Ireland Ruling Party Electoral College Elections Produce Undemocratic Outcomes

Posted by Michael Patison on July 11, 2017

After a week-long election began on May 29, Ireland’s ruling party, Fine Gael, has elected Leo Varadkar as its next leader in the party’s first leadership election since outgoing leader Enda Kenny’s election in 2002. Instead of single transferable vote (STV), also known as “ranked choice voting” in the United States, which was used in both national and local Irish elections, Fine Gael used a system in which weighted voting power was given to three different groups, or electoral colleges. Varadkar’s election makes him Ireland’s next Taoiseach, the country’s equivalent of a prime minister. He is the country’s first openly gay Taoiseach, the first of Indian descent, and the youngest in history.

The 38-year-old Social Protection Minister defeated Housing and Local Government Minister Simon Coveney in the party’s electoral college-based election to take over the leadership. While previous party leadership elections have featured more than two candidates, a handful of notable potential candidates declined to stand, including Education Minister, former leadership candidate, and brother of a former Taoiseach Richard Bruton; Health Minister and rising star Simon Harris; and Tánaiste (deputy prime minister) Frances Fitzgerald.

Even though Ireland uses ranked choice voting to elect both the Dáil Éireann (the national parliament) and local councillors to elect candidates in multi-member constituencies, Fine Gael elected Varadkar using what the Irish refer to as an electoral college system. Any similarities with the American electoral college used to elect the President end with the name. The votes of three different groups, or electoral colleges, are given different weights: the parliamentary party, composed of the party’s current members of parliament, senators, and European Parliament members (65%); ordinary party members (25%); and local councillors (10%). Given these allocations, despite losing the ordinary party member vote by a 2:1 margin, Varadkar’s heavy support in the Dáil Éireann (Parliament) and amongst local councillors ensured a 60-40 electoral college victory.

While some have argued that Varadkar’s election reflected the party’s desire to appeal to the rest of the country, important for a party leading a minority government and having to maintain the confidence of two other parties to pass legislation, the inequity of the electoral college system is self-evident. The votes of 73 parliamentarians are over 2.5 times more powerful than the nearly 11 thousand votes cast by Fine Gael party members.

Historically, Ireland’s ranked choice voting elections have yielded highly competitive elections and diverse party compositions. In the country’s 2016 general election, none of the nation’s 40 constituencies, each of which elects between 3 and 5 members, fielded any fewer than six candidates, and every constituency saw at least twice as many candidates as there were seats to fill. Nine parties won seats, in addition to 19 independents, and ten different parties received at least 2% of first choices (each of these numbers includes an informal grouping of independents called the Independent Alliance, which had 6 candidates elected and polled over 4% of first choices). Since the first official election for the Dáil Éireann in 1922, no fewer than three parties have won seats in any single election, with an average of 5.3 different parties per election, and at least 1 independent candidate has won election in every election, with an average of 7.9 per election. In the eight elections since 1985, no fewer than six parties, and an average of nearly 7, have been elected in each election. Additionally, the nation’s electoral disproportionality is significantly lower than that of other parliamentary democracies using first-past-the-post/winner-take-all elections. Canada’s disproportionality, as of their most recent 2015 election, is twice that of Ireland, while the United Kingdom’s 2015 general election had an electoral disproportionality 2.5 times that of Ireland.

By allowing voters to rank candidates in order of choice, ranked choice voting better reflects the will of the people and gives the voting public a stronger voice and greater choice, whether it be in Fine Gael leadership elections or American elections.

 Image Courtesy: www.streetsofdublin.com

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