Hi all, this topic is sort of a response to the PR/Elected Senate topic. It is a fairly long essay but I thought it might be worthwhile to post it here as some people have bought the First-Past-The-Post myth hook line and sinker and it offers a different perspective.
Although I think this is unlikely, for reference purposes (and coppyright) the essay is mine so if you want to use any of the information in it formally please PM me for permission.
Straw Man Arguments:
A Comparison of Electoral Systems in Ireland and the United Kingdom
Supporters of the Single Member Plurality (SMP) systems are often prejudiced against the Single Transferable Vote (STV) system, or any other method of proportional representation for that matter, based on the perception that all such systems create a balkanization and proliferation of political parties. Another point of criticism of STV, is that the systems proportionality causes governmental instability through the lack of clear majorities, which in turn results in continuous coalition governments.
This essay will focus on the electoral systems of the United Kingdom and the Republic of Ireland. In it I will prove, through a most similar systems analysis that many of the prejudices against STV such as the balkanization and proliferation of minor parties and inherent instability of governments that use it are not valid arguments against the Irish STV system.
In order to effectively compare the voting systems used by the subject nations they must first be explained. The SMP system, also called First-Past-The-Post, is the most simple to calculate and understand of all electoral systems. Under this system votes are cast for a single candidate in single member constituencies. The candidate who receives the largest number of votes, regardless of the actual percentage of the total votes that number represents, is declared the winner. The use of this system is equivalent to a nation running as many separate elections as there are constituencies within the country. Some of its perceived strengths are seen as its ability to create single party governments, the creation of coherent parliamentary opposition and as being seen as benefiting broadly based political parties.
The STV system is a system of Proportional Representation (PR) in which voters cast ballots in large multi-member constituencies by ranking candidates in order of preference. The number of votes a candidate receives is compared against a set number, based upon the number of votes cast, called the quota.
There are three main formulae for calculation of the quota: the Droop Quota , Hare Quota and the Impreiali Quota . Of these the most commonly used formula is the Droop Quota, which is used by the Republic of Ireland.
In the first round of counting under an STV system, Process A, the voter's first selection is counted. Should any of the candidates receive a number of votes equal to or greater than the quota they are declared elected, once elected a candidate can not receive any more votes. If a candidate is elected with a surplus of votes, those surplus votes are redistributed by using the second choice listed on the ballots. The selection of which ballots are counted again can be done by selecting them at random or by counting each ballot fractionally. This process is repeated until there are no more candidates that have votes in excess of the quota. Any candidate who achieves the quota from votes redistributed in this manner is also declared elected. In the next step, Process B, the candidate with the least amount of votes after the first round is eliminated and his or her votes are reallocated according to the second choice listed on the ballot. Once a candidate has been eliminated he or she can not get any more votes. Once the reallocation of votes is complete the procedure begins again with Process A and continues in this matter until all the seats in the riding have been filled .
There are three main comparisons I have chosen to examine between the UK and Irish systems. They are the questions of proliferation of minor parties, the representation of voter choice and the predisposition of STV toward coalition governments and their perceived instability.
Proliferation of Parties:
The first point of comparison I examine is the depiction of STV as a fractious system, which causes the proliferation and balkanization of political parties when compared to the more restrictive electoral requirements of an SMP system. Upon examining the two nations, with regard to this perception, the immediate and glaring incongruity is that in the United Kingdom, there are over 10 times as many registered political parties than in the Irish Republic.
In the United Kingdom there are nine major parties, in addition to these there are 114 minor parties registered, ranging from the traditional parties such as Labour and Conservative to nonsense parties such as the Church of the Militant Elvis Party . As of the general election of 7 June 2001 only 9 of the 123 registered parties are represented in the UK House of Commons. Ireland on the other hand has eight major political parties, seven of which are represented in the DÃƒÂ¡il Éireann (Irish Parliament) since the general election of 17 May 2002. There are no minor parties formally represented in the DÃƒÂ¡il though there are fourteen members that sit as independents.
This disparity in numbers contradicts the notion that STV creates numerous minor parties. Upon closer inspection, it becomes obvious that the difference in numbers of registered parties in the two nations is due to the application of more or less stringent registration processes and not necessarily a result of the type of electoral system.
In the United Kingdom the regulations governing the registration of political parties is fairly simple and straight forward. It requires only minimal rules and regulations be followed, such as the completion of an application form giving details of the party name and at least two party officers. Where in the UK the party is to be registered and whether the party will have any accounting units. Also required is a copy of the party's constitution, a financial scheme showing how the party will comply with the financial controls and a modest registration fee of £150.00.
Ireland on the other hand has much more stringent registration requirements which restrict the process to more serious and well formed political movements. These regulations include provisions that a certain number of registered voters must be members of the party and the party must have a member of it elected to the DÃƒÂ¡il. Irish law also requires that annual meetings be held and the party must have an executive committee. On the other hand, there is no fee to register a party and unregistered parties are entitled to fight elections, but the name of the party will not appear on the ballot.
Thus the stricter registration laws in force in the Republic of Ireland, combats the proliferation of political parties, which is one of the main arguments used by those that support SMP over STV. The SMP system used in the UK on the other hand, achieves it's much touted governmental stability through the election process, specifically the non-proportional allocation of seats in a First-Past-The-Post electoral system.
