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Proportional Representation System: How To Use Your Vote

category national | elections / politics | opinion/analysis author Friday February 18, 2011 17:54author by T Report this post to the editors

Keeping FF out

With the election coming up many people are planning to firmly boot Fianna Failure out and there is strong indications that people are not happy with any of the main parties. Therefore we should see the smaller parties and the independents having a real chance. But do they or can this unravel because of the way we pick our preference votes?

The Dun Laoghaire May 2007 Election Counts
The Dun Laoghaire May 2007 Election Counts

The PR system is obviously better than the first-past-the-post systems, but do we all really know how to cast our votes wisely? We have all heard the comments from pundits over the years about how using your vote cleverly can have a dramatic difference and the media around election time and during the election counts spends a lot of time talking about 2nd counts, 3rd counts and so on and the importance of transfers.

So it would be much better if we had a clearer understanding of the subleties of this before we go to the polling booths. With the PR system, you can effectively get to vote 2 or 3 times if you wish the order of preference on the ballot carefully. It has also been said that you can actually end up helping someone to get in that you never intended to get in.

A good place to start is with the huge amount of information from the website http://electionsireland.org -this has the breakdown of counts for all constituencies and I am going to use the count in the last election in May 2007 for Dun Laoghaire to help show the dynamics of how your vote can influence the final result.

But first the ballot paper itself. The ballot paper lists all the names of the candidates in alphabetical order. Lets say there are 10 candidates. You are then asked to list them in your order of preference, numbered 1, 2, 3....10. You don't have to put a number beside every candidate. You can stop at whatever preference you want, even 1, if you want. This is where some people may not realize they are doing something they would rather not. It is likely that some people traditionaly mark say 6 candidates, simply out of habit whilst others go as far as placing a number beside every candidate. Perhaps they feel they are getting full value out of the system that way. Therein lies the danger. I can easily imagine that some people who now absolutely despise FF, would mark those candidates near the bottom of the list. You are in fact better off not marking anything against their name because there is a small chance that the preference would get used in one of the counts if your other preference candidates get eliminated. Actually for this election FF are probably going to be struggling and those getting through will be via transfers on later counts. There have been situations in the past where the last candidate gets in by a mere handful of votes. (Gormely vs McDowell in 1997). And you don't want that to happen if you never intended it.

Another point to consider is this. Suppose you give an Independent your first preference (1), and a say a Labour candidate your second preference (2) and your third to a Green candidate. If your candidate is eliminated during one of the counts, then your second preference will kick, but if they in turn are eliminated, then it goes to the 3rd. Now it is known that when Green candidates are eliminated they tend to get split mostly amongst Labour and Fine Gael. So if on the 4th count, the Green candidate is eliminated, your vote has then inadvertently become split with a contribution going to Lab and FG. The FG candidate could then get in if they were already slightly ahead. If you had put a 4th preference, you would have been able to control this to some degree simply by putting a Labour candidate. But if the 4th preference you pick, has already been eliminated then you effectively lose the transfer control. As you can see, the further down the list the more of a guessing game it is and the less chance the vote will get used for a candidate that you want elected. There is also a chance that because some candidates get broad support across the political spectrum, your vote can effectively help candidates you had not intended to. The way around this is to try and guess who is mostly likely to be strongest. Generally the best strategy is to give your No.1 vote to someone you think needs your vote in order to get high enough on the first count, so that they will stay in the race on subsequent counts and are likely to pick up transfers from other people who mark them as their 2nd, 3rd, 4th etc preferences.

It is important that people spend sometime thinking about this and examining some of the actual counts for previous elections which are clearly documented over at http://electionsireland.org/results/general/30dail.cfm

In the upcoming election, I think we will see the Independents and small parties pick up lots of 1st preference votes, but if people don't give too much thought to their 2nd, 3rd... preferences, the bigger parties will mob up these votes all over the place. The end result will be a great showing in terms of votes cast for independents but a poor number of seats for them, while the main parties will get the seats. There is a very good chance FG will be able to have an overall majority in the Dail due to this. And the gombeens in Fianna Failure will even pick up the odd seat that they would have otherwise lost.

To help illustrate the dynamics, the image below is a screenshot below from the count for Dun Laoghaire in May 2007. This was a 5 seater with 11 candidates. In this constituency there was an interesting fight between Ciaran Cuffe (Green) and Richard Boyd Barret (People Before Profit) for the last seat. Even though PBP had more 1st preference votes, it was on the 10th count that Cuffe picked up 70% of the surplus votes from the FG candidate elected in the previous count (see purple arrows). The count data shows on the elimination of Oisin Quinn (Labour) that about 50% of the next preferences went to another Labour candidate, but the rest got split amongst FG, GP, PBP. Here you can see the benefit for FG of running multiple candidates because they probably picked up more votes with the three candidate than if they had one. Later in the 7th count, the bulk of the transfers from Baily (FG) stay with FG and again the same thing in count 9. Besides an obvious strong vote for FG, you would have to admit brand loyalty in terms of the FG party brand keeps people on track. So there are two processes going on. One is voting for the person and the other is voting for the party. Small parties and independents find it hard to benefit from this. It is quite possible that some of the people who voted for FG here had given FG candidates at least their 1st and 2nd preference votes but that they have had other candidates down as 3rd, 4th and 5th but these never got used. So say someone had Baily FG (1), Regan FG (2), and Labour (3). From the counts, we see 2nd preference only got used in count 9 and their 3rd preference never got used at all. If they really wanted someone else, they could have put them first and had they got eliminated by putting FG 2nd, they would still not suffer the withdrawl symptoms of abandoning FG presuming that is where they are politically.

