Understanding Ireland’s unique voting system: a simple guide

With 2024 set to be ‘the year of the elections’, here’s EMMETT CORCORAN’S timely guide to that sometimes confusing world of quotas, surpluses and multiples counts…

Elected members and senior management pictured at the most recent annual general meeting of Roscommon County Council. Pic: Gerard O’Loughlin

Introduction: Unravelling the complexity of Ireland’s STV system

Continuing the Roscommon People’s election specials, this week we delve into Ireland’s distinctive and equitable voting method: the Single Transferable Vote (STV) in Proportional Representation (PR) elections. Though it appears intricate, this system is grounded in logical and democratic principles. Let’s clarify this process, complete with easy-to-follow examples.

How voting works: Ranking, not just selecting

In Ireland’s elections, voters are asked to rank candidates according to their preference, much like listing movies from most to least favourite. This ranking system extends beyond a simple choice, allowing for a more nuanced expression of voter preference.

Reaching the quota: Calculating the electoral goal

To be elected, candidates must achieve a specific vote count, known as the ‘quota’. This number is crucial for election success and is calculated based on the total number of valid votes and the number of seats to be filled. The formula used is (Total Votes/(Seats + 1)) + 1. This ensures a fair representation of voter preferences across available seats.

Dealing with extra votes: The art of surplus distribution

When candidates receive more votes than the quota, these ‘surplus votes’ are redistributed to other candidates based on the voters’ secondary preferences. This method ensures that every vote cast contributes to the election outcome, akin to sharing surplus food with friends.

Eliminating candidates: Recycling votes

If initial counts don’t meet the quota, the least popular candidate is eliminated, and their votes are reallocated according to the voters’ next choices. This process is reminiscent of a talent show where support shifts to the next favourite performer when the preferred one is out.

Redistributing surplus votes – the Irish way

Ireland employs a specific approach to redistributing surplus votes. Each vote that helped a candidate surpass the quota is reassessed and redistributed at a proportionally reduced value. This is like dividing a cake where each person gets a slice, but the size varies based on the total number to be served.

Why this matters: Reflecting diverse choices

This system ensures that a wide range of preferences is considered in the election results, not just the most popular candidates. It aims to create a representative body that truly echoes the electorate’s diverse choices.

Conclusion: Celebrating fairness in voting

Ireland’s voting system, with its emphasis on fairness and choice, might seem complex, but at its heart, it’s about ensuring every vote counts. By allowing for ranked choices and careful vote redistribution, it seeks to represent the collective will of the people in a truly democratic fashion.