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Let's keep this as simple as possible: Should you vote all the way down the ballot paper?

We offer two takes on it from election experts.

9305 Wexford Count Votes being counted in the Wexford by-election last November. Eamonn Farrell / Eamonn Farrell / /

EVERY TIME AN election rolls around, you’ll hear a lot of talk about our mouthful of a voting system – proportional representation with a single transferable vote (PR-STV).

It’s a system that has been in place since the 1920s, and despite two efforts – referendums in 1959 and 1968 – to switch to the often-criticised First Past The Post system, it remains in place.

Most of us understand the basics: You receive a list of candidates, and you vote for them in order of preference.

But every election people wonder if you should vote for some or all of the candidates you are presented.

If you want the nitty-gritty of PR-STV, take a look at this, but let’s continue with a simple example. 

On Saturday morning, you walk into the polling station. You’ve forgotten your polling card, but that’s fine – you have your ID and the staff mark your name off the list of voters. You get the ballot paper and are directed to the polling booth.

You grab the pencil and get voting.

You give Tom, your local councillor who helped fix a pothole in front of your house, your first preference because he can clearly get things done, and because he brought home a few titles for the county during his GAA heydays. Your write down 1 beside his name and photo.

Your second preference might go to Dick – Tom asked you to give him your second preference, but that’s fine because Dick campaigned in a recent referendum that was important to you. You write down 2 beside his name and photo.

Your third preference goes to Harry, he’s a young, plucky independent who you think deserves a chance. You spoke to him in the pub a couple of weeks ago and he seemed sound enough. You write down 3.

But what about Faoiltighearna? She’s also on the ballot paper, and you’ve heard she wants to turn your entire village into a giant, fiery pit, filled with pain and suffering, and that every person in your village will be doomed to spend eternity there. It’s something you’re not keen on. Do you give Faoiltighearna your fourth preference?

Wait, someone called Mollywaddle is also on the ballot paper. Who the hell is Mollywaddle? You know you hate Faoiltighearna, but you’re not sure about Mollywaddle. You think they might have been in the year below you in school? Because of that, should Mollywaddle get your fourth preference instead?

This is a question that looms over each and every PR-STV election: Should you vote all the way down the ballot paper?

Wars have been fought in the corridors of Irish academia on this question, scraps have broken out among tallymen in count centres. We might not settle it today, but let’s give two perspectives.

Adrian Kavanagh, election guru and geography lecturer at Maynooth University, and Gary Murphy, DCU professor of politics, joined us on Wednesday evening for the first live episode of The Explainer podcast. We like to steer away from debate on the podcast, but we let Murphy and Kavanagh have it out over this – we should note that journalist-at-large Lise Hand was also on the panel, but, wisely, stayed out of the path of the sparring academics for this one.

Option A: Vote all the way down the ballot paper, because every single vote could (in theory) matter.

“Preferences matter because Irish elections are so close,” Kavanagh explained.

“Irish elections are so close that literally, in a 19-candidate constituency like Wicklow this time or Sligo-Leitrim, theoretically – and it’s not impossible – that an 18th preference could decide who wins or loses the last seat.”

dsfsfdsf Adrian Kavanagh in full flow during The Explainer Live. Nicky Ryan / Nicky Ryan / /

“The closest general election contest in my living memory is Limerick West in 2002. Just one vote in the end separated Dan Neville and Michael Finucane.”

He also cited the 1999 local council election in Borris-in-Ossory, Co Laoise – John Bonham and Larry Kavanagh ended level on the same amount of votes, leading to the number of first preference votes to decide the winner – and a court case.

The argument exists that, if everyone had voted for all candidates, a more clear-cut outcome might have been achieved.

If we go by Kavanagh’s teachings, in our imaginary constituency you should give a preference to Faoiltighearna and Mollywaddle. It could all come down to your single vote. It is not impossible.

But it might be unlikely.