Nevertheless fielding more than two candidates can have a negative effect, if you are going to be struggling to get one seat. This is why in this election FF are running just one candidate in most of their constituencies to avoid splitting of the party vote. For example in a 4 seater, you need 25% of the vote. Lets say FF vote share falls to 20%, then fielding two candidates could give 10% each and they then have to rely on transfers to raise either a further 15%. If they field one, candidate and he gets say 16% (not even 20%), he only has to get (25-16) a further 9%. Before every election this is what
the main parties look at. They sit down, go through the poll data and any other information they have for each consitutency and work out how many candidates they should run to pick up the most seats based on the pros and cons which depends on the factors mentioned above. There is a bit of an art to it.

One other trend that is visible in the counts for DL (see image), is the way that preferences for the bigger parties tend to stay with the party, but for the smaller ones, when the candidate is eliminated, the votes gets more evenly split. See count 3 for the O Broin (SF) transfers and count 6 for the O'Malley (PD) transfers. Overall though there are no hard and fast rules and we do see cases of some transfers from FF to Labour which I would read as a vote for FF but we want you to lean to the Left and not to the Right.

Related Link: http://electionsireland.org/results/general/30dail.cfm
author by Mike Novackpublication date Fri Feb 18, 2011 21:15Report this post to the editors

AFAIK you don't have a "proportional representation" system. What you have just described goes by names like IRV (instant runoff voting) or "single transferrable vote". And yes, under certain circumstances* it can lead to odd outcomes, but that's true of just about any possible system of democracy.

The system usually called "proportional representation" is what they have in Israel. Each party puts up a slate with more candiates than they expect to get in. An ordered list. You vote for a party, not for candidates directly, though of course you do know who the top candidates are on the party lists of "your" party. There is generally a threshhold below which a party gets no seats; otherwise it wins as many seats as its proportion of the vote filled by as many candidates from their list as that requires.

* Unfortunately, the circumstances where this can happen likely to be destabilizing, people unhappy with and unwilling to accept the outcome. But some minor tweaks to the concept can eliminate the worst of these as usually when a "condorcet candidate" has been eliminated (a candidate who would defeat any of the other candidates in a 1:1 vote --- if there is such a candidate and your voting system eliminates him or her the result will be very unsatisfactory). The system can also result in who wins moving in the opposite direction from an overall shift of opinion from one election to the next.

No system can be devised that will be immune to odd outcomes under some circumstances. All we can do is try to have systems such that when these odd things happen will not be too unacceptable.

author by Tpublication date Tue Feb 22, 2011 12:36Report this post to the editors

Actually you are correct. I think technically speaking what we have is a "single transferrable vote" but I presume is part of a group of voting systems that could generally be classed as belonging to proportional representation.

As suggested, I agree that no voting system is perfect and each will have its own unique oddities in certain circumstances. There is a problem itself with the idea of voting because you are essentially agreeing to NOT partake in decision making and transferring the authority to do this to a bunch of "political" experts. There are many other problems, some of which are, the use of the party whip undermines the ability of representatives to represent those who elected them and instead their representation switches to the party which is not the same thing. Other problems are that you are electing based on promises to do something but there is no mechanism of recall if this does not happen. Perhaps though I am mixing up the limitations of the mechanics of the election with that of the running of the Dail / parliament. Nevertheless, elections have the sense of a multi-choice question. There is no room for anything other than the pre-canned answers.

author by Tpublication date Tue Feb 22, 2011 12:58Report this post to the editors

There is an important point that I missed in the original article above about the actual transfer and it is this. If you mark your ballot paper preferences as follows:

No 1. Bertie Ahern (FF)
No 2. Mary Harney (PD)
No 3. Joe Higgins (SP)

In this case, if Bertie Ahern is eliminated, then your vote transfers to your second preference. But if in turn Mary Harney is already elected OR already eliminated, then your vote transfers to Joe Higgins. And so it continues down, if you have marked a 4th and 5th preference and so on.

There is also the possibility that if Bertie Ahern exceeds the quota, then any surplus votes are distributed and in that case the same rule applies, the second preference kicks in and if that person is already elected or eliminated, then your third preference counts.

Likewise if Joe Higgins was already elected or eliminated, then your 4th preference if you have one, is used. If you don't then you lose your chance to keep your vote going. So it probably contradicts the point in the main article which was You are in fact better off not marking anything against their name because there is a small chance that the preference would get used in one of the counts if your other preference candidates get eliminated. Strictly speaking it is true, but the probability is very low the more candidates you have. So the argument now is to keep adding names past the 4th preference, because in some elections on some counts, candidates win by a handful of votes and by staying in the race, your transferrable vote could be one of those handful.

And again it is worth stressing that to make the most out of your vote, you should give your 1st preference to the weakest candidate that you like and your 2nd preference to the 2nd weakest based on the assumption they will probably be eliminated. However if everyone voted using that technique it would change things dramatically but the reality is that they don't and that at least 75% of the votes usually have the No. 1 preference going to the top 3 or so candidates.

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