By Michael Gallagher
Leaving aside the broader issue of electoral reform (I’ve put some thoughts on this here), the question of how to fill casual vacancies has been discussed. At present, by-elections are used to fill such vacancies, and this has been criticised as an anomalous way of filling vacancies arising under a PR system. There are indeed anomalies, but would any other method mark an improvement?
In both Malta and Tasmania the ‘countback’ method is employed: the retiring or deceased MP’s ballot papers from the last general election are examined, and a replacement candidate is elected from these papers using the alternative vote, so that the supporters of the departed candidate, and not all voters, get to decide by whom he or she should be replaced. (What happens if in the interim that candidate, defeated in the general election, has switched party allegiance or has, say, been revealed as having involvement in some dubious financial dealings, is unclear.) Some people have advocated this for Ireland.
Unfortunately, as far as I can see that method just wouldn’t work here. The reason is that in many cases parties will not have run any more candidates than they won seats, and so the countback method would end up ‘electing’ someone of a different party. For example, after Tony Gregory died in January 2009, while we can’t be certain who would have been elected from the 6,928 votes in his quota, we do know that it would not have been anyone from his own organisation, because he did not have a running mate in Dublin Central in 2007. The contest would have been among the 9 defeated candidates in the constituency, even though, quite possibly, none of them would have greatly enthused Gregory’s voters. The by-election held in June of that year did, though, result in the election of Maureen O’Sullivan, standing as the candidate of Tony Gregory’s organisation.
Most Labour, and several Fine Gael, TDs elected in 2007 had no running mates, and quite a few FF TDs had no unsuccessful running mates – the existence of such unsuccessful running mates being essential if the seat is to remain within the political tendency of the departing TD. In this respect Ireland differs from Malta, where party allegiances among voters are very strong and where the parties nominate many more candidates than they win seats in each constituency, and (as I understand it) also from Tasmania. In both of those contexts parties are sure to have other candidates available to take part in the countback. In Ireland, though, the countback method would produce anomalies that no-one would advocate.
For example, in Dublin SW, if any of the 4 TDs (2 FF, 1 FG and 1 Labour) elected in 2007 were to resign, the contenders for their seat under the countback method would be a SF candidate, a Green, an independent, and a Socialist Party candidate. The last three of those attracted precisely 3,560 first preferences at the election, less than half a quota between them. The argument that one of those four candidates, and only one of those four candidates, should be entitled to any seat that falls vacant is difficult to sustain. Countback really does not seem to be a runner in Ireland.
The only feasible alternative to by-elections here is the ‘list of substitutes’ method employed at European Parliament elections. That has both advantages and disadvantages compared with by-elections, as outlined by Gary Murphy (DCU) in his evidence to the Committee on the Constitution on 10 February 2010.
It may be that, to paraphrase Winston Churchill on democracy, by-elections are the worst possible method of filling casual vacancies in this country, with the exception of all the others.