#GE16 – The Numbers Game

As darkness descended yesterday, politicians throughout the country put their feet up safe in the knowledge they could do no more. Today, the Irish electorate finally go to the polling stations.

However, those standing for election are not the only ones who view the election count as an important event in the political cycle. Amid the sweating palms and nervous looks visible at the count centres, tallymen and tallywomen will be leaning over barriers to catch glimpses of the counted ballots to take note of the distribution of preferences.

Noel Whelan is an experienced analyst of Irish politics, and it’s clear when talking to him that he holds this group in high regard. He compares the ballot boxes at the count centres as “pieces of a jigsaw” with many representing the votes of an urban street or a rural parish. He sees the role of the tallyman to piece together this puzzle as more ballot boxes are opened and a picture emerges.  The observations will quickly be compared to those of 2011 and further back, and soon the tallymen will be able to report back to the candidate their chances of claiming a seat. The accuracy of these activists is so great that many will be able to determine how transfer-friendly their candidate is and also determine their strongest areas of support.

Perhaps the skill of these men and women is best exemplified with a story surrounding Garret FitzGerald and Roger Garland – the first Green Party TD. It was reputedly the former Taoiseach and Fine Gael leader who approached Garland to congratulate him on winning a seat, at an early stage of the count, after doing the sums himself. Whatever the veracity of that exchange, FitzGerald was undisputedly a great enthusiast of election counts and was peering over the barricades separating the tallymen and the counted ballots in February 2011, just a few months short of his death.

Aside from the tallymen and party activists, many more political analysts will be keeping a close eye on the counting of votes on Saturday. Noel Whelan made his election prediction that a Fine Gael/Fianna Fáil coalition would form the next government early in the campaign, and he remains confident in this outcome. While there have been slight fluctuations in their support of the two parties, he declared that the recent polling data is consistent with the numbers that lead to his prediction.

Professor David Farrell, from UCD’s School of Politics and International Relations, does not have his reputation on the line similar to Noel Whelan but he is just as interested in the outcome of the vote, and its ramifications on how academics view Irish voting habits.

Traditionally the decision on who voters award a first preference has been “pretty much always based on local issues,” Farrell said. “There is some evidence that 2011 signalled a shift more towards more focus on policy and party leadership,” he added.

Farrell also discussed the change in electorate landscape, saying that “there might be evidence that the Irish electorate are becoming more like the electorates in other countries”.

The 2007 general election saw the Green Party surprisingly emerge as a junior coalition partner after transferring favourably among voters – the party won six seats despite securing less than 5 per cent of first preference votes. Is there any chance a smaller party could replicate this on Saturday? Despite Noel Whelan’s prediction that Labour will be decimated, David Farrell believes there is some speculation the party could emerge as the most transfer friendly, but “the problem for them is that not many of their candidates might survive long enough in the count to reap that reward”.

If the bookmakers, and Noel Whelan, are to be believed then a Fine Gael and Fianna Fáil coalition could be on the cards. Farrell is curious to see if this outcome indeed comes and suggests it is a real possibility. Today’s political climate has seen identification with parties plummet and voters less constrained by party lines. This was seen in 2011 when a number of Fianna Fáil voters “lent their support” – as Farrell describes it – to Fine Gael.

Farrell is also interested in following the strength in the vote for Sinn Féin. In the past, the party’s strongest support came from the youngest voters – also those less likely to vote – but there are suggestions that their “support in the 25-35 cohort is growing”. Farrell does give a warning to Sinn Féin voters though in the instance the party helps form the government of the 32nd Dáil. “It doesn’t matter what party you are, if you go into government you moderate. That’s the nature of the beast for Sinn Féin or any other party.”

With all the different possible outcomes and trends to keep an eye on, Whelan and Farrell will no doubt be joined by many 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 have it no other way.

By FERGUS CARROLL

Photo: Coventry City Council

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