I was asked a while back to explain the Irish voting system to non-Irish people. Here goes:
Understanding Irish politics begins by understanding our voting system, which shapes everything else. It’s called the Single Transferable Vote, and it works like this. Each constituency has between 3-5 TDs, that is, members of parliament. Voters number the candidates in their order of preference, in any way they wish, including giving different preferences to different parties. Parties can run as many candidates as they wish, but rarely run more than 3 in a 5 seater. Now, the clever ones reading this will have a question already: Does that mean that candidates from the same party are running against each other. The answer is no, because that would be civilised. They are actually trying to slit the other f**ker’s throat because candidates from a party realise that traditionally, a party may only win a single seat in that particular constituency, and so you are running to beat your running mate in the hope of getting his transfers.
Getting his what? Ah, this is when it gets tricky. Or fun, depending whether you’re sweating at the count, or watching on telly as grown men and women (it’s OK, they’re politicians, not real people) get ready to crack. Now, pay attention to this bit, because this is how it works.
Voters mark their ballots. First preferences are counted, that is, how many voters put a number “1” beside their favourite candidate. When the first preferences are counted, the quota is determined. This is the maximum number of votes needed to be elected, and is calculated by dividing the number of first preferences by the number of seats plus one, and adding one to the total. So, if you get more than the quota, you are automatically elected. Those votes are “used up”. However, any votes in excess of the quota are deemed the surplus, and are distributed to the candidates given a second preference by individual voters.
The candidate with the lowest remaining first preference is then eliminated, and their votes are distributed to the next choice on the respective ballot papers, and so on until all seats are filled.
As a system, it has its strengths and weaknesses. It makes the voting system very personalised. But it also forces deputies to pay attention to their constituents, and unlike the mickey mouse system used in the UK, first past the post, it is actually fair, reasonably proportional, and voters can vote for whomever they want without “letting someone else in”. It also makes politicians cry.
By the way, you can see a video version of this explained by Andrea Pappin of www.plaintalking.ie and I from the last general election. Using custard creams. And a hippo. You can see it here.