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The political effects of electoral voting systems

by Frank Schnittger Thu Aug 13th, 2020 at 05:18:05 PM EST

Electoral system has served us well

Sir, – Brendan O’Donnell writes that an electoral commission should consider replacing our single transferable vote, multi-seat, proportional representation system on the grounds that it produces vagarious results, is a legacy of colonialism, and is shared only with Malta (Letters, August 12th).

On the contrary, I would argue it produces results broadly in line with the electorate’s preferences, in sharp contrast to the winner takes all system of first past the post operated in the UK which makes voting pointless in many “safe” constituencies and can award an overall majority to a party gaining less than 40 per cent of the vote.

It is also preferable to the archaic US “electoral college” system which has twice, in recent times, awarded the presidency to the candidate who lost the popular vote.

In addition, the US and UK systems generate an adversarial two-party system and political culture which fails to reflect the diversity of the electorate and which polarises debate between these two parties. As a consequence, they promote conflict rather than cooperation, and division rather than consensus building.

A case could perhaps be made for a European-style party list system which prioritises internal party back-room wheeling and dealing, but I think it preferable that the electorate can directly choose whom they wish to represent them.

If the diversity facilitated by our system, very occasionally, results in a delay in forming a government, that only reflects the diversity of views within the electorate, which can be slow to come to a consensus on some issues.

Ireland has, almost uniquely, avoided the extreme political polarisation seen in our neighbouring states, and our electoral system and the culture of collaboration and compromise it encourages must take some of the credit for that.

To be successful in Irish politics, you have to be able to attract not only first preferences, but lower preferences from other parties and candidates, and that puts a premium on being able to work with others rather than antagonising them. Divisive and polarising demagogues tend to do less well in such a system.

For all its complexities and faults , which includes a tendency towards clientelism and producing TDs better at articulating grievances than implementing solutions, I think our electoral system has served us well.

We tinker with it at our peril! – Yours, etc,


Two academics, Theresa Reidy, David Farrell, have produced a good discussion of vulnerabilities in the Irish electoral and voting system. They highlight the haphazard management of Irish voter registers and the ability of foreign, mostly US far right fundamentalists, to buy huge amounts of advertising on social media in an attempt to defeat the liberalisation of the Irish constitutional provisions on marriage equality and abortion rights.

I doubt there is a huge amount of electoral fraud in Ireland. Most people can hardly be bothered to vote once, never mind twice! That said, there is no excuse in this day and age for not having a national computerised voting database where if you move house your name is automatically removed from one constituency when it is added to a second. The same applies to updating the register on coming of voting age and death. The birth and death registration processes should make appropriate amendments to the voting register.

I don't get the civil liberties case against having a national identity card/passport/driving licence/tax/healthcare/social welfare card which ensures that every eligible resident is registered for all services they are entitled to, and not for those for which they are not entitled. The State has a duty of care to all its residents, and cannot carry out that role properly if it does not know who they are, where they live, and what they are entitled to.

I have twice been removed from the voting register without notification despite never having moved in the past 40 years - presumably for having a foreign sounding name. A much more rigorous system is needed to ensure the register is constantly updated, and not just by a once in a blue moon sweep through lists by council or census officials. If passports, driving licences, tax discs etc. can be subject to a periodic renewal process, why not voting registers? And why can this not be done through one web-enabled, user administered, and independently monitored process?

The issue of social media advertising by groups using funds not properly sourced in Ireland is much more serious. Ireland has strict laws on lobbying and political donations but these seem to have been circumvented by social media advertising with impunity. All social media advertising should be vetted by the advertising standards authority which will have the power to block any and all ads in contravention of the law.

I have a simple ad blocker linked to my WIFI system which prevents ads from ever even reaching my phone or laptop. It operates on a global white list/black list basis and could easily be applied to all internet traffic into Ireland with only white listed ads allowed.

Relying on Facebook et al to self regulate is a derogation of a state's responsibility to ensure its laws are applied within the state and only serves to undermine our sovereignty. Civil libertarians will call it censorship, but we can make the rules as tight or loose as we want. The point is an independent watchdog, answerable to the Dail should make and apply the rules.

