Changing the voting system


TWICE IN the history of the State, in 1959 and 1968, Fianna Fáil sought unsuccessfully in referendums to persuade the people to replace our voting system – proportional representation by the single transferable vote (PR-STV) – with the crude British “first past the post” system. On both occasions the No majorities, 52 to 48 and 61 to 39 per cent respectively, reflected the widely held perception that the party was simply trying cynically to copperfasten a permanent majority.

Now, once again, changes to our PR system are being proposed with four parties backing its review or replacement. Germany’s model is Fianna Fáil’s manifesto alternative, “a mixed system of single-seat constituencies elected through the system of single transferable vote and a top-up national list which will ensure proportional representation”. The Green Party agrees, but specifies the top-up list would fill half the total seats, while Sinn Féin also wants a list system for a third of seats, but would retain multiple-seat constituencies for the rest. Fine Gael wants to ask a citizens’ assembly “to consider the merits or otherwise of a mixed member system where the Dáil has TDs that are directly elected and or where some are elected from a list”.

It is a measure of the uniqueness of this election campaign that political reform is a priority for voters. This is welcome and long overdue. But, political reform has been crystallised into a mantra for changing PR.

Critics of PR-STV claim it is one of the critical weaknesses of our broken political system and fosters a pernicious clientelism that prevents TDs dedicating themselves to their real task of legislating and scrutinising government policy. And while it is true that TDs must expend considerable energy cultivating their constituencies, that is not a bad thing in itself. The current system gives voters a real sense of connection to, and ownership of, their representatives. It gives TDs and Ministers, in turn, a real personal knowledge of their constituents’ lives, making them real representatives of the people.

A list system would pass choice of candidates from the voter to the party bosses. Far from ensuring election of experts and talented outsiders, currently driven away from politics because of their disinterest in representing local interests, it would simply secure a trouble-free route into the Dáil for the most loyal of party hacks and the odd Michael O’Leary or other successful businessman here and there. Single-seat constituencies would also lead to the demise of Independents, like the late Noel Browne and Tony Gregory, and fatally undermine the ability of smaller parties to elect TDs, like Desmond O’Malley and Joe Higgins.

Political scientist, Prof Richard Sinnott warns that the danger, ironically, is precisely that such systems “would exacerbate the two-tier character of the Dáil and the division between those with a mainly policy-making orientation and those with a mainly constituency-service orientation”. It would hardly be a recipe for either good government or accountability. We should think long and hard before ditching our voting system. We should rejoice that difficult choices in this important election will not be presented to us by the press of an electronic button.