Option B: You should give several candidates a preference – ideally the number of seats in your constituency, at least – but do not give a candidate a preference if you absolutely do not want them to be elected under any circumstances.

Murphy disagrees with Kavanagh’s approach, arguing that if there is a candidate who you really and truly do not want to vote for – perhaps they hold views that you consider to be extreme or dangerous; maybe they have done nothing good for the town in the years; or perhaps you simply think they’re a bit of a sleeveen – just do not vote for them, although he accepted this may not be the majority view.

“You have to be rational about this,” Murphy said.

If your constituency has five seats, you might as well try to fill the five seats, so at least vote for one to five, but I’m of the view that if you are really anti a person or their party, they cannot pick up any of your votes.
Some people are under the impression that all your votes will be counted all the transfers down. That is not the case. If your candidate is elected on a [second or subequent] count with a surplus [extra votes received above the required quota, the amount of votes you need to be elected, and which are then redistributed according to the next preferences] there is no guarantee that your vote will [always] be the surplus vote.

“So let’s say the quota is 10,000, [the candidate] gets 15,000 [in the second count], [count centre staff] must pick 5,000 to transfer.”

What’s crucial is how they’re picked: It’s mostly random.

If a candidate is elected at the first count, then all of their votes are used to calculate the proportion of surplus that will be given to each candidate. 

But after the first count?

“It’s like the Third Secret of Fátima,” Kavanagh added.

This is how the incredibly useful explains it: 

  • Candidate A receives 6,000 first preference votes at the first count. The quota is 5,000. A is elected with a surplus of 1,000 votes.
  • Out of A’s 6,000 total votes, 30% gave their second preference to B, and 20% gave their second preference to C.
  • B receives 300 votes (30% of 1,000) and C receives 200 votes (20% of 1,000)
  • Where a candidate reaches the quota after the first count, only the ballot papers that brought them over the quota are examined (the votes that were transferred from the previous count).
  • If two or more candidates are elected at the same time, then the surplus of the candidate with the largest vote is distributed first.

How a surplus is distributed is often considered the most complicated part of the process.

Aside from when a candidate is elected on the first count, you can have the situation where your vote may not be included in the surplus.

If you need even more detail, here’s how the Department of Local Government explains it:

Where the number of transferable papers is greater than the surplus, only a proportion of them can be included in the surplus distribution.
This proportion is calculated by working out the ratio of the surplus to the total number of transferable papers and applying that ratio consecutively to the total number of next preferences for each candidate still in the running.
This calculation gives the number of next preferences for each candidate that should be included in the surplus distribution. The resultant number of next preferences for each continuing candidate to be transferred as part of the surplus distribution is taken from the top of his/her sub-parcel of next preferences made up from the last parcel of votes received by the elected candidate

Don’t lose any sleep over this. The main line to worry about is “only a proportion”. So, some votes could be left out.

day-3-european-elections-count A recount during May's European elections. Sam Boal / Sam Boal / /

We can also look a study by Pádraig MacCarron and Paul Maher of University of Limerick for guidance on whether voting down the ballot paper even matters at all.

A computer simulation – the details of which were published on RTÉ News this week – revealed that if you go at least half way down the ballot paper (so, in a 10-candidate constituency, you vote for five), you start to see people who would normally have an outside chance get a small boost in the likelihood of them being elected.

If you keep filling in candidates, it doesn’t have any further impact; it doesn’t make outsiders more or less likely to get a seat. As well as this, votes are unlikely to transfer more than five times.

It’s a complicated and dense discussion, but Adrian Kavanagh did add one crucial and easy to understand argument in favour of voting all the way down the ballot paper:

Let’s face it, you only vote in general elections every four of five years. Enjoy the day.

How does Ireland end up with the politicians it has? How much do polls, debates, and social media have to do with it – and how much is people voting for party or country? That’s what we dicsussed in our live episode of The Explainer. Listen below.

The Explainer / SoundCloud

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