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Dublin: 15°C Thursday 29 October 2020
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A bluffer's guide to the Seanad election count

Did you vote in the Seanad elections? Relax – you probably didn’t have one. Here’s how the whole thing works.

The member's restaurant at Leinster House is converted into an ad hoc count centre ahead of today's election count.
The member's restaurant at Leinster House is converted into an ad hoc count centre ahead of today's election count.
Image: Houses of the Oireachtas via Facebook

VOTING FOR MOST of the Seanad’s 60 seats closes this morning, as the last postal votes from the 1,000-or-so voters arrive in Leinster House ahead of counting beginning at 11am.

If Fine Gael and Labour get their way, this will be the last time a Seanad election is ever held – so before the upper house is consigned to history for good, it might be worth getting a fuller grasp of how the Seanad is actually chosen.

First of all, today’s count won’t fill all 60 seats for the Seanad. It will fill 43 of them, through five different groupings – or ‘panels’ – which can realistically be thought of as five different elections.

Candidates are nominated for those five panels either by getting the signatures of four other members of the Oireachtas (either newly-elected TDs or outgoing Senators) or by receiving the nomination of an officially recognised interest/lobby group.

Those five panels are the Administrative, Agricultural, Cultural and Educational, Industrial and Commercial, and Labour panels – so, for example, the Irish Congress of Trade Unions is entitled to put forward some nominees in the Labour panel.

The electorate in these ballots is around 1,000, and is made up of:

  • the members of the newly-elected Dáil (166)
  • the outgoing members of the Seanad (45, after 13 members of the previous 58 were elected to the Dáil)
  • members of the country’s city and county councils (about 820 or so)

Naturally enough, the breakdown of the electorate in terms of their party loyalties will largely judge how many candidates each party can hope to elect.

Fianna Fáil’s depleted representation in the Dáil and in the councils means, for example, that if it manages its vote well it can perhaps hope to fill 13 of the 43 seats – but many of the party’s outgoing Senators have put their names in the running, meaning the party has a bloated ticket of 31 candidates.

Labour, meanwhile, officially named just seven ‘official’ party candidates – though there are 13 Labour candidates in the running.

Each voter gets five votes – one to be cast in each of the five panels. Although there is only one vote (which is transferable, with voting taking place in exactly the same way as a general election) each vote is counted as if it was worth 1,000 votes.

The reason for this is that given the relatively small quantity of votes being dealt with, the transfer of an elected candidate’s surplus can have a massive impact on how the rest of the election unfolds – so instead of merely taking the leftover surplus votes from the top of a winner’s pile, the whole pile is taken into account, with second and subsequent preferences then distributed accordingly. (Here’s an example from 2007.)

Each panel has a fixed number of seats – ranging from between 5 and 11, depending on the importance given to each by the Constitution – but the count can also be skewed by the election of ‘sub-panels’.

As we stated above, candidates can be nominated either by an accredited lobby group or by other members of the Oireachtas; to ensure that neither section dominates above another, a certain minimum number is set.

So in the Industrial and Commercial Panel, for example, at least three of the nine elected members must come from each of the two sub-panels – a prospect which could become controversial if a high-polling nominee of a lobby group loses their spot in favour of a less popular Oireachtas nominee.

Today’s elections will see 17 seats remain vacant for now; six of those seats will be filled tomorrow, when the graduates of the University of Dublin (effectively Trinity College) and the National University of Ireland elect three members each.

The deadline for receipt of postal votes in those elections is 11am tomorrow, with counting beginning immediately afterwards. Those elections, which ordinarily receive tens of thousands of votes, may take a few days to complete.

The remaining 11 seats are then filled by nominees of the Taoiseach; traditionally these see smaller parties in government coalition receive a small number of seats, though Enda Kenny is said to be considering appointing independent campaigners or financial experts to the chamber.

A government spokesman this morning said there had been no indication as yet of when Kenny intended to announce his nominees, as the Taoiseach was away this week.

When the Seanad meets for the first time early next month, it will then elect its Cathaoirleach (the equivalent of Ceann Comhairle); in recent years this has been a nominee of the government side.

The government side, having been guaranteed a majority, will also choose the Leader of the House – whose role is to organise and schedule its business, and to co-ordinate the Seanad’s legislative programme with that of the Dáil.

The Houses of the Oireachtas will be posting updates of the five ongoing counts at www.seanadcount.ie.

A full list of candidates in today’s Seanad election >

About the author:

Gavan Reilly

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