Theresa Reidy and David Farrell didn't really discuss Ireland's electoral system at all, but their article was the springboard for a letter in the Irish Times in which Brendan O'Donnell argued for the replacement of the single transfer vote, multi-seat, proportional representation system used in all Irish elections. Hence my reply, publishes as an image above and in the Irish Times on-line edition here.

The Irish system is quite complex and subtle in its effects, but it is remarkable the degree to which it is understood by ordinary voters who use it to maximise the representation of their preferred parties and candidates. The last seat in each constituency (of 3-5 seats) is generally in doubt and often on a cliff edge, so every vote matters and there is no such thing as a safe seat. Voters have a wide variety of parties and independents to choose from, and so the make-up of the Dail generally reflects the diversity of Irish society.

This can make government formation difficult, if, as happened last February,three parties, all of whom pledged not to coalesce with each other, end up with roughly equal seats, and the rest of the Dail (bar the Greens) is made up of smaller mostly leftist parties and independents more interested in opposition than forming a government.

But that is not a fault in the system - it is an accurate reflection of the diversity of views in the electorate - and it forces politicians of different persuasions to work together. Ireland has therefore largely avoided the alienation of the people from the political system, and the polarisation of views within the electorate. A gradual shift to the left - mainly to Sinn Fein and the Greens - is evidenced in the results, but nothing which cannot be accommodated within the system of governance.

So I am a great fan of our electoral system despite its tendency to produce a lot of parliamentarians focused on local issues and more interested in opposition than taking on the reins of government. Having a wide variety of parties and independents elected reflecting the views of the electorate is a good thing in itself, even if it makes the process of government formation more difficult. If the people want a stronger single party government, they can always vote for it, but we shouldn't try to manipulate the electoral system to create such a result against the wishes of the majority.

Some electoral reforms are necessary, particularly the maintenance of voter registration lists and the regulation of social media advertising and its funding. But the actual electoral systems itself works very well, and doesn't need fixing....

The problem in the US is not so much the electoral college as it is the senate. We are returning to the system of rotten boroughs.
by asdf on Sun Aug 16th, 2020 at 01:27:06 AM EST
On the scale of problems effecting US democracy, I would list:
  1. Importance of private money donations, amounting to bribery on an industrial scale
  2. Corporations being treated as "people" for the purposes of said bribery
  3. Gerrymandering, with constituency boundaries not being determined by an independent commission after every census, as in Ireland
  4. Politicisation of the Judiciary
  5. The "first past the post" single seat constituency system, which creates a two party polarising dynamic
  6. Importance of paid advertising to the whole process, whereby people and parties become, in effect, brands, and truth becomes irrelevant
  7. No effective remedies for falsehoods propagated as part of the process - strange in an otherwise very litigious society
  8. Control of the media by oligarchs and major corporations
  9. Electoral college and Senate composition, combined with two senators per state, no matter how small, and the filibuster- enabling a small minority to block change
  10. The military/industrial complex- with an interest in exacerbating external conflicts to maximise internal budgets

Index of Frank's Diaries
by Frank Schnittger (mail Frankschnittger at hot male dotty communists) on Sun Aug 16th, 2020 at 06:46:32 PM EST
[ Parent ]
by Cat on Sun Aug 16th, 2020 at 07:34:53 PM EST
[ Parent ]
Each of those items is a discussion of its own!


4. Politicization of the judiciary. This was considered a feature, not a bug, in Jacksonian politics, which was mostly driven by working class "common man" politics.

by asdf on Thu Aug 20th, 2020 at 01:00:40 AM EST
[ Parent ]
mostly driven by monetary panics and states' banking failure, 1825-1841, I'd say, aside from Old Hickory's ultra liberal policy of ahh land redistribution while clearing injuns.
by Cat on Thu Aug 27th, 2020 at 04:29:00 PM EST
[ Parent ]
I have thought for a long time (forty years? At least that) that Ireland has the closest thing to an ideal voting system and government structure that exists, and I am sad that it is used so little by other countries.
by FoolsErrand on Sun Aug 16th, 2020 at 02:47:32 AM EST

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