HomeTravelThe Irish electoral system – how your vote can travel a long...

The Irish electoral system – how your vote can travel a long way


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For every election in Ireland, including the upcoming Local and European Elections, we use a voting system called Proportional Representation – Single Transferable Vote (PR-STV).

While slightly complicated and time consuming once the counting of votes begins, PR-STV is widely recognised as a fair and balanced method of running an election.

Here we will take you through the steps from casting your vote through to eventually electing your representatives
Stick with us and we’ll make this as straightforward as possible which, trust me, is not easy

Step 1 – Casting your vote
The candidates have been chosen, posters have been put up, some have been defaced and others stolen, doors have been knocked on, babies have been kissed and An Post is laughing all the way to the bank after possibly millions of pieces of election literature have been dropped through letter boxes across the country before being prompting thrown in the bin. (make sure it’s the recycling bin at least). Now this is where you come in.

On election day you go to your polling station with your polling card in hand (don’t forget your ID) and you will be handed your stamped ballot paper, or ballot papers if there is more than one election taking place.
Bring them into the polling booth and prepare to cast your vote.

First things first, unless you intend to, try not to spoil your vote. Read on and we’ll get into spoiled votes in more detail later but we’re just giving you the heads up now.

When you look at the ballot paper, you will see the candidates listed in alphabetical order with their carefully chosen pictures there to make them more easily identifiable.

To cast your vote simply put numbers in order of preference beside the candidates you want to vote for.
It is completely up to you who you want to vote for and also how many candidates you want to vote for.

If you just want to give Homer Simpson your first preference vote and that’s you done, put ‘1’ in the box beside Homer’s name, drop your pen, fold the paper and put it in the ballot box provided.

If you also want to vote for Moe, put ‘2’ beside his name in the box provided. If you want to vote for Marge, put ‘3’ beside her name and so on until you are happy you have voted for all the candidates you want to vote for. You are not required to vote for all the candidates but if you want to go all the way down to Dolph, that’s up to you. (a really niche Simpsons character there for you)

One word of caution, if you are voting for a large number of candidates, be careful as if there are duplicate numbers on the ballot paper, it will be deemed to be a spoiled vote and won’t be counted.
Once you are done, fold the ballot paper and place it in the ballot box.

Step 2 – Sorting the votes
Remember above when we promised to dive deeper on spoiled votes? They come into play in the sorting of votes when they are removed from the count before it begins.

There are a number of ways of unintentionally spoiling your vote which will leave it uncounted and left to the side like that fancy cheese in the fridge that stinks and that no one is ever going to eat. Like that cheese, it’s not thrown away, it’s just left there for now just in case it needs to be examined again.

  • Ballots can be spoiled in the following ways:
  • Any other mark beside a candidate instead of a number. There might just be one tick but unless it’s a ‘1’, it won’t count.
  • There are no numbers on the paper at all.
  • The handwriting is so poor that it’s indecipherable.
  • The ballot paper does not have a stamp.
  • Anything on the ballot paper that identifies the person who cast the vote.
  • The same number used multiple times on the ballot paper – ie Chief Wiggum and Principal Skinner both get a ‘4’
  • The vote can also be intentionally spoiled as a protest.

Once the spoiled votes have been removed, the quota is calculated and announced. This is the number of votes a candidate must receive to be deemed to be elected. The quota is calculated by dividing the total valid poll by one more than the number of seats to be filled and adding one.
With all that out of the way, the real fun and games begin as the arduous process of counting the votes gets underway.

Step 3 – Counting the votes
Up to now it’s been relatively straightforward but here’s where the complexity and the real math enters the equation.
The first count is the simplest as the votes are sorted and counted by the number of ‘1’s received. Once all the votes are counted, the result of the first count is announced.

The second count will depend on whether a candidate or candidates have managed to reach the quota. For the purposes of our explainer, we are going to say that Marge Simpson was elected with a total of 4,000 votes with the quota being 3,000. The next count then becomes the distribution of Marge’s surplus. Now pay attention because this is where it gets tricky.

All Marge’s votes are checked to see who got the next preference on her ballot papers. In this case it is the number ‘2’s but the same principle applies throughout the count whether it be ‘3’, ‘9’ or ’14’. If a candidate that is the next preference has been elected or eliminated, the next candidate in order of preference will be counted.

In this simple example, we are going to say Bart got 40% of the next preference votes, Maggie got 30%, Lisa got 10% and Homer got 5% with the remainder being non-transferable. Non-transferable votes are ones where there is no further preference that can be counted on the ballot paper. The easiest way to explain is that you voted ‘1’ for Marge and dropped your pen. There is nowhere for the vote to go.

So how many actual extra votes does that equal for each candidate.
Bart gets 40% of the surplus of 1,000 so he gets 400 extra votes (we kept the math simple on purpose!). Maggie got 30% of the surplus so she gets 300 extra votes. Lisa got 10% of the surplus so gets 100 and Homer only got 5% of the surplus so he gets 50 extra votes.

For our example, the extra votes received from Marge’s transfers have not seen anyone reach the quota so the next step is to start eliminating candidates based on the number of votes they have.

In this scenario it’s poor Homer who has the least number of votes. In the case of eliminations, it is much simpler than distributing a surplus as all of the votes that can be transferred are transferred one for one.

The count continues along these same lines with distributions of surpluses and eliminations until all the seats are filled and one unlucky candidate is left neither elected or eliminated.

So that in far more words than we were expecting when we started writing this is how we run elections in Ireland but the most important part is you and your vote, whoever that might be for.

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