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Tag Archives: PRSTV



A citizen has just one vote. The voter expresses preferences by using the ballot paper to instruct the returning officer as to what to do with that one vote. The number 1 says, “That’s my preferred candidate”. The number 2 says, “If my no. 1 cannot be elected or doesn’t need my vote, then give it to number 2.” And so it goes.

At every election some fool will argue that later preferences are to be opposed for fear of electing candidates a voter might oppose. That’s simply not true.

If a voter has expressed preferences for a small list of desired candidates and then has absolutely no preference as to which of the remaining are elected, then it makes sense to stop. However, the application of a little thought might reveal some preference as between the remaining candidates, e.g. a voter might prefer a woman over a man from the same party or a candidate who has expressed a mildly different view from the others remaining.

Moreover, if the voter really has no preference whatsoever between the remaining candidates and stops at, say, number 3, that voter has no further effect on the outcome either to oppose or to elect someone from the remaining candidates. They simply say to the returning officer, “I don’t care beyond my number 3. At that stage count me out.”

Say there are eighteen candidates. Sensible advice to the voter would be as follows. Give your 1st preference to the candidate you most want elected. Give the candidate you least want elected your number 18. Now list the remainder from 2 to 17. It might be hard to decide between some of your lower preferences but at least you can say that you prefer them more than number 18!




I was talking to a T.D.* recently, a leftist one. He said that his basic function was to serve his constituents and that if he is re-elected to the Dáil, it will justify his political decisions. I disagreed, saying that his was a perfect statement of populism. The function of a leftist is neither to schmooze nor to patronise but to argue honestly and plausibly.

Now, Ireland is a society in which the overwhelming majority is comprised of liberals, conservatives and believers in the infantile notion that the “political class” is the ruling class. In this society honest and plausible argument would seem the road to electoral failure because it means opposing and possibly offending that overwhelming majority. That is why leftist parties seeking electoral success employ researchers who i) try to keep policy and statements in line with those of a majority or ii) try to be both vague and appealing to those receptive to facile slogans.

It’s a real dilemma: how to get elected while opposing (trying to persuade) the majority? The situation is made worse by a realisation that slogans and implausibility will drive away the thoughtful voter.

The good news in Ireland is that the leftist doesn’t have to appeal to the majority or convince a majority in order to win. In Ireland we have PR-STV ** and election can be achieved by way of a minority vote. This offers the freedom to argue, to oppose consensus, to offend, to break icons but it’s far from an easy option. It’s difficult and lonely to decide to be unpopular. It is however the only way for a leftist to win on a leftist platform in Ireland.

There are of course implications for participation in coalition government but that’s work for another day.
* Teachta Dála, a member of the Irish parliament.
** Proportional Representation by means of the Single Transferable Vote.

There are two reasons for having representative democracy rather than direct democracy. There’s the numbers reason and the deliberative reason. The former rests on the obvious; that in anything other than a tiny society, direct democracy is impractical and representatives are necessary. (Let’s leave to one side the decreasingly futuristic possibilities that ICTs offer for direct participation and their dangers.) The latter – the deliberative reason – refers to the requirement that decisions be made slowly, based on information, argument and thought. The idea is that a legislator needs to be “professional” in the sense that the deliberative role is a fulltime job.

Now, clearly parliaments and parliamentarians tend not to conform to the ideal and the Dáil is a particular example. There are many reasons for this but one is the people’s tendency to elect representatives who are not able for the role, never considered deliberation to be their role, or consider their role as one of “getting stuff” for their constituency. It is often argued that PRSTV should be abandoned as a reform aimed at ridding the Dáil of or reducing the numbers of “clientilist”, constituency workers.

This suggestion is met with two objections. Firstly, there is the inverted snobbery objection, that we don’t want the Dáil dominated by up-market, educated types with fancy notions. Secondly, there is the roots objection, that a TD who does not engage in enormous amounts of constituency work  and constituent contact will somehow become detached from reality and lose his or her true purpose: to represent “ordinary” people.

Leaving aside the argument that a low quota under PRSTV makes it easier for a well known, local constituency worker to be elected, let’s look at another but similar feature of PRSTV. It could be argued that the coming election will be the one in which Labour for the first time will have to face the full rigour of constituency competition in a Dáil election. Up to this, Labour’s ambition seldom extended beyond one seat in any constituency and so, intraparty competition was rare for Labour. From now on, Labour candidates will have to compete with other Labour candidates. They clearly will not compete on ideological grounds and will have increasingly to compete (like most FF and FG candidates) on the basis of constituency service, i.e. clientilism.

If it is accepted by Labour that clientilism is wrong in itself or that it produces TDs who are quite simply “the wrong stuff”, the conventional argument – that intraparty competition dictates that candidates must compete by offering constituency services – will have to be faced. Labour will then have to demonstrate that the conventional argument is erroneous or side with those who want to move away from PRSTV.