The interrogation of Prof David Farrell

Prof David Farrell gave a compelling lecture this week on electoral reform to the Trinity Senior Sophister class studying Comparative Political Reform.  The class have read and debated the various themes —

Electoral reform has become a lightning rod issue for reformists in many different countries. But is it the wrong answer to the wrong question? Is the case for electoral reform over-stated? What does the process of electoral reform tell us about the possibility of achieving wider reforms?

Over to the students…

37 thoughts on “The interrogation of Prof David Farrell

  1. Dear Prof. Farrell,

    Thank you for coming to visit us and for your very interesting and useful lecture.

    You mentioned your research where you asked political scientists what electoral system they would choose if they had a gun put to their heads. If the same proverbial gun was put to yours what would be your answer?


    • Thanks, Declan. Ultimately Dick Katz (Democracy and Elections) is quite right when he says that the answer to the question — which electoral system is best? — is ‘it depends’. i.e. it depends on what sort of context the electoral system is going to operate in; what sort of political system you are designing. I’ve always been upfront about the fact that my personal preferences are for STV because I do think that this is an electoral system that has a lot of merit, but that doesn’t mean that I’d always advocate it.

  2. In some cases, such as when the electoral system causes a distinct disproportionality, electoral reform should be considered. But in cases where the system is quite representative, such as Ireland, shouldn’t the focus be more on engaging voters with the process we have rather than run the risk of boring them with a referendum and causing voter fatigue?

    • I certainly think we shouldn’t advocate change for changes sake. If there is a perceived problem with our institutions, and if there are ways of fixing these by change (whether by referendum or legislative reform), then clearly we should do that. The argument that most political scientists would make that the one change that won’t of itself fix things here is electoral reform. If it is the case that we want to tone down the localism of TDs, there are other things to look at rather than electoral reform — notably local government reform, and making the public service provision more user friendly.

  3. Hello! I have a few questions for you regarding Irish electoral reform. Thanks for participating in this post, any answers or feedback would be great!

    1. Will people vote to change the system?

    Despite some marginal indications that politicians would like to see electoral reform do you think it is something that people will vote to change in a referendum? Is this something that researchers have directly polled (as the National election study emphasises how much we value constituency work)? What about the difficulties generating enough interest to motivate the public to make an informed decision? The Lisbon treaty round one and two spring to mind here… There is the idea of a citizens’ assembly, yet in BC when the question went to referendum afterwards, Ken Carty seemed to think that the people did not know enough about the issue to vote for change. What could be done to inform people without forcing participation? Of the cases presented to our class the BC case was arguably the most positive example. Perhaps it is the wrong answer to the wrong question?

    2. New system new problems?

    Is it not more desirable to have politicians constantly answerable to those who elected them? Not to a committee of either party elites or local party activists… Focused on impressing their constituents instead of wasting effort ensuring a coup isn’t being staged if they are based in one seat constituencies? Competition will happen anyway is it not better that it is in the open? Plus again looking at the BC citizens’ assembly, voter choice was chosen to be as important as proportionality!

    3. What could be done without needing a constitutional amendment?

    What about changing the district magnitudes? Making them bigger, with more seats could make a huge difference. What about mandating voting as in Australia, lowering the voting age + improving the CSPE courses taught in school, banning posters + requiring all candidates to use one electronic policy disclosure system, counting votes properly, Robson rotation and temporary candidate gender quotas?

    4. Political fatigue?

    It has been suggested in our class discussions that voters have a limited span of interest. Consequently it could be important to be selective about what to focus attention on. An expensive citizens’ assembly or national campaign to change the electoral system could generate apathy if it fails to ‘fix’ problems. However a citizens’ assembly debating how to make the system work better generally could have a more constructive impact? What do you think?

