Voices & Choices

Elections in Northern Ireland and Scotland Show the Promise of Proportional Ranked Choice Voting

Elections in Northern Ireland and Scotland Show the Promise of Proportional Ranked Choice Voting

Nearly three million voters went to the polls Thursday in Northern Ireland’s Assembly elections and Scotland’s local elections. Both contests demonstrated the promise of the single transferable vote, known in the United States as proportional ranked choice voting (PRCV). In Northern Ireland, PRCV has helped to bridge sectarian differences between nationalist and unionist parties, while in Scotland, it has helped ensure fair representation. Both jurisdictions offer case studies on how the United States would benefit from passing the Fair Representation Act

In Northern Ireland, Sinn Féin won the most seats and will be entitled to the post of first minister after winning about 29% of first-preference votes nationally, which translated into 27 of 90 seats. The party was once the political wing of the militant Provisional Irish Republican Army, but in this campaign, it focused less on questions of national identity and more on kitchen-table issues like the cost of living and the National Health Service. It remains to be seen whether Sinn Féin can partner with a unionist party to form a government and produce an executive, as required by the terms of the Good Friday Agreement. Scholarship has found that PRCV has created incentives to reduce inter-ethnic conflict in Northern Ireland, and the non-sectarian Alliance Party’s gains could be seen as evidence of such cooperation (Mitchell, 2014).

In Scotland, bread-and-butter issues also dominated the campaign conversation, with the BBC highlighting “the cost of living crisis, council funding, education, and other local services” as key issues. The Scottish National Party gained 22 councillors and remained the largest party, while the Labour Party won the second most seats amidst poor results for the Tories. In councils without a clear majority, parties will need to negotiate to form a majority government. Thursday marked the fourth time Scotland has used PRCV for its local elections since 2007, when “local electoral reform was a price that the Labour Party paid to agree to a coalition with the pro-reform Liberal Democrats in the 2003–2007 Scottish parliament” (Clark, 2020, p. 4). Voters have adapted well to the system, with the Electoral Reform Society finding that 86% of ballots featured at least two rankings in the 2017 Scottish local elections. 

If the Fair Representation Act were adopted in the United States, cases like Northern Ireland and Scotland should inspire confidence that Americans would rank multiple candidates, earn fair representation in proportion to their numbers, and see more functional governance. Proportional ranked choice voting passed these latest tests with flying colors and could help solve the polarization and governance challenges facing the United States. 


Clark, A. (2020). The effects of electoral reform on party campaigns, voters and party systems at the local level: from single member plurality to the single transferable vote in Scotland. Local Government Studies, 47(1), 79-99.

Mitchell, P. (2014). The single transferable vote and ethnic conflict: the evidence from Northern Ireland. Electoral Studies, 33, 246-257.

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