Alternative voting systems favour largest parties

Think tank looks at how three systems would apply in Irish context


A study of how alternative electoral systems would work in Ireland has found they most markedly favour the largest political party in Ireland and also result in substantially reduced representation for smallest parties and Independents.

As the Convention of the Constitution began the first of two weekend sessions exploring voting systems, a submission by the think tank examines how three different systems would apply in the Irish context.

Using the detailed results of the 2007 and 2011 general elections as its baseline, its key findings show that the largest party (Fianna Fáil in 2007 and Fine Gael in 2011) would have massively consolidated its dominance in two of the alternative scenarios. This would have resulted in a single party having a massive majority in the Dáil.

In the third system – a mix between constituency elections and a list system – the effect would have been less dramatic on the established parties. The major parties would have retained a seat level relatively close to the current system but the smaller parties and Independents would have effectively been wiped out. However , under this model Sinn Féin would have got a considerable seat bonus in both elections on the basis that it gets a higher share of the national vote than is reflected in its Dáil representation under the current system.

The report and modelling was prepared by Dr Adrian Kavanagh of NUI Maynooth, an electoral geographer, and by the political commentator Noel Whelan. The results are, if not startling, certainly eye-opening and could possibly have a similar impact to a study done by political scientist Basil Chubb and politician and current affairs journalist David Thornley over 40 years ago. In 1968, the Fianna Fáil government had proposed to change the Irish electoral system by referendum to the British model of first past the post. But the study showed that the new system would hugely benefit Fianna Fáil to the detriment of other parties, giving it strong single-majority governments well into the future. That intervention changed the outcome of that result.

Similarly, the illustrative study of the three alternative systems by Kavanagh and Whelan will certainly raise fundamental questions and doubts as to whether they are preferable to the current system and will certainly have the effect of diminishing the attractiveness of at least one, and possibly two or three, of these models.

The system currently used in Ireland is known as the proportional representation, single-transferable vote system. The constituencies are multi-seat and voters cast their votes in order of preference. While the system does allow more members of smaller parties to be elected and allots parliamentary seats in a manner that is roughly equivalent to national representation, it has been criticised for encouraging clientilism and parochialism.

The alternative systems examined by Kavanagh and Whelan are: a first past the post single-seat scenario; a transferable vote for single seats; and a mixed system split between first past the post and a list system which allots seats according to the national support of each party.

Both authors admit there is artifice involved. For example, to replicate any of the alternative systems they had to split 43 constituencies into 166 units (for two of the systems) and into 83 constituencies (for the mixed member system).

Kavanagh and Whelan point out a number of health warnings. The modelling is a mathematical exercise based on an actual result but using a different system. By dint of that it cannot (without making assumptions and suppositions) take account of the inevitable changes in voter behaviour that would occur in an alternative scenario.

The difficulties in transposing the results of the 2007 and 2011 elections on to a new system can be seen in the projected results. Smaller constituencies will suit candidates who are strong in a particular locality.

Own localities
Thus, in the first past the post model two defeated Fianna Fail candidates in 2011, John Ellis and Sean Connick, would have won seats because they are very strong in their own localities – Leitrim and New Ross respectively.

But if Government parties had placed a strong candidate with a national profile in those smaller single-seat constituencies would either have really won out?

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