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Choice Voting vs. The Challengers: The Irish Convention on the Constitution Decides

by Robert Fekete // Published August 7, 2013
house of the oireachtas4

The following is the fourth and final post in FairVote's series on the Irish electoral system and the 2013 Convention on the Constitution in Ireland. For more, see the first post, an analysis of Ireland's ranked choice voting system, the second post, an overview of the constitutional convention, and the third post, discussing the Convention's decision to recommend lowering the voting age in Ireland to 16.

In July of 2012 the Irish Parliament created a Convention on the Constitution to examine reforms to the way they conduct elections. The Convention left no electoral change off the table, considering systems as disparate as first-past-the-post and closed party list. But in the end, the Convention decided that Ireland's current electoral system, choice voting (known there as the single transferable vote), remains the best option for the country.

Ireland first used choice voting in 1918 on a local level, while the nation was still struggling to gain its independence from the United Kingdom. When the Irish Free State was born in 1922, choice voting was adopted for all national and local elections. The framers of Ireland's constitution wanted an electoral system that was proportional, so that Ireland's religious minorities would be fairly represented. But they also didn't want to give up the primary virtue of Britain's first-past-the-post system: the ability of voters to vote for a candidate who would represent their specific geographic district.

As discussed in the first post in this series, voters in Ireland vote much like we do in the U.S.: they vote for a candidate in a local geographic district. The difference is that they also have the ability to rank the candidates in order of preference, so that every voter can help elect a candidate of choice to one of the three to five seats in each district.

Choice voting has served Ireland well for over 90 years. But the Convention on the Constitution was tasked with examining potential electoral reforms, and the members of the assembly did not shy away from considering major structural election reform. The Convention heard testimony on various other electoral systems, ranging from mixed member proportional (MMP) systems and the open and closed variants of party list proportional representation to first-past-the-post.

During the first day of discussions on how elections for Parliament might be changed, the members of the Convention narrowed their preferred electoral systems to mixed member proportional and the current choice voting system. Both of these systems produce proportional outcomes but still maintain geographic districts and local representation - two qualities that Ireland seems to value in an electoral system.

The Convention never seriously considered recommending a switch to a winner-take-all system of election. It recognized the dramatic costs that such a system would have for fair representation and competitive elections. Pure party list systems were similarly rejected because they would have severed the connection of a voter to an individual candidate. When asked what non-choice voting system they would prefer, only 3% of the members voted for a winner-take-all system, 29% for a party list system, and 69% for mixed member proportional.

FairVote advocates for the use of MMP, or "Districts Plus," as we describe the system in the U.S. context. In Districts Plus, the single-member district winner-take-all system is maintained, but an additional tier of representatives is elected from a party list or party primary. Parties are allocated "accountability seats" from that second tier based on their share of the total vote, compensating for any distortion caused by the single-member districts. In this way, a primarily single-member district system still leads to a proportional outcome.

There are a few drawbacks to MMP that the Convention identified, however. For one, independents would have a more difficult time getting elected under MMP than in a multi-member district using choice voting, because they would need to get more total votes nationwide. Another concern is the problem of "overhang seats," where one party wins so many more constituency seats than it deserves based on its total vote share that the proportional tier can't compensate for the distortion. Germany, which uses MMP for its national parliamentary elections, has grappled with the overhang issue in recent years.

When it came down to a vote between switching to a mixed member proportional system and maintaining choice voting, the Convention on the Constitution issued a clear verdict: 79% of members voted against replacing choice voting.

The Convention reached this decisive recommendation after hearing testimony from several groups that discussed the virtues of choice voting, though some argued that these benefits could be further enhanced by expanding the size of districts. The National Women's Council of Ireland (NWCI), for instance, recommended maintaining the choice voting system but enlarging the number of seats in a constituency to increase the overall proportionality of the Dáil. The NWCI also argued that a greater district magnitude could lead to more opportunities for women, racial minorities, and minor parties to be elected.

The final recommendation that was passed by the Convention members was to preserve Ireland's choice voting system and increase the size of all constituencies to a minimum of 5 seats.

The Convention also issued a conditional recommendation: in the event that Ireland ever decides to alter its choice voting system, the preferred method would be a form of mixed member proportional that uses the existing multi-member district structure with choice voting instead of single-member districts along with the purely proportional tier. This system, which FairVote has previously advocated for use in Malta, would guarantee a proportional outcome nationwide while still allowing voters to rank their choices in local districts. Using choice voting along with Districts Plus would alleviate the main concerns that the Convention had with MMP systems, as independents would still have opportunities to be elected in constituencies and the overhang problem would be effectively eliminated.

In sum, the recommendations of Ireland's Convention on the Constitution largely coincide with what FairVote would recommend for Ireland and most robust democracies, including the United States. Choice voting in medium-sized districts is our preferred system, but mixed member proportional/Districts Plus is one of the better alternatives, especially when used in conjunction with choice voting. Both of these systems are much more appropriate for the politics of the United States than a closed party list system or our current single-member district, winner-take-all structure that has led to uncompetitive elections, distorted outcomes, and a polarized Congress.