Perhaps the most attractive element of the STV system, as an alternative to SMP, is the more complete representation of voter choice. Under a First-Past-The-Post (FPTP) system, only the candidate who wins the most votes in a riding is elected. This means that should one candidate receive 48% of votes and another receive 47.9% of votes the candidate who received 48% would be elected. The other candidate, although his percentage of the vote was almost identical, would loose, resulting in "wasted votesâ ?. On the other hand, in a STV system with its multi member constituencies, both candidates would most likely be elected and more of the people of the constituency would have a voice in parliament.
It must be noted that neither SMP nor STV requires a candidate to win a majority of votes cast in order to be elected. But under STV a significant majority of the votes cast do count toward electing candidates, thus representing a majority of the votes cast, as well as a proportional representation of the people's vote within the multi-member constituency.
Ireland is divided into 3, 4 or 5 member constituencies ranging in population from 108,717 to 47,641 registered electors. Taking one of these ridings as an example, and comparing it to a similar sized riding in the UK will demonstrate the more complete representation of the public vote achieved under STV.
In the Irish riding of Cavan-Monaghan with an electorate of 87,595 and 61,847 valid ballots cast, the quota was set at 10,308 votes. Multiplying the quota by the number of candidates for the riding (5) shows that of the 61,847 valid votes, 51,540 voters had a hand in electing the representatives for that riding. This number represents 83.3% of the votes cast, meaning only 16.7% of valid votes were wasted and did not count toward the election of a member of the DÃƒÂ¡il.
In contrast to this, in the UK riding of Isle of Wight with 63,482 total votes cast, the winning candidate received 25,223 votes representing only 39.7% of votes. For the other 60.3% of votes the voter's choice did not count toward the election of the representative and were wasted.
Further comparison of the most recent general elections in Ireland and the United Kingdom reveals that on average, 71.4% of all votes cast in Ireland assisted in electing a representative. Conversely, in the UK, the average representative was elected to the House of Commons based on an average of 51.3% of votes cast in each riding.
These figures are based solely on the votes cast, not on the number of registered voters. When the national voter turnout for these elections is taken into consideration the number of voters casting votes which assisted in electing representatives is significantly reduced.
For the most recent general elections, only 59.38% of eligible voters in the UK voted compared to 62.57% of voters in Ireland. Combining these figures with the percentage of votes that assisted in electing a representative reduces the percentage of voters actually assisting in electing a representative to 44.67% for Ireland and 30.46% for the UK. While certainly not a triumph of democracy for either system, obviously the advantage should be granted to the STV system for it's more complete representation of votes and the voting public.
Coalitions and Weakness
Another criticism of the single transferable vote system is that it leads to coalition governments, which results in governmental instability, when compared to first-past-the-post. However, comparison of the two nations in question shows that these problems are inconsequential.
From a purely historical point of view coalition governments are not the norm in Ireland, since 1923 there have only been 9 coalition governments formed out of the 26 general elections held. Since 1989 there has been no single party which has enjoyed a majority in the DÃƒÂ¡il, and coalitions do seem to be becoming the norm.
This political reality does not lead directly or inevitably to instability though. Irish coalitions have displayed considerable longevity, remaining in power for an average of three and a half years which is longer than non-coalition Irish governments, which on average have lasted approximately 2.9 years.
While historically the UK has not tended toward coalitions, it has had 3 coalition or "National Governmentsâ ? since 1918, each of which was in response to a national crisis, World War 1, the 1930's depression and World War 2. The need to show solidarity in government during crises by forming coalitions of political parties seems to indicate that the reason behind it is to represent the people and political will of the nation better than is possible under normal circumstances. This exception demonstrates the inclusive nature of coalitions and far from implying weakness or instability emphasizes their strength and utility.
The inference that coalition governments are unstable is also given as a reason not to employ STV as an electoral system. This perception too has been exaggerated in favor of SMP. The United Kingdom and Ireland have conducted 16 general elections since 1945. The shortest lived government among the two nations was the UK's minority Conservative government of Prime Minister Edward Heath in 1974. After failing to form a coalition with the Liberal Party, PM Heath resigned, allowing the Queen to commission Labour leader Harold Wilson to form the government. The minority Labour government of PM Wilson lasted 8 months, and was replaced by a slim Labour majority in October of the same year.
This average of the lengths of terms enjoyed by the respective governments reveals that there is only a slight difference when the two nations are compared. Since 1945, the United Kingdom has averaged a Parliamentary election every 3.5 years whereas the Irish have conducted elections for the DÃƒÂ¡il Éireann every 3.37 years. Calculated in days the UK on average elects a new parliament every 1277 days and Ireland every 1199 days a difference of only 78 days.
Going back farther to Ireland's independence, the Irish republic has conducted 26 general elections since 1923 and the UK has conducted 22 for an average length of 3.15 and 3.72 years respectively.
The above averages can not be attributed to differing lengths of administrative terms as Irish law requires elections to be held every seven years. However, statute has limited the length of terms in Ireland to five years, which is equal to the length of term enjoyed by the UK parliament.
In conclusion, the exaggerated claims made against the Single Transferable Vote system in favor of Single Member Plurality appear to be nothing more than a straw man of personal preferences and prejudices. With regards to the UK and Ireland, it appears that in the case of party proliferation that the problem is a product of national electoral laws and not the electoral system used. As for inherent weakness and instability of STV due to its tendency to cause coalition governments, this has been proven insignificant. The drawbacks of STV versus SMP with regard to these difficulties are counteracted by the ability and willingness of the elected members of the government to work with other political parties and thus persevere, in spite of political ideologies, for the sake of stable national government.
© Martin Gasser 20 Jan 2005