    • @Ciara All fair questions. I was merely talking about electoral reform in a comparative and theoretical context because of the brief I was given. As you will see from my earlier postings on this blog, I’m on record in arguing that electoral reform (in and of itself) would be the wrong answer to the right question. As I said to Colm above, a lot more good could be done by reforming local government and citizen/civil service connections (i.e. dealing with the demand-side rather than the supply-side) — neither of which would require constitutional reform. But I DO think that constitutional reform on a wider scale should be considered too — not focused solely (or even at all) on the electoral system. For this to work (and to get to your first question) it would be vital for the citizens to have a key role in such a process from the outset. Which is why models like the Citizens’ Assembly are so attractive. As Carty shows in the BC case, an important missing ingredient there was a well-funded information campaign to promote the conclusions of the Citizens’ Assembly. Finally — and following on from this — I *completely* agree with your fourth point. We are at a very important stage in our history as a sovereign nation: I can hardly imagine a more appropriate to revisit our political institutions and how they operate.

      • So Dr. Farrell, can we assume that any citizens’ assembly organised in the coming months won’t be on the specific issue of electoral reform but about political reform generally?

      • @Ciara

        Short answer is: I don’t know. There are plenty who argue (most recently Fintan O’Toole in his latest book) that electoral reform is necessary. So who knows what the focus of any citizens’ assembly might be — or even if one would ever be set up.

  4. This is strictly a case of playing Devil’s advocate, but I’m just wondering about how needed the current call for electoral reform is.

    Perhaps it’s a symptom of the difficulty in getting people to engage with politics, but when people discuss political reform it tends to be in very radical terms; replacing the electoral system or abolishing the Seanad. Once these drastic ideas are put out there they tend to dominate, further decreasing the likelihood of effective, more subtle reform. While speculation around large scale reform may capture the imagination, does it not hurt the chances of more sustainable, and presumably predictable, long term, gradual reform? Is there precedent for effective small scale reforms which could be implemented here in Ireland?

    Is the Irish system really so broken? If the Irish public were polled it’s unlikely they would see strong local representation as the debilitating negative which political scientists and commentators seem to see it as. If it’s clear that the Irish political system is broken, then where specifically is it broken and are there no moderate solutions? When your pipes start to leak, you don’t rip them all out and start again, you look for the source of the problem and start from there. In Ireland we don’t even seem sure it’s the pipes that are the problem. So, what is the source of the Irish problem and are there no moderate reforms which could be implemented in Ireland, rather than ripping out our electoral system and starting again?

    • @Russell
      Fair points. And this is the sort of argument that people like Noel Whelan make. I suppose where we differ is that I think the pipes are beyond fixing. There comes a time when a complete overhaul of the system is called for, and I think we’re at just such a time. The pipes have been leaking a long time and the damage to the system is now spread too widely to be able to merely paper over the cracks.

  5. Prof. Farrell,

    Really enjoyed the lecture last week.

    Are there reasonable grounds for believing that replacing PRSTV with an Additional Member system (say MMP for Dáil Elections) would change the intra-party competition culture which (may) lead to unnecessary concentration on Constituency work at the expense of parliamentary duties?

    • Thanks Ross. As I argue above and in previous posts (and see also others like Michael Gallagher), I really don’t see electoral reform in and of itself doing that much. To change the wider political culture what is required is large scale and fundamental overhaul of our political institutions.

  6. Hi David, I was wondering what yuo thought about Michael Gallagher’s post on maintaining PR-STV but using non-geographic constitunecies with voters randomly allocated? It sounds like a fascinating idea to me, even if it has rather less of an empirical track record than the usual MMP proposal.

    What do you think? Could this be an innovation that might allieviate a lot of the ‘ills’ that are adduced against our incarnation of PR-STV without the drawback of handing too much control from the people to the parties?

    • @Matt
      It’s undoubtedly an interesting proposal and worth serious consideration, though I’m not sure I’d see much likelihood of something like this coming to fruition.

      It would bring us closer to the ideals of Thomas Hare who’d proposed STV with one national constituency. I guess I’d echo some of the concerns raised in the discussion after MG’s post:

      (1) by, in effect operating much like a national constituency, there would be dangers of poor TD-voter linkage. Not a bad thing many might argue, But actually there is some merit in a voter having a TD they can contact when they need to (our problem is that we’re at the opposite extreme).

