Preference Voting in the 2011 General Election

I came across a post on PlanetILUG this morning from teh bigbro blog (sic) in which the author was endorsing a letter as it appeared in the Metro-Herald yesterday morning:

I would like to point out an interesting observation regarding ballot papers.

When filling in your ballot, do not assign a number to someone you don’t want to see elected! Giving someone a 6 or 7 could get them elected! I’ve seen it happen, believe me.

If you only like two candidates just give them the 1 and 2, if you like three candidates, give them a 1, 2 and 3 – you get what I mean.

I’ve had a few candidates at my door saying ‘ah sure, give him a 3 or a 4,’ knowing full well that this could get them elected – don’t do it, people! You have the power.

Mr. Democracy (Metro-Herald, Wed 16th Feb 2011)

This is spectacularly bad advice from the inappropriately named Mr. Democracy. We use an electoral system called PR-STV – Proportional Representation – Single Transferable Vote. What this means is that when you vote, you number the candidates in order of preference (but are not required to place a preference against all candidates ).

When your candidate has exceeded the quota or has been eliminated then your vote may be transferred. By following the above advice, and especially in four and five seat constituencies where the latter seats come down to a small amount of votes, you are effectively giving up your influence on who may fill those final seats.

If we take the Dublin Central constituency (not mine) as an example (four seats). In 2007, this constituency elected Bertie Ahern (FF) on almost two quotas, Cyprian Brady (FF) (Bertie’s running mate where they quite literally ambushed Mary Fitzpatrick (FF) with a midnight hour leaflet drop influencing voter transfers which got Brady elected on only 939 first preferences!), Joe Costello (L) and Maureen O’Sullivan (Ind.) who won the by-election following the death of Tony Gregory (Ind).

Now, if for example your thinking in this election (not necessarily mine) is that you’d like the FG candidate win and would live with Labour as well, you may rank your preferences as follows following the above advice:

1. Donohoe, Paschal (FG)
2. Costello, Joe (L)
3. Clancy, Aine (L)

It’s a fairly safe bet to assume that Donohoe (FG) and Costello (L) will get elected. It’s unlikely Clancy (L) will.

Here’s the problem with the above advice – by not continuing your preferences you have given up any and all potential influence about who fills the remaining two seats. This is why it is spectacularly bad advice and shows a complete mis-understanding of PR-STV in multi-seat constituencies.

Very few people would not have a preference of the remaining thirteen candidates. Or certainly at least a reverse preference. We have for example seven independents. You may be an anybody but Sinn Féin (personally my head may feel like exploding every time I hear Mary Lou MacDonald (SF) on the radio). You may want to finish off the Ahern (FF) dynasty by giving a transfer to Fitzpatrick (FF) and not preferring Brady (FF) at all. You might be able to live with Kearney (GP) over the ultra-left candidates Steenson (WP) and O’Loughlin (CSP). O’Sullivan (Ind) took Gregory’s (Ind) mantle who was very popular and you may wish to give her a nod. So your ballet paper may now be shaping up as follows:

4. Kearney, Phil (GP)
5. Fitzpatrick, Mary (FF)
6. O’Sullivan, Maureen (Ind)

Voting is often as much about strategy as about preference. For example by continuing to preference candidates you don’t want but could live with over another, you keep them in the race longer and may force the exclusion of those you don’t.

However, it’s important to understand under what circumstances your vote can be transferred:

  • if your first preference candidate is the first to exceed the quota, then his surpluses will be proportionally transferred based on the next available preference;
  • if your (currently) preferred candidate is eliminated, then your vote will be transferred based on the next available preference;
  • distribution of surpluses after the first candidate is deemed elected is done proportionally from previously transferred votes only.

You only have one vote and it can only be applied to one candidate. If your first preference is not elected to the first seat but is elected to a subsequent seat, your vote will never transfer. I understand this is complicated – perhaps a dedicated blog post on this is warranted.

Remember, voting is a privilege. Candidates work hard to make themselves known to you. Walk into the polling booth informed with what the candidates in your area are advocating and preference accordingly. Without being too technical, if you do not preference all candidates and if your vote is transferred on your last preference then it is possible that you will have lost your influence in the proportionality of that bundle of surpluses (Christ I see how that reads – a new blog post on the process is required!). As you may guess from this paragraph, a good understanding of the process and strategy may increase your influence when others do not complete their ballet paper in full. Of course if you haven’t informed yourself of all the candidates and can’t genuinely preference candidates, only do so as far as you can. Don’t randomly preference towards the end of your ballot paper!

3 thoughts on “Preference Voting in the 2011 General Election”

  1. Very good, I had never thought of it like that.
    Now my only dilemma is trying to rank the “other” candidates in order of how little I dislike each of them. Mary Lou La? Paul O’Loughlin? This is going to be tough.

  2. Any chance of an explanation of the transfer of surpluses during a count. One with some shiny interactive graphs and useful metaphors?

    If you’re thinking of the level to pitch it at, think about how you might explain pr-stv surpluses to Mr. Democracy.

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