Mr. Ian Kinlon
This submission intends to address the problems associated with the current electoral system employed in Ireland and evaluate alternatives to the system of Proportional Representation using the Single Transferable Vote (PR-STV). It is worth noting from the onset that the reason for using PR-STV in every general election to take place since Ireland gained independence was that it could guarantee minority representation. However, in light of international experience and in recent year‟s calls for change to
the electoral system, alternatives to the PR-STV system of electing members to Dail Eireann must be entertained and taken seriously. Indeed throughout Europe (with exception of Malta) all of the developed countries have moved away from election systems that focus on STV, so the question must be asked as to why Ireland still employs such a system?, and also what are the alternatives.
As Michael Gallagher (1987) states, “electoral systems tend to be judged by two
criteria; proportionality and government stability. These are often seen as being inherently in conflict: full proportionality is associated in some minds wit a fragmented legislature, containing many small parties which no stable government can emerge”. However the very nature of Irish voting patterns has not lead us to have
a fractionalised legislature as the PR-STV system might encourage and this is largely due to the fact that the majority of voters back one of the two major parties. On the other hand by choosing a less proportional electoral system it would also favour a trend toward single party governments to the benefit of the major parties and to the detriment of the smaller ones. Although Ireland employs an electoral system that in theory is expected to provide proportional representation, it can be argued that it is not fully proportional although this is not necessarily due to the electoral system but rather the voting pattern as suggested.
As Richard Sinnott (2005) suggests recent general elections in Ireland have become more disproportional, especially in 2002, where by use of Lijpharts preferred measure for PR, the least square index, this election showed a high level of disproportionality at a measure of 6.6. In addition Ireland‟s elections during the period 1948-1989 are
shown to be less proportional than some held under the PR-list systems used in
Denmark, Finland, Germany, the Netherlands and Sweden. While there are many negatives to using the PR-STV system, one of the key areas it falls down on is that it generates a high degree of intra-party electoral competition, which is fought out through the battle ground of constituency work rather than on areas of policy. It has been for a long time a debated issue of whether TD‟s are too focused on serving the
needs of the local rather than addressing national issues that impact on the wider population. Although all politics is embedded in the local, it should not be too much so that it is to the detriment of national politics. Indeed this appears to be the case with the Irish political system, where much of a TD‟s time is spent on what has been termed „unproductive drudgery‟ which reinforces the notion that TD‟s think locally rather than nationally (Gallagher, 2009). Whilst stating this it must also be recognised that no matter what electoral system was to be used TD‟s would still be expected to perform certain amounts of constituency work which should and can never be dismissed as a function of an elected representative.
Sinnott (2005) argues that intra-party competition on the area of constituency service can exist within a cohesive and disciplined party, however it is my opinion that this inaccurate as is it not the very nature of competition to throw up a „verses‟ scenario where one candidate will battle to out-do the other and so diminish the theory of cohesion or discipline. In addition Andre Blais reinforces this notion and states, “there is strong evidence that the STV leads to a weaker party system…electoral competition within the party hinders unity and cohesion…the STV, like preferential
voting is detrimental to the development of a responsible party system (Coakley & Gallagher, 2005:119). This point is arrived at due to the nature of intra-party competition and brokerage in relation to constituency work among TD‟s. Increasingly
Irish political candidates have less to distinguish themselves from their opponents and so rely on constituency work rather than national policy to differentiate themselves, which has allowed a culture of brokerage to become institutionalised through the PR-STV system.
Given this it is important now to look at ways to try and reform the electoral system which is in place in Ireland in an attempt to improve national governance. The question should then be asked; why have all of the developed democracies across Europe opted for versions of the Scandinavian List system whereby members of parliament are elected partially from party lists of individuals with proven track
records and in part from local constituencies. Indeed political scientists such as J.P.
O‟Carroll (1987) have long since called for alterations to the Irish electoral system
which he describes as archaic and inadequate for modern society. If there is to be a
modernisation of the electoral system, it is my opinion that it can only happen in two
ways:i) amendments to the current form of STV or ii) a complete change of the
electoral system toward either a non-preferential list system or the “Additional Member System” (AMS) which has been the option taken by countries such as
Germany and New Zealand when reforming their electoral systems in more recent
Amending the current form of STV could take two forms. Firstly, by abolishing the
use of by-elections to fill vacancies that occur in between general elections. Ireland is
the only country who uses such a system and as Gallagher (1987) suggests a more
efficient way of solving this issue would be to employ the method used in European
Parliamentary elections whereby parties appoint „reserves‟ at the time of the general
election. The second amendment could be to change the structure of the ballot paper,
whereby the order of the paper should be randomised, as evidence shows that
candidates whose names begin with letters at the beginning of the alphabet fare
betting at getting elected as there names appear at the top of the ballot paper.
The second suggestion is to reform the electoral system in favour of the AMS system
which is seen as a hybrid of the „first past the post‟ and Pr-List system (Laver, 1998).
In my opinion this would somewhat eliminate the biggest negative placed at the door
of PR-STV which I have previously discussed and is the „unproductive drudgery‟ that
TD‟s have to undertake in order to win favour of the voter.
This alternative is chosen because of a number of reasons. Firstly it provides an
answer to the main criticisms of STV, secondly it has been the system of choice for
other countries reforming their electoral system, thirdly any other alternatives through
up major drawbacks such as increased disproportionality, fourthly AMS has been
publicly supported by both academics and leading politicians such as Brian Lenihan
over the recent past.
Lastly in light of the current situation Ireland now faces, it is more important than
ever to look at ways of reforming our electoral system and indeed how our democracy
works. As Shane Coleman suggests “first on the list for scrutiny is or PR-STV
electoral system, which lies at the root of much of the crises we find ourselves today”.
Coleman, Shane, (2009), Ireland's electoral system doesn't reward principled
legislators or parliamentarians. It rewards towing the local line. It's no way to run a
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Sinnott, Richard, (2005), The Rules of the Electoral Game in Politics in the Republic of Ireland eds by Coakley,J. & Gallagher, M, Routledge, London.
Gallagher, Michael, (1987), Does Ireland need a new electoral system, Irish Political Studies, vol 2 , pp 27-48.
Gallagher, Michael,(2009), Irelands PR-STV electoral system: a need for reform?, http://www.tcd.ie/Political_Science/staff/michael_gallagher/IrishElectSys.php, accessed on 20,11,2009 at 1.45pm.
Laver, Michael, (1998), A New electoral system for Ireland?, in Studies in Public Policy 2, The Policy Institute TCD, ColourBooks LTD, Dublin.
O‟Carroll, J.P., (1987), Strokes Cute hoors and sneaking regarders: the influence of
local culture on Irish political style, Irish Political Studies, vol 2 , pp77-92.