      (2) money and celebrity would feature heavily in TD campaigns (cf. Shugart and Carey on the relationship between M and BS), so we’d have quite a different type of TD and not necessarily a better one.

      But, interesting, certainly.

  7. Prof Farrell

    Following your lecture the class discussed how every reform initiative brings with it an opportunity cost of what is not focused on – particularly in a political and media environment that seems poor at multitasking.

    You advocate in your answer to Ciara for a citizen’s assembly type initiative on long term constitutional reform. While I would agree with the need for many of those questions to be asked, they would not have necessarily prevented the poor economic policy decisions that Fianna Fail made over the last decade (reliance on construction etc.). With the country in a financial crisis should economic and budgetary reforms – some of which were advocated by Joan Burton and Richard Bruton at the DIT roundtable you chaired – be given priority over everything else?



    • @Daniel
      I agree that there were some interesting proposals by Joan Burton and Richard Bruton, but they’re not enough. As I’ve been saying, I (and others) feel what’s needed is root and branch reform of Governance Ireland Inc. The issues you raise, for instance, bring to mind the need to consider, inter alia: (1) the proportionality of the electoral system (to bring in greater competition for government); (2) true regulatory controls (as proposed, e.g., by Eddie Molloy at that same DIT roundtable); (3) steps to deal seriously with party finance and stamp out the sort of corruption identified by Elaine Byrne in her latest book. The implication of your final sentence is that budgetary and economic reforms should be prioritised in this time of crisis. My response to that is that it is *precisely* in such a time of crisis that we should engage in root and branch reform. Let’s not waste this crisis.

      • Moreover Dan, how can a system that created the crisis be capable of fixing it? Is it not more desireable to first fix the system thus decreasing the likelihood of further systemic economic/financial failures…

  8. Prof. Farrel,

    Thanks for the lecture the other day. ‘Twas class!

    What do you think about the peoples’ knowledge on the electoral system. Obviously the Irish system is very complex and, I presume, the majority of Irish citizens’ have no idea how what they put down on a ballot paper translates into a vote.

    What methods would you suggest to teaching the people on our electoral system? Or perhaps those who aren’t interested enough to search for this information don’t deserve to know?

    Any thoughts?


  9. Prof. Farrel,

    Sorry, I’m used to writing informally. I apologise for the “Twas class” and the “cheers”.

    Thank you for your time.

    • Hi Nick — no need to apologize (!)

      Irish voters are no different from other voters in their lack of knowledge of the electoral system and how it works. But why should we expect otherwise? I don’t know how a washing machine works, yet I know (usually) which buttons to press to get it to wash my clothes. The instructions manual guides me through the various cycle options. In much the same way, the media and party campaigns inform voters over what ways they might want to complete the ballot paper. That’s a pretty normal scenario in democracies.

      However, I do take your point about poor education. It is scandalous that in 21st century Ireland school students are not required to learn about how the political system operates. Curriculum review at secondary level is long over due.

  10. Prof Farrell

    Thanks for taking questions!

    Following your lecture on Thursday our class explored the idea that maybe the government hides behind the rhetoric of reform rather than actually wanting to change the status quo. My question focuses on the underrepresentation of women in our Parliament. This is an area where the government has failed time and time again to implement any sort of real affirmative action. The 2009 report of the Oireachtas Sub Committee on women’s participation in politics cited culture as one of the main barriers that affects women’s access to participation. I think it is fair to say that our underrepresented parliament stands as a reminder of the damaging legacy of the unhealthy cultural influences that the patriarchal Catholic Church wielded over Irish Society subjecting women to unfair conditions. For example, the Irish Constitution equates womanhood with motherhood and defines women’s role as strictly confined to the home. It is necessary to set in motion a process to dismantle the barriers that prevent women from exerting influence in the political scene in Ireland and gender quota’s constitute a process that can achieve this. However, despite vocal commitments to reform, the government has not introduced any real measures that will can tackle the problem effectively. Our representation level stands at 13%. In the next general election there is a very real possibility that representation could slip to 12.8%.
    So my question is do you think that gender quota’s (in the form of financial penalties for parties who fail to operate a gender quota system in candidate selection)could work effectively under the current PR- STV system. If not what sort of reform would you propose?

