The Electoral System


The Government's move to proceed, with haste, to consider changing the voting system will come as a surprise to the electorate. The question was put on the formal agenda in the revised programme for the Fianna Fail/Progressive Democrats Coalition, published last November. Now the All-Party Committee on the Constitution, chaired by Fianna Fail TD, Mr Brian Lenihan, has been asked to consider the case for changing the current electoral system of "proportional representation by means of the single transferable vote". It is to hold hearings on the issue by the end of this month and two of the most persistent proponents of change over the years, Mr Noel Dempsey and the former Fine Gael Taoiseach, Dr Garret FitzGerald, have been invited to make the first submissions. It hopes to make its recommendation on this, and other areas of reform, by Easter.

Any serious change in the electoral system, set out in Article 16 of the Constitution and supplemented by law, would require a referendum. Twice before, this course was tried, and failed. In 1959 and again in 1968, under two of the most popular leaders, Eamon de Valera and Jack Lynch, Fianna Fail governments tried to introduce ail and Seanad to amend the Constitution by substituting the British "first past the post" system in single-seat constituencies. The referendums were rejected by the people on both occasions; by a much greater margin in 1968 than in 1959.

The Constitution lays down, in Article 16, that the number of members of Dail Eireann cannot be more than one for every 20,000 of the population, or less than one for every 30,000. Within these limits the ratio of population to members must be the same "so far as is practicable" throughout the country. Constituencies must be revised at least once in every twelve years. The electoral system shall be by PR by means of the single transferable vote.

Once again, the impetus for changing the voting system is coming from politicians. There are suggestions that a change to single-seat constituencies plus a list system are being favoured. The proponents of change argue that the range and calibre of legislators attracted into politics would be improved if the risk of being unseated was reduced. They claim a conflict of interest among voters who put a premium on constituency, rather than legislative, work from their public representatives.

There is some validity to the criticism of the current system. There are many defects, not least the maintenance of an accurate register. But these issues, like the number of Dail seats, can be tackled by law without recourse to a referendum. Two guiding principles should apply to our voting system. It should retain its proportionality and it should be seen to serve the interests of the people. The electoral system is not responsible for the disillusionment with politics, a succession of coalitions, the disproportionate influence of Independents, nor the declining turn-out in elections. Politicians should proceed warily.