The STV: What the Irish have learned
Okay, relax, it isn't that complicated. Or rather, it is, but you don't need to know exactly how it works (you don't know how a DVD works, either), only that it does. Just ask the Irish -- they've been using it since 1922 and twice have rejected chan

By Neal Hall
Published April 30th 2005 in The Vancouver Sun

DUBLIN - 'A good puzzle," James Joyce wrote in his famous novel Ulysses, "would be to cross Dublin without passing a pub." Dublin has roughly 1,000 pubs, making it seem like there's one on every corner.

Pubs in Ireland are not just places to drink. They are part of the social fabric -- places to meet friends and neighbours to discuss life, develop romances and read the newspaper on a rainy afternoon.

They are also gathering places to talk Irish politics, which is our goal on a sunny Saturday afternoon at O'Neill's, No. 2 Suffolk Street, the heart of the oldest part of the city. O'Neill's is built on the neolithic burial grounds of the Vikings, who established their Norse parliament, Thingmount, on this site 1,000 years ago.

The pub, established in 1755, is packed with rugby fans watching the championship match between Wales and Ireland (the Welsh fans in the pub would eventually sing their national anthem in Gaelic, at full volume, after their team triumphed).

O'Neill's also has a warren of wood-panelled nooks and rooms, where patrons can have a quiet pint. Sitting in one nook is a young couple, both teachers, who are happy to talk about Ireland's voting system, known as the single transferable vote or STV -- the system British Columbia will adopt if voters approve it in a referendum during the May 17 provincial election.

STV is a proportional representation system that uses a preferential ballot, which involves ranking candidates 1, 2, 3 and so on to show first, second and third choices. Voters can rank as few or as many candidates as they want.

"It's definitely a better system than having one vote," Ciara Hardy, 29, says about Ireland's voting system. "At least if your first choice doesn't count, your second and third ones will." Hardy teaches the Irish language at a boys' secondary school in County Down, Northern Ireland, which also uses STV voting. Her boyfriend, Sebastian Luthers, 30, who teaches French and English at a school in the Irish Republic, says STV offers voters more choice than Canada's system, which allows only one vote for the chosen candidate.

"It gives power back to the people because your first and second votes count," Luthers says.

Told that B.C. voters are finding the STV voting system confusing at first glance, mainly when it comes to transferring the second- and third-preference choices of surplus votes, Luthers said people in Ireland have a general understanding of how the counting works but most don't give it a second thought.

The voters concentrate on which candidate should be ranked first, then subsequent ranking of other candidates, he says.

"You don't think percentages and numbers, you just think, who do you want."

Both Luthers and Hardy were fascinated that B.C.'s government gave 160 randomly selected citizens the task of deciding whether to recommend changing the province's electoral system.

"I think it's amazing that the government allowed this to happen," Luthers says.

The Irish government has twice tried to change STV to Canada's current system -- called first-past-the-post (FPTP) or winner-takes-all -- mainly because Irish politicians wanted the kind of artificial majorities that FPTP often produces. But Irish voters have twice rejected changing the voting system.

"I voted to retain the system we have," says Dubliner James Woods, 67, a retired dockworker having a beer at O'Neill's. He has voted for more than 40 years. "It's better," he says of STV. "I'm happy with the way it is. It seems to have served us well over the years."

At a nearby pub, Ed Griffiths, a 33-year-old freelance video editor, says the Irish don't find STV confusing or complicated because the system has been in place since the country gained independence in 1922 after a civil war that ended British rule.

"It's not complicated to me," says Griffiths, having a pint of Guinness with friends at the Ha'Penny Bridge Inn pub overlooking the River Liffey, which bisects Dublin.

"I write 1, 2, 3, 4 on my ballot and drop it in the box. Sometimes I vote for the party, and then I say, 'Well, I like this guy, so I'll vote for him as my second or third choice.' "

"It's a good system," adds Therese Ryan, who is slinging beer at the Ha'Penny Bridge pub -- her father is publican Mick Ryan. "If you only have only one vote, that's it. It's a fairer system than having just one vote."

She notes Irish voters wait one or two days to find out who won the election, mainly because the counting doesn't begin until the morning after election day. Counting can continue for up to two days in close races, she says.