    Thanks for your time!

    • @Julianne

      I completely agree with you. Our performance in the representation of women is abysmal and long in need of serious overhaul. Sex quotas are not a magic bullet, but as part of a wider process of reform and if applied judiciously (and perhaps with a sunset clause to help calm sensibilities) there is little doubt that they would reap dividends: international experience shows this.

      The proposal to link sex quotas with financial penalties is certainly an interesting one, but there might be other routes that could be more effective. E.g. why not make it a requirement of all registered parties that in their national total of candidates in a general election (and other elections) they ensure that, say, at least 20% of these are women? The parties would then be free to determine where they might locate those candidates across the various constituencies. A figure so low as 20% is hardly that steep a climb, but it is more than the parties have managed to produce so far…

  11. I’m interested in the spate of new civic movements that seem to be showing seeds of growth.

    Could it be possible the Irish public are starting to understand they are to blame for the mess they in because of the low ethical standards they support in politics by electing cronies time and time again.

    If the system was reformed and the same sort of person keeps getting elected, won’t the system rot from the inside out again?

    The arguments about reform never seem to want to address why so many people think it is acceptable to vote for a certain type of person and to then have no shame they voted the way they did and then when that person is shown for the fool and unfit person they are, more people vote for them?

    I bet if Ireland had an expenses scandal like in the UK, the Irish version would see the TD who creamed off the most being relected with the highest vote count for such a great ‘stroke’?

    Do the platforms of reform address the attitude of the Irish toward honesty and transparency? Will the next generation who have not grown up under a Catholic talliban type system be more honest than their parents and grandparents?

  12. @Desmond

    I didn’t know you were a student 🙂

    To my mind your perspective is too negative. Yes, there are some bad apples in our political system; but there are also a large number (the majority) of our politicians who do their best to represent citizens. It’s not the quality of the individual that bothers me, it’s the system that promotes the style of governance that we have.

    Of course, it’s easy enough to find examples of where voters are electing/re-electing politicians that ideally shouldn’t be in the system. But we both know that the reasons for that are likely to be wide-ranging and to involve more than (or even factors entirely other than) the desire to reward a crooked politician.

    • I am a student but alas not of yours. I’m a PPH student at Birkbeck, in a few months I’ll be a Masters student and then my PhD, with of course
      world domination to follow.

      I’m not sure I agree that the majority of our
      politicans are doing their best, or rather they are
      but their best doesn’t come remotely close and I don’t think the system is the reason.

      It can’t be that they don’t read all the comments
      about issues and yet for example, not one single TD or Senator has been honest enough to publish receipt for the expenses they claim. Not one. Why is that?

      Then when you examine the complete failure of goverance across every single part of government, is that all due to the system or is it not due to the poor calibire of people in the system.

      Is it credible that they genuinely don’t know right from wrong or why they are held in such low esteem.

      If I were elected would I suddenly start justifying why I refused to provide receipts or start being evasive when asked a direct question? I would like to think not, so why does this afflict so many members of the Oireachtas?

      I think a very fine PhD thesis would be assesing the credibility of an argument about the majority of a country (the majority of Irish people never raised any objection to the power of the church or the domination of Fianna Fáil, despite knowing the consequences of not doign so, and indeed of doing so, and were far happier to remain in denial than make a stand), suffering from Stockholm Syndrone – in Ireland’s due to religious abuse and then political abuse?

      • Would the long overdue reform of second level religious education (with the outdated Catholic dominated morality focus) help? Perhaps replacing religion and CSPE courses with social, political studies and ethics or philosophy?

        Combine these type courses with lowering the voting age and perhaps the issue of lauding the chancer would be reduced. It is often said that young people are ruthless!

      • @Desmond @Ciara

        I’m more with C than D: I’m sure it’s the optimist in me, but I prefer a language of hope — that change can matter — to the position that it’s all hopeless and we’re going to hell in a handbasket.

