Today we celebrate Saint Patrick’s Day by reporting on the Irish election of a couple of weeks ago (February 26). The Irish people went to the polls, using multi-winner ranked choice voting (RCV) in three, four and five-winner districts to elect their lower house, the Dáil Éireann (DE). Changes in voter sentiment since the last election in 2011, combined with the use of multi-winner RCV, ensured that the election was highly competitive and that the newly elected Dáil Éireann is very different from the outgoing one.
A Dramatic Shift in Power
Before the elections took place, FairVote gave a brief run-down of the main players and issues in this election. We wondered whether the Fine Gael-Labour Party coalition would remain the majority coalition after the election. Fine Gael, a Christian democratic party, and the Labour Party, a leftist, trade union-associated party, formed their coalition after the 2011 election, and took on Ireland’s financial crisis. However, over their term, their favorability fell. Many Irish voters became frustrated with the government’s austerity measures. Irish Times columnist, Fintan O’Toole, explained, “the government was not elected in 2011 to what it actually did: it promised radical change to the troika deal, the bank bailout and the political system,” but instead the coalition severely cut funding for public health and housing programs, cut public service staff by 10%, and increased taxes.
Both Fine Gael and the Labour Party were expected to lose seats; and they did indeed lose many. Fine Gael lost 16 seats, retaining 50 seats, and the Labour Party lost 26 seats, leaving them a minor party with only 7 seats. This loss of seats strongly reflects changes in voter sentiment since 2011. Thirty-six percent of voters ranked Fine Gael first in 2011; but only 26% did so in 2016. Similarly, 19% of voters ranked the Labour Party first in 2011, but only 7% of voters ranked them first in 2016. Consequently, as illustrated below, the Fine Gael and Labour parties no longer hold a majority of seats in the DE. The chart below also shows the increase in the number of political parties represented in the DE. While the 31st Dáil was composed of five parties, the 32nd Dáil is far more diverse, composed of nine political parties.
The Impact of Recent Changes to the Electoral System
The election was especially interesting because of recent changes to the electoral system and the introduction of quotas.
In 2012, the Irish Constituency Commission drew a new district map to accommodate the reduction in the size of the Dáil Éireann from 166 to 158 seats. Only eleven districts kept the same boundary lines, and, in most of these 11 districts, the number of seats elected in each district changed. As expected, incumbents lost at a higher rate than usual, with 34% of incumbents losing, compared to the usual 20%. Many fresh faces were present when the 32nd DE sat for the first time on March 10.
The 2016 election was also the first election with gender quotas. Each political party was required to nominate at least 30% women, or else the parties would lose half of their annual payments from the government. All but one party, Direct Democracy Ireland, nominated more than 30% women.
The quotas appear to have dramatically increased the number of women elected to the DE. In 2011, twenty-five women were elected to the DE. In 2016, thirty-five women were elected. Women’s representation increased from 13% to 22%. The gender quotas have had their desired effect and improved women’s representation in the DE significantly.
RCV in Ireland
In this election, many of the positive qualities of multi-winner RCV were on show. While there were some concerns raised about party fragmentation (nine parties were elected to the DE in 2016) and delays in the vote counting (several races were extremely close, which meant it took six days for the results to be finalized), multi-winner RCV delivered an election with meaningful competition and results that were proportional to votes cast, responsive to changes in voter sentiment, that encouraged shared representation and provided a high proportion of the Irish electorate with representation by a candidate of first choice.
In the last 35 years, 3 DE seats have been won by only five votes. These highly competitive elections are in part a result of the Irish election system. Multi-winner RCV allows for more than two candidates to compete without fear of splitting the vote, creating conditions for meaningful competition and representation of a greater number and diversity of viewpoints. The number of candidates running in each DE district ranged from six to 21 in 2016.
In addition to creating meaningful competition, multi-winner RCV also brought about proportional results. In the Irish 2016 election, 26% of voters’ first choices were Fine Gael candidates, and 31% of elected candidates were from Fine Gael. Sinn Féin, one of the parties that significantly increased its seats this election, was about 14% of voters’ first choice, and now holds about 15% of the seats in the Dáil Éireann. This proportional level of representation stands in stark contrast to the level of representation seen in the United States under winner-take-all. In the 2014 congressional elections, around 36% of voters in contested races in Maryland voted for Republican candidates -- but Republicans won none of Maryland’s congressional seats. Similarly, in the New Jersey 2015 state election, 54% of voters cast ballots for Democratic General Assembly candidates, but only 35% of newly elected New Jersey General Assembly members were Democrats.
As noted earlier, multi-winner RCV produces results that are highly responsive to changes in voters’ votes. Fine Gael’s first choice support dropped 29%, and they lost 24% of their seats. The Labour Party’s first choice support fell by almost two-thirds, and they lost almost 79% of their seats.
The diversity of the Irish electorate is also represented by the fact that no district was won by one party. In every district across the nation, candidates from at least two parties were elected, creating a dynamic of shared representation. In these districts, representatives holding diverse views represent their constituencies, encouraging compromise and ensuring more voters’ views are heard in the legislature.
Around three-quarters of Irish voters are represented by a candidate from the party of their first choice. That leaves only one in four whose vote did not elect a candidate from their most preferred party. This is a much lower proportion than in single-winner districts using winner-take-all. In Massachusetts in 2014, 42% of voters did not elect a candidate of choice to the U.S. House in contested races. In Maryland, 36% of voters did not elect a candidate of choice to the U.S. House. Multi-winner RCV in Ireland performs better than winner-take-all in two-winner districts in the United States. In the New Jersey 2015 State Legislative election, which used winner-take-all in two-winner districts, around 30% of New Jersey voters casted a vote for a candidate from a party that is locked out of representation in their district.
The Irish elections exemplify how multi-winner RCV creates a more competitive political atmosphere, ensuring not only that every voice is heard but that every vote matters. The political ideologies and preferences of Irelanders are better represented in their national legislature than the ideologies and preferences of Americans tend to be. With a more responsive electoral system, Irish voters were recently part of a more meaningful, competitive election than is usually seen in the United States.
Image source: Wikipedia.