"The first preferences are simple enough," says Des Brophy, 66, a retired Dubliner out for a stroll along Nassau Street, two blocks from Dublin's parliament buildings.

"Then you can be tactical if you want to be -- you can vote for one but not another."

He says the STV voting system is more issue-driven and less focused on the personality of candidates. If a candidate taps into an issue that grabs constituents, he or she is likely to be elected, even if the candidate is running as an independent, he adds.

"It gives the underdog a chance," Brophy says.

STV produced majority governments for years, he says, but the recent trend has been coalition governments, mainly because of the dwindling popularity of the largest party, Fianna Fail, the rise of another centrist party, Fine Gael, and other smaller parties.

Constituencies are four- or five-seat ridings. Most constituencies elect members from competing parties. In the electoral district of Dublin Central, for example, there are four elected members -- two from Fianna Fail, including Bertie Ahern, the country's Taoiseach (prime minister), plus a Labour member and an independent. Same-party battles B.C. had multi-member districts until 1991.

A move back to multi-member ridings under STV would prompt parties to adapt to a different campaign strategy, says Terry Murphy, the Fine Gael party's Dublin director. His party recently formed an alliance with the Labour party and hopes to form a coalition government next election, he says.

There also has been speculation that Fine Gael could form a coalition government with members of the growing Green party. The STV system creates competition among candidates from the same party during election campaigns in constituencies, Murphy says. The parties often run two or three candidates in a four-seat riding, he says, and smaller parties only run one candidate.

"Often candidates say their biggest rivals are candidates from their party," Murphy adds.

(One Irish political scientist says more members of Fianna Fail are defeated by other Fianna Fail candidates than by candidates from other parties.)

Sometimes, Murphy says, his party will divide the electoral district as part of a campaign strategy, with one candidate asking half the constituency to vote for him and the other half to vote for his running mate.  Between 10 and 20 candidates run in a constituency.

In a March byelection, the Fine Gael and Labour both ran candidates but the party leaders issued a joint statement, saying the parties had struck a deal to support each other. At one time, Murphy says, voters had strong party loyalty, voting for a slate of candidates from the same party in multi-seat constituencies. But party loyalty has dwindled over the years, he says.

"Half of voters are leaving and going to another party's candidate in their second-choice vote," he says. "The pattern of voting party is becoming diluted."

A downside to the STV system, Murphy cautions, is that candidates sometimes get too focused on local issues rather than national issues. "Local issues tend to dominate and those elected are not necessarily the best legislators," he says, adding that is the main criticism of STV.

One of Ireland's leading political scientists, Michael Gallagher of Trinity College Dublin, admits that most Irish people couldn't fully explain the counting system of STV. It seems complicated, mainly because surplus votes --those in excess of the quota a candidate needs to get elected -- are transferred to other candidates who are still in the running for a seat in multi-member ridings.

"Only the counting staff need to know how it works," he says.

The Irish people have a broad understanding of how the system works and believe it's fair and proportional, which is really all that matters, Gallagher adds.

Delayed results

One of the concerns raised about implementing STV in B.C. is that in places like Ireland, it sometimes takes two days to decide which party will form the government.

In Canada, the current system provides quick results -- usually before midnight after the polls close on election day. But Gallagher says the extended wait in Ireland is part of the political culture and like a spectator sport.

"A lot of people love it," he says. "It's a great spectacle for many people."

In fact, during the last election in Ireland, electronic voting was introduced as an experiment at three polls. The results were known almost immediately after counting began. The losing candidates hated the speed of the instant results because there was no lead-up to knowing whether they were winning or losing, Gallagher says.

At the moment, an Irish government commission is looking at the issue of implementing electronic polls across the country.

Gallagher says one of the ideas being looked at is announcing the results gradually -- the first preference votes, then second preferences and so on. The fact that Irish voters have twice rejected changing the STV system to first-past-the-post reflects voter satisfaction, Gallagher says.

"I think people are happy with it. People like the power it gives them."

Could Gallagher predict what would happen in B.C. if voters here decide to switch to STV?