        Sure it would be great if a TD would break ranks and publish full accounts, though (as we’ve seen in earlier posts on this site) some (e.g. Leo Varadkar) are at least starting to make moves in that direction. But what would clearly force the issue would be a rule change requiring all TDs to do this: i.e. institutional change driving behavioural change.

        And I certainly think we’re well beyond the stage of needing to move the last vestiges of Roman Catholic influence from our schools. As Ciara suggests, far better/more relevant to have politics than religion at secondary level, and while we’re at it let’s give our younger citizens the voice they deserve and open up votes to 16 year olds.

  13. Thanks for your response to my question about quota’s!

    I have just one more question. In the lecture on Thursday you said that the PR-STV system which has been electing TD’s to the Dail since 1922 was founded largely on ignorance. That is people didn’t have an extensive understanding of the different electoral systems available. On two occassions (1959&1968) a referendum has taken place to propose the replacement of PR-STV and on each occassion the Irish electorate has vehemently rejected the proposal. Given the fact that education about the electorate system is not exactly a priority in this country and people seem to have very little understanding/interest in the effects that the electoral system has on the political system, what do you think it is that motivates people’s apparent attachment to PR-STV?

    • What I was referring to in the lecture was how little the political elite knew about electoral system design when they opted for STV in the first constitution (e.g. see Con O’Leary on the Dail debates). They seemed to think that STV was ‘PR’; there was little if any awareness of the potential of PR list systems that were in use right across Europe at that time.

      There are various reasons why the Irish voters rejected the previous referenda, but high on the list was likely to be the choice they were been offered, namely to replace STV with the disproportional British first past the post system. Not a system to go for!

      • David, I’m wondering (not having perused those same debates in detail) whether use of “PR” as a synonym for “STV” was as much a result of a political decision taking List-PR off the table as options, as of ignorance?

        I mean, no one would accuse Enid Lakeman of lack of awareness of List systems, yet when she wrote about “the Proportional Representation Society” or “The Case for Proportional Representation” she most definitely meant STV.

        In the 1920s, no “British Empire” dominion, as far as I know, recognised political parties in law: all were unincorporated private associations, and party labels were not shown on the ballot paper (instead it just said, eg, “James Smyth, Gentleman, of 127/A Fotherington Gardens). By contrast, in Continental Europe (as in the US), parties had had legal recognition from at least the early 1900s and in some countries had official involvement in the nomination process – even before the post-1918 shift to List-PR. Indeed, some writers (AM Carstairs) suggest the pre-existing legal regime made List-PR seem the obvious choice in Europe. Switzerland, I believe, did not even change the method by which Nationalrat ballots were cast when it adopted PR – only the way votes were counted.

        It is ironic that, here in Australia, the first jurisdiction to legislate for recognition of political parties was STV-using Tasmania, and this change was in fact introduced by Neil Robson, a champion of the State’s Hare-Clark (STV) system (author of the ballot rotation system now copied by the ACT). Ironically, Australians inserted legal rights for parties into the federal Constitution in 1977 (giving a vacating Senator’s party, if any, a right to veto anyone the State Parliament might appoint to fill a vacancy) whereas ordinary federal legislation did not mention parties until registration and ballot labels were introduced in 1983-84.

  14. In the past decade, I believe the public became dis-engaged with politics, which is easy to do during boom years. However now that it has become apparent that Fianna Fáil were incompetent I believe people are a lot more interested with who they are electing and what their representatives intend to do for them. I feel the biggest re – engagement is found in our generation, the 20 – 30 year olds. We’re the people who will have to live with, and pay off the national debt for years to come.

    I feel that the most intelligent from this generation are veering towards political careers where before they would have sought out high paying careers in the private sector. My question therefore is do you think there is a niche to gather these young minds together to for a political party to challenge the current established parties?

    • I’m not convinced that a new party is the route to follow. It’s been tried before and hasn’t worked. The challenge for the established parties is to do more to channel the younger vote.

