A Guide to the Irish Election Part 2: PR-STV Explained

After nearly three weeks of frantic campaigning, the electorate will cast their ballots this Friday.

By this point, if you’re eligible, hopefully you’re registered to vote and close to deciding who your first preference is. 

With the day of judgment fast approaching, The City will provide a brief refresher – or, if you’re a first-time voter, an introduction – on PR-STV, the electoral system used in the general election.

What is PR-STV?

PR-STV stands for ‘Proportional Representation – Single Transferable Vote’. Besides Ireland, the only other country that uses PR-STV to elect parliaments is Malta. As the name suggests, PR-STV seeks to ensure proportional representation within each constituency – and by extension the country. This means that the distribution of seats more accurately reflects the numbers of votes cast for a candidate and party than does a so-called first-past-the-post system.  

Britain does not use a PR voting system and the results of this can be reflected in the 2005 UK general election, when Labour received 35 per cent of the national vote but won 55 per cent of seats.

How to vote?

Voting itself is straightforward under the PR-STV system. When the voter goes to their local ballot station they will be given a list of the candidates standing in that constituency. To vote, you just have to rank the candidates in order of preference – with ‘1’ beside your preferred candidate and so on down the list.

What happens to your vote?

While the process of casting a vote is quite straightforward, the means of counting it are less so: candidates are elected by reaching what mathematicians call a ‘Droop Quota’. The ‘quota’ is set by this equation as, for example, a quarter of valid votes plus one in a three-seat constituency, a fifth of votes plus one in a four-seat constituency, and one-sixth plus one (about 16.7%) in a five-seater.

If a candidate is elected on the first count, this candidate’s surplus votes – that is, the number of votes she or he has received above the quota –  are distributed to the others. If no one is elected on a count,  the candidate or candidates with the fewest votes are eliminated and their votes transferred to the lower preferences on each ballot.

Tactical Voting?

The mechanics of PR-STV allow votes to cast their votes tactically. There are many examples of this. One is that a voter might give his first preference to a candidate from a smaller party, or an Independent, who has no realistic chance of winning a seat. In effect, the voter is casting a vote of conscience in the knowledge that their second preference will ultimately hold more sway in the count centre – and that second-preference candidate will be able to see where the vote ‘came from’.

The tactics are not, of course, only on the voting side. Many parties will run more than one candidate in a constituency so as to boost their chances of winning one seat. The plan here is for one candidate to steal lower preferences from other candidates, and upon being eliminated from the count, improve the chances of their party colleague getting elected.

One of the notable features of PR-STV is that it allows voters to cross party lines when casting their votes. This contributes to the share of seats in a constituency not going to the same party, and also gives smaller parties or Independents the chance to win the final seats in constituencies if they transfer well. One explanation put forward for the Green Party’s strong showing in the 2007 General Election (six seats with less than 5 per cent of the first-preference vote) is that they got so many transfers, as many voters gave the party a lower preference to reflect environmental concerns.

Consequences of PR-STV?

The most apparent consequence of PR voting systems comes in the area of government formation. On the evening of 6 May 2010, the British public were left dumbfounded when exit polls indicated that the election had resulted in a hung parliament and that a coalition government was to be the outcome of the vote. This is not an alien outcome for electorates in PR voting systems where multi-partyism and coalition governments are the norm.

The last single-party government in Ireland come about following the 1987 election, and this fell within two years. Since then, coalition governments have become part of the political landscape and  a coalition government is roundly expected to be the outcome following Friday’s vote. Whether it will require a coalition of five parties, as following the 1948 election, remains to be seen.  

One of the most cited critiques of PR-STV is that it is conducive to localism and leads to constituency concerns to dominate the work of a TD over national affairs. The Healy-Rae’s in Kerry are often cited as examples of this. However, it is debatable whether PR-STV is solely responsible for this phenomenon or indeed if this constituency service is a negative.


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  1. […] others keeping an eye on the election count this Saturday. As has become the norm in Ireland, the intricacies of PR-STV mean that the counts are likely to continue late into the night or maybe longer still. Many would […]

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