advantage that small parties under STV have that is not available to such parties under SNTV. But for large parties, especially those with declining support, STV poses serious coordination challenges.

The seat projections, it should be noted, come with some grain of salt, because projecting seats under STV is hard.

M=1 is the endpoint of the continuum of M

The BBC reports that there is a debate in Jersey about a possible change in the island’s electoral system. “Deputy Montfort Tadier wants to introduce a mixture of single transferable and alternative vote systems.”

Of course, that actually would be the same system, but a mixture of district magnitudes. Single transferable vote (STV) simply reduces to alternative vote (AV) when moving from any magnitude greater than one to a single-seat district.

The article further notes that “Jersey currently has a mix of single and multi-member constituencies” and that “Jersey currently uses the first-past-the-post system, for all elections.”

It is interesting that when the rule for determining winners is plurality (first past the post), it is considered the same system, independent of magnitude. Yet when referring to a rule of transferable votes, applications to M=1 (single-seat district) and M>1 (multiseat district) are considered different “systems”.

Further, the article attempts to clarify: “The single-transferable-vote means a vote could be transferred to a second preference if the first does not succeed.” Yes, and so does the alternative vote, which is defined next as being “where candidates are ranked in order of preference.” Yes, and so is the single transferable vote.

Is MMP in Ireland’s future?

The Constitutional Convention of Ireland is considering proposing a new electoral system for parliamentary elections.

The 100-member Convention strongly favors a mixed-member proportional (MMP) system, with 69% preferring it over other options. A “proportional list system”–not clear whether open or closed was specified–wins 29% support, and a paltry 3% would like FPTP. (And, yes, those numbers sum to more than 100.)

The news story does not offer information on preferences for keeping the current system vs. change, either in general or any specific replacement system. It does note that there will be a further round of deliberations next month on the exact model that the Convention will recommend.

Ireland is, of course, the main model we have of Single Transferable Vote (STV). MMP and STV are usually the two models most preferred by reform activists (at least in current FPTP jurisdictions) and by political science expert in electoral systems. It is very interesting to see an Irish process possibly leading to STV vs. MMP as choices for the country.

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?

Party-preferential voting

I had missed most of the following discussion earlier, and as it occurred in a thread on Lower Saxony, it could easily have been missed by others as well.

I am going to reproduce two comments that describe interesting ideas for coping with thresholds.


there’s no reason you couldn’t make thresholds less discontinuous, by combining them with preferential votes.

The mechanics would be a tweaked STV, with the following differences:

1. Because of large district magnitude, a full preferential vote for all candidates would be impractical. Instead voters would list parties in order of preference, with the intraparty order being fixed as in List-PR.

2. To effect a threshold of T seats, a party would not be awarded its first seat until it has accumulated T quotas.


Vasi, that sounds essentially like the NSW Legislative Council electoral system.

The election is by STV, with 21 vacancies at an election. One has the option of either voting below the line, by ranking at least 15 candidates, or voting above the line, by voting for one or more party tickets. Unlike federal Senate elections, voting for a party’s ticket does not result in a vote for a preset preference ranking of every candidate; instead, it only ranks the candidates of that party, in the order they appear on the ballot paper. Voters have the option of marking multiple parties above the line, unlike federal Senate elections. So, for instance, the Labor how-to-vote cards in the last election suggested that their supporters vote 1 Labor, 2 Greens above the line. That means they essentially ranked every Labor candidate, followed by every Greens candidate, and if all of them are elected or excluded, their ballot is exhausted.

The Australian group voting ticket essentially operates like closed-list PR, with the exception of in very large elections. The NSW Legislative Council used to use the same ticket style system that the federal Senate uses, but after the 1999 election resulted in a ballot paper the size of a tablecloth (almost 1 sq. m), and a candidate from the “Outdoor Recreation Party” got elected with 8,000 first preference votes (something like 5% of a quota), they changed the group-ticket system to the single party ticket system now in place.

Stephane Dion, the former Leader of the Official Opposition in Canada, also is advocating a version of party-preferential voting. though in ridings which would be only 3-5 seats (1 seat by AV in the territories). In a 4-seat riding, the threshold would be 25% + 1 vote. If all remaining parties are above the threshold, seats are awarded to them by largest remainder (I believe). If there are any parties remaining below the threshold, the party with the least votes is eliminated and their supporters votes transferred to their highest remaining preference. His system is OLPR, with each voter able to cast a preference vote for one candidate of his first-preference party.

I think the most proportional system possible would be party-preferential with a low threshold and a large district magnitude (the most proportional would obviously be a single national district). You could either exclude parties one-by-one (hopefully with block exclusions) until every party remaining was above the threshold, then distribute seats. Otherwise you could simply exclude all parties below the threshold and distribute their voters’ preferences to remaining parties. It avoids the huge numbers of voters wasting their votes by being below the thresold; for instance, even with a relatively low threshold of 3%, 19% of the valid votes in the May 2012 Greek election were cast for parties below the threshold. In this system, the only voters who do not have either a first preference or a transfer vote elect an MP are those who deliberately choose not to rank any parties that make it into parliament.

I also think a novel way to build a stronger government while remaining representative of votes would be to use preferential ballots, but with multiple thresholds. In a 120 seat legislature, 60 seats could be awarded to those parties above 2%, with voters below the threshold transferring to their highest placed remaining party. Then a further 30 seats could be given to those parties above 5% (including transferred votes), then a further 20 seats to those parties above 10%, and then the final 10 seats to the party which wins a majority by transfers. This means that even voters who vote below the threshold are represented, and parties with a decent amount of support have representatives in parliament, just not proportionally to their first-preference votes. You also get larger parties at the top, making a stable government more likely, but unlike supplemental member, or the Italian/Greek plurality-winner top up system, the larger bloc is distributed based on all voters’ preferences, retaining a much larger degree of proportionality than other semi-proportional systems.

I am not necessarily endorsing this concept, although I do find it very interesting. I would be interested in further discussion.

The thread has a lot of other interesting comments on the relationship of thresholds to democratic theory (particularly the last several comments posted as of 4 February). I re-posted the two comments above simply because they refer to proposals for an alternative way of coping with thresholds in electoral-system design.

(I did note the Dion proposal before.)