It’s a curious thing that many Irish people don’t quite understand how to vote properly. By properly I mean getting the full use of your ballot paper to A) elect someone you prefer over someone else, and B) help keeping someone you really dislike out.
Our system, Proportional Representation-Single Transferable Vote in multi-seat constituencies, has two principles.
The first is to avoid “wasting votes”, and that means that if you vote for an unpopular candidate, unlike in the US or UK, your vote isn’t wasted. If you fill in preferences, your second, third choices, your vote will keep going until it either helps elect someone or your preferences or the number of seats to be filled run out.
The second principle is that, by having a minimum of three seats in every constituency, smaller parties have a chance of winning a seat. This is the proportional representation part of the system.
It’s possibly one of the fairest systems in the world.
The counting of the votes can get quite technical, but here’s what you as a voter need to know.
1. Your vote will only go where you tell it to go. If your preferences are all used up, and your vote hasn’t helped elect someone, it’s dead.
2. You are not hurting any candidate you have given a preference to by giving a later preference to someone else.
3. If you really want to stop someone, you MUST give a preference to every other candidate. That means that if your vote hasn’t already elected someone, it is available to be used by whatever candidates are still fighting the person you want to stop. But you have to give the returning officer that instruction by marking those preferences.
Fianna Fail in 2011 got a similar vote to Labour but only half the seats partially because people did this.
4. Vote for who you really want. Don’t second guess and assume that the person you really want will get in anyway. That’s how popular people lose their seats. It happens. In November 1982 John Ellis topped the poll in Sligo-Leitrim and still lost his seat.
5. Don’t write anything other than preferences on your ballot paper. It can be used by other parties you don’t like as an excuse to have your ballot spoiled on the grounds that you might have been intimidated into identifying how you voted! If you write “F**k Enda Kenny” on your ballot, that can be used by Fine Gael to have your ballot removed from the count. Think about that.
6. Finally, and I always say this: when you’re voting, note there’s a Garda normally in the polling station. In some other countries the police or army are at polling stations to make sure their candidates are elected. In this republic, it’s to ensure that nobody tells you how to vote. It’s been that way since 1923, and we should be very proud of that.