"In reality," he says, "some things will change but not as dramatically as some of the opponents have predicted."

Politicians will adapt to any new system, he says, citing the experience of New Zealand, which switched in the mid-1990s to a mixed-member proportional (MMP) voting system from FPTP. It takes a few elections before the politicians and electorate adjust, he says.

MMP was the other system the citizens' assembly seriously considered for B.C., but rejected because a majority felt it gave too much power to the parties, rather than to voters. The assembly chose STV because, according to its final report, members believe it offers the greatest voter choice, allows for an array of minority and majority views to be heard in the legislature, produces fairer, more proportional results than the current system and retains the link between constituents and elected members of the legislative assembly in Victoria.

Another prominent Irish political scientist, Richard Sinnott, who teaches at University College Dublin, says politicians don't like STV because it pits candidates from the same party against each other in a four-seat constituency.

"It forces them to be more responsive to their constituents," he says.

He too expressed concerns about politicians tending to be more focused on constituents' needs than national interests, citing the example of one candidate elected on a campaign promise to fix the potholes in roads in her neighbourhood.

"It's clientelist politics," Sinnott says. "You can get these single-issue independents, usually bread-and-butter issues."

'The freedom of the system'

The beauty of STV, he adds, is that it gives the voter the power to decide who will fill the four or five seats in a constituency.

A voter can cast all his votes for candidates from the same party, or split his vote a number of ways -- party on the first choice, then second choice to someone well-respected for service in the constituency.

"That's the freedom of the system," Sinnott says. "It can give equal weight to party or candidate preferences."

The system also allows independents to be elected -- independents currently hold 15 seats in Ireland. Canada has only one independent at the federal level, Chuck Cadman of Surrey, and none won in the last provincial election. Margaret Harpur is an example of a single-issue Irish voter -- she is carrying an anti-abortion sign on Grafton Street, Dublin's bustling pedestrian shopping area.

"I believe in voting but don't vote for the main political parties," she says.

"I vote for some independents who are against abortion." (Abortion was illegal in Ireland until a 1992 Supreme Court ruling in the "X" case, which allowed abortion in limited, life-threatening circumstances for the mother.)

Trevor Sargent, leader of the Green party in Ireland, says STV allows smaller parties such as his to gain seats. He says a voter can choose a mainstream party candidate as well as voting for a Green on the same ballot.

"It allows the voter to be quite cunning," says Sargent, who topped the polls in his Dublin North constituency last election.

Politicians campaign by asking voters for the first-choice vote, he says, but if they encounter voters who have already made up their minds on their first preference, a candidate will say "Can I get your No. 2 vote?"

He adds: "A No. 7 and No. 8 vote can even get you elected."

Sargent says STV is more reflective of real life -- voters often want to choose a variety of candidates, rather than being limited to one vote. Voting under FPTP often results in strategic voting just to keep a party out of power and doesn't reflect a person's first choice, he adds.

"I think people would find it very, very engaging and empowering," he says, speculating on what would happen if B.C. switched to STV.

"It gives you more choice and more proportionality."

A U.S. observer, Andrew Reding of the World Policy Institute, once wrote that voting under a proportional representation system is like "Baskin-Robbins voting" -- you get to choose from a wide variety of flavours of policy alternatives, instead of just a few flavours offered by our FPTP voting system.

Details don't matter Michael Phillips, Canada's ambassador to Ireland from 1996 to 1998, has voted in Canada and Ireland and likes the Irish system better. He says he first learned of STV when he was posted as a junior officer at the Canadian embassy in Dublin in 1972, when he met and married an Irish women from Donegal. He retired in Ireland after his last posting, in New York in 2002. He lives in a small town on the coast south of Dublin and recently voted in his first Irish election. He didn't find the STV preferential ballot confusing.

"I think this is a better system," the Saskatoon-born Phillips says of STV.

"FPTP is disappearing off the face of the earth."

The Irish have a general idea of how the counting and transfers work, although most don't know the fine details, he says. But that's not surprising, he adds, because in everyday life we use things without really understanding how they work.

"I don't know how the [Thermos] vacuum bottle works," Phillips says. "It just keeps things hot or cold. That's all that really matters."