PR system permits great voter articulacy but is seldom explained


Voting right down the ballot paper gives you greater control. It lets you better exercise your democratic rights and fine-tune your political choices

WE ARE privileged to have a voting system that enables the voter to make such complex statements. I’m not thinking of the arithmetic complexity that sometimes emerges from election counts – hardly to be regarded as singular statements of any kind – but rather of the many personal statements making up such equations, statements that the Proportional Representation (PR) system, using the single transferrable vote (STV), enables individual voters to express.

Faced with an array of candidates under the PR-STV multi-seat system, I can, staring deep into my own confusion, issue a frustrated blurt of rage, express a rational reservation about the incumbent government, give a nod of encouragement to an Independent, and still keep my vote alive to endorse a new and stable administration.

On the other hand, if, for reasons of sentiment or tribal loyalty, I wish to give a token stroke to the discredited party of my longtime allegiance, I can do this and still do the right thing by my children’s children. Or if, out of friendship or personal regard, I would support a struggling local candidate from a party that has otherwise lost my confidence, there is often a way of doing this while still ensuring that my effective vote operates against that candidate’s party.

In the technical electoral context all this expenditure of energy will amount to a single statement, the precise ultimate nature of which is to a degree outside my control, but this leaves undiminished the emotional satisfaction afforded by the system’s scattergun mechanism.

One of the many beauties of the PR-STV system is that it can function at both the personal and communal dimensions of voter intentionality. In the British system, for example, the voter operates in an entirely individualised capacity, simply adding his simple opinion to all the others. But under our system, if he is to maximise the viability of his vote, the voter can take account of his intuition as to the intentions of other voters, while being enabled to add his own twist or refinement.

Under the British system, a vote is a crude clout of a stick; under PR-STV, a proper vote is like a great golf swing: everything is in the follow-through. You may not always be able to tell where your shot has ended up, but a poor outcome can be blamed on the elements – other voters.

When I was a child, the exotic nature of the PR-STV system was the subject of intense speculative argumentation wherever grown-ups gathered to discuss the question of Ireland. You wouldn’t have been long listening to such conversations without developing a sense of the complex beauty of the system, and of the necessity for its sophistication to be matched in the understanding of the voter.

Long before I reached voting age, my father urged me always to vote right down the paper: if there were 14 candidates, you numbered them all. I don’t know whether anyone does this anymore, nor do I get the impression that many people understand why this is the only way of maximising your vote, or that many care one way or the other.

Try this today: casually ask the next three or four people you encounter a basic question about our PR system – for example, how a quota is calculated – and see what you find.

Yet, despite the widespread ignorance about PR-STV, there is no public effort to inform voters about what is involved in fully using their votes. In all the bumf that has come through my letterbox this past fortnight, there has been nothing about the workings of the PR-STV system. Outside of whatever happens in secondary schools, there is no public education programme in this connection. It is strange, too, that the media places such emphasis on opinion polls, and yet rarely refers to the intricate ways in which such data may come to bear on voter sentiment at the moment of engagement with the complex cogs of the voting system.

In a scramble to appease an ignorant 140-character populism, several of the party manifestos in this election are proposing radical changes, for example the introduction of list systems, which will diminish, dilute and dull the voice of the individual voter under PR-STV. Such measures appeal to received, reductionist ideas rooted equally in misdirected rage and metropolitan snobbery about what is called clientelism.

Politicians, we are instructed, need to be relieved of the burden of canvassing personal support so as to be enabled to concentrate on affairs of state, blah-blah. This crude understanding arises from profound ignorance of the subtlety and potential of the existing system, and is encouraged by politicians seeking simultaneously to ingratiate themselves with pseudo-progressive sentiment and relieve themselves of the burden of accountability to their electorates. If such options are to be considered, they should be thoroughly debated beyond the shadow of economic catastrophe.

There are worse defects in a politician than knowing where the potholes are, and going to funerals can do much to refine a politician’s sense of his own mortality.

For a useful grind in the workings of PR-STV, check out an excellent podcast interview with politics lecturer Seamus Bellew, on

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