Ireland Democracy, devolution and governance

How Ireland’s local elections work

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As Ireland prepares for its upcoming local elections, this article unpacks the Single Transferable Vote system in Ireland, highlighting both the system’s benefits for the Irish voter and its complexities particularly for electoral staff.

The Single Transferable Vote (STV) system in multi-seat constituencies in Ireland is not unique; other jurisdictions use it, including, arguably most notably, Northern Ireland for Assembly and local elections. It is a system which is remarkably proportional and applies in Ireland to national general elections and local elections. Various efforts to change the system to first past the post etc., have failed. The system provides the Irish voter with the capacity to have a real proportional say over who runs their public services.

For those seeking more information, details on how the system works can be found here.

The system is overseen by an independent electoral commission, and again their website provides a great and accessible guide to how voting in local elections works.

What might not be found in these important information sources are details of the who and how of individual candidates or parties. These can be accessed through the amazing work of Dr. Adrian Kavanagh of Maynooth University, whose site provides a wealth of data and knowledge of the current and past local election scene. Look out for his continuing inputs in the run-up and post-election findings.

One other thing that might not be fully appreciated about the nature of the STV-Multi-seat system is that often a party candidates biggest opponent will in fact come from his/her/their own political party. Given that each of the 166 Local Electoral Areas across the State will have several seats open for candidates and, consequently, several nominees from within individual political parties as well as large numbers of independents, very often the objective of the individual party nominee will be to come ahead of their fellow party nominees. Parties try to overcome such instances by often ‘’allocating’’ parts of a local electoral area to particular candidates by asking the people of those areas to vote in order of a particular priority. Sometimes this works, other times it does not.

Given the complexities of the STV-Multi-seat system, and it still remains largely a manual based system with individual voters filling in a set of candidate preferences on at times a long ballot paper, counting can take several days. Added to this will be the fact that votes this time round will have to be sorted as people will be voting for the European Parliament as well. Local returning officers and their staff, primarily local authority staff, will spend the first day of the count splitting these votes. Limerick will have the added challenge of the Mayoral election and the need to split these votes out as well.

The system has been around since independence, making it one of the longer-lasting manifestations of local democracy in the OECD. The voters, candidates, and electoral staff are well-versed in the system, which is, as noted earlier, remarkably proportional and resilient. This coming election, all other things being equal, will provide the avid election watcher with lots of interesting material and instances to talk about, reflect on and debate, surely the sign of a functioning democratic system.



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