A brief run-down on the 2016 Irish elections

Posted by Sarah John on February 24, 2016

Voters in the Republic of Ireland head to the polls this Friday (February 26th, 2016) to elect the Dáil Éireann, the Irish lower house. One hundred fifty eight members will be elected from 40 electoral districts, each electing between three and five members using multi-winner ranked choice voting (also known as the Single Transferable Vote).  

Here’s FairVote’s rundown on this fascinating election campaign and the role multi-winner ranked choice voting (RCV) plays in delivering fairer election outcomes for Ireland.

The campaign and incumbent woes

The economy, and sustaining Ireland’s nascent economic recovery, dominates the 2016 election campaign. Once viewed as an economic miracle with high levels of growth between 1995 and 2007, the Irish financial crisis brought much hardship to Ireland. Ireland suffered through eight rounds of austerity measures, which cut 10% of the government workforce, greatly reduced government spending on health and public housing and increased taxes. Only in recent months has Ireland begun to slowly crawl out of the crisis.

2016 Irish election posters, two real and one satirical (source Twitter).

The Fine Gael and the Labour Party govern in coalition, elected amidst the economic crisis. The largest party, Fine Gael, is a Christian democratic party with relatively socially liberal stances. It holds 66 seats. Reflecting the gradually improving economy and the party’s role in the recovery, the Fine Gael’s 2016 campaign slogan is “Let’s keep the recovery going”.  Fine Gael’s coalition partner is the Labour Party, a leftist party based in the trade union movement, which has come under fire for its support of austerity measures while governing in coalition. Its 2016 campaign is focused on “working families” and its slogan is “Standing up for Ireland’s future”.

Support for both Fine Gael and Labour Party slumped over their term in coalition, but Fine Gael is making a resurgence and remains Ireland’s most popular party (with a little under 30% support). Meanwhile the Labour Party remains unpopular (polling at less than 10%) and is likely to lose significant numbers of its 33 seats this Friday.

Reflecting the proportional nature of multi-winner RCV, there are currently 6 other political parties represented in the legislature (with a total of 46 seats) as well as 19 independents. Two of the parties stand to increase their numbers: Fianna Fail, a center right populist party that was decimated in 2011 election, and Sinn Fein, which was an outspoken opponent of austerity measures and the bailout. Both hover around 20% support apiece. Predictions are that these parties will increase their seats, and that no party will gain a majority of seats. Pundits are divided as to whether the Fine Gael - Labour Party coalition will win re-election.

The impact of recent changes to the electoral system

An independent commission, the Irish Constituency Commission, drew a new district map in 2012 in response to a reduction in size of the Dáil Éireann (from 166 to 158) and the release of the 2011 census population estimates. Up to half of districts were reconfigured with new boundaries or different district magnitudes. Incumbents are typically re-elected less often than in U.S. House elections, with almost 20% of incumbents losing in a typical election. The recent redistricting may translate into more incumbents losing than usual.

The 2016 election is the first election in which statutory gender quotas for party candidate nominations have been used. Any political party failing to nominate enough female candidates (30%) will lose half the annual payments that the government makes to political parties (these payments are in excess of €100,000 and are intended to fund operating expenses, policy development, research and training efforts). All political parties, except Direct Democracy Ireland, nominated more than 30% women, and so keep their state funding. The use of quotas should see the proportion of women elected increase.

The role of RCV

Multi-winner RCV has been used in Ireland since 1922. It was adopted because it produces fairer results than other systems and because it would guarantee the representation of political minorities (in the case of Ireland, Protestants). RCV is entrenched in theIrish Constitution.

Under multi-winner RCV, in contrast to other voting systems, voters have more choice and have their preferences translated into results that more fully reflect voter preferences. Multi-winner RCV is a proportional system and Irish political parties tend to win seats in line with their national vote share (such as in 2011: see the chart below). Only rarely in recent memory has a single political party won over 50% of Irelanders. Consequently, a single political party has rarely controlled the Dáil Éireann on its own. Instead, parties negotiate and compromise after an election to form a governing coalition. By contrast, plurality voting entrenches a two-party system in the United States and often the party that wins more votes nationally wins fewer seats.

Additionally, multi-winner RCV has encouraged meaningful intra-party competition: more incumbents from Fianna Fail are unseated by candidates from their own party than are unseated by candidates from other parties.

One criticism of multi-winner RCV is that elected representatives spend too much time responding to constituents and their local concerns, and not enough time on national issues. This phenomenon is unlikely to translate to the United States, which has a less local outlook than Ireland, and where each member of Congress represents more than 25 times the population than does each member of the Dáil Éireann.Ultimately, under multi-winner RCV, voters have more power. Reflecting the ability of Irish voters to develop and express more meaningful preferences, the Guardian reports asking a voter who had expressed doubts about the two governing parties, “if she would consider offering a second or third preference to Sinn Féin.” American voters should have similar power and be able to rank their candidates as well.


Image source: Flickr. 

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