Local electoral area boundary review provides opportunity for small parties and Independents

Bigger electoral areas underpin new system

Sweeping changes in local election boundaries are likely to have a big impact on the outcome of next year’s local elections.

Sweeping changes in local election boundaries are likely to have a big impact on the outcome of next year’s local elections.

Fri, May 31, 2013, 17:06

The sweeping changes in local election boundaries are likely to have a big impact on the outcome of next year’s local elections, with the way being opened for smaller parties and Independents to do well.

Aside from the abolition of town councils, and a reduction in the number of councillors by over 650, the key element of the Local Electoral Area Boundary Committee report is the increase in seats per electoral area.

Boundaries redrawn
Unlike the last review, the committee was mandated to redraw boundaries with reference to population. This has resulted in an increase in seats in urban and commuter belt areas and a reduction in rural areas. The committee’s terms of reference mandated it to set a minimum of six seats and a maximum of 10 per electoral area. This compares with a minimum of three and a maximum of seven in the last review in 2008.

It is a feature of our single transferable vote system of proportional representation that the bigger the electoral area the greater the chance smaller parties or Independents have of being elected.

In a three-seat electoral area a candidate needs to obtain 25 per cent of the votes to obtain a quota. This tends to favour the bigger parties.

By contrast, in a 10-seater a quota will be just over 9 per cent and this increases the prospects of election for candidates of smaller parties.

The one caveat is that smaller parties and, more particularly, Independents may have difficulty in attracting support across the much bigger electoral areas forming the basis of the latest report.

Given the very strong poll rating of 20-30 per cent which smaller parties and Independents are now attracting, the prospect of much more diverse representation on local authorities is a distinct possibility.

The bigger electoral areas should also provide a lifeline for Fianna Fáil as the party on its current poll rating should be able to win at least one seat in every electoral area.

An early indication of FF’s decline was provided in the 2009 local elections when the party failed to win a seat across a swathe of Dublin’s inner-city wards, most of them four-seaters.

The new configuration should open the door to an electoral revival if the party can translate its poll support into votes in June of next year. The same is true for the Green Party and the various left-wing groups and Independents.

On the face of it, the report prepared by an independent expert group does not have much comfort for the Government parties but, given that it was operating on terms of reference set by the Coalition, they knew that in advance.

Fine Gael became the biggest party in local government for the first time in 2008, and party strategists claim they can hold on to that status even with the boundary changes. They argue the biggest party almost always gets a bonus under our version of PR and that, as long as the Fine Gael vote stays near 30 per cent, they will take more than their fair share of seats.

Real challenge
Much will depend on whether FF is able to mount a real challenge to regain the top spot. If that happens, Fine Gael could lose out badly.

The report is a mixed blessing for Labour. The bigger electoral areas give it a real chance of retaining one seat per ward. But it also opens the door to the party’s left-wing rivals.

Sinn Féin has been building its strength steadily at local government level since 2004 and the report provides it with an opportunity of significantly widening its base.

All the parties have something to hope for and something to fear from the report.

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