      I hope that you’re right that younger citizens are now more motivated to be active in politics: we need this! For the best work on the potential see Russ Dalton’s The Good Citizen, a pretty uplifting study.

  15. @Tom Round
    Interesting points. I’ve not looked at the Irish debates myself, but based on the summaries I’ve seen, the point seems to be that there was no reference to list systems (we might have expected at least some reference to it as an option). From what I recall of my reading of the Australian debates at the turn of the last century (which I have looked at in detail), reference (albeit passing) was made to the list systems as one option. I could well understand why Enid Lakeman, as a staunch campaigner for STV, might have elided STV into PR. She took no prisoners in pushing this system at each and every opportunity. The sense is that in the case of the Irish political establishment this was less intent than ignorance.

    Does a list system require the legal recognition of political parties? And what do you mean by legal recognition? For instance, Irish parties are legislated for in our electoral acts. According to Ingrid van Biezen’s research, the constitutionalization codification of political parties is a pretty recent phenomenon and in large part has been led by the new (third wave) democracies setting what’s perceived as ‘best practice’.

    • Point taken about Ms Lakeman but she wasn’t the only one. I recall columnists in (eg) the New Statesman, when the “Charter 88” push began two decades ago, writing things like “Well, it’s true that Proportional Representation [sic] is a complex system that requires the voter to number a dozen candidates, but there are better systems available to replace FPTP – eg, the Mixed Member System used in Germany.” (Quoting from memory.) In the UK, too, “PR” tended to mean “STV” from the early 1900s until the 1970s, when some writers and MPS began to propose the German or Finnish systems since STV was seen too much as a Liberal Party project. My recollection of Bogdanor, Hart and other sources is that list systems were not seriously considered in the UK at that time either.

      You’re entirely correct that a list system doesn’t require parties to be recognised by law. One could simply say “1. Candidates may be nominated. 2. Two or more candidates may demand to have their names grouped. 3. A vote for one candidate is a vote for the entire group.” Indeed, the first two sections are a rough summary of what Australian electoral law prescribed for the Senate from the 1930s onwards, as did the NSW Constitution Act from 1978, in both cases pre-dating legal recognition of parties (that is, as corporate entities with special privileges related to the electoral process – to nominate or endorse candidates, to control use of their ballot labels, to nominate or veto candidates to fill Upper House vacancies, to receive public funding per vote polled, to access otherwise confidential electoral roll data, and so on. In return, they usually require a set number of voters and/or elective officials as members to become and stay registered. Of course, Australian law did recognise parties before 1983 but only in the same general sense as a stamp club or other voluntary association).

      I’m a bit puzzled by Ms van Biezen’s claim (as quoted here). Germany led the way as early as 1949 with its postwar Basic Law requiring, eg, democratic internal organisation and public accounting for funds received, together with a power for the court to ban anti-constitutional parties. And of course the USA had prescriptive codes in most States as early as the 19th century.

      • By the way, would it be correct to say that the Dáil electoral system (especially ballot structure) could in principle be transformed into something like the “Australian mainland Upper House” system (candidates grouped and ranked by party, a ticket-voting option, vacancies filled by parliamentary appointment with a veto for the original candidate’s party) by ordinary statute? Optional preferences would, of course, be deemed implied by the Irish Constitution (both right to vote and “single transferable vote”), but even then this applies to some extent (a voter or party ticket must preference at least as many candidates as there are seats) for the NSW and Victorian Legislative Councils, unlike their WA and SA counterparts and the federal Senate.

        Whatever the faults of the “mainland upper houses” arrangement on this great continent, no one could accuse it of promoting excessive localism or intra-party competition. The NZ Royal Commission two decades ago proposed a similar system as its second choice after MMP (while simultaneously waring that expecting voters to express coherent second choices was a big ask, which was why the Commission deemed STV inferior to MMP… Anyway).

        So, given that changing to European-style de jure List-PR would require a Constitutional amendment by referendum, whereas changing to Australian-style de facto List-PR under the guise of STV requires (at the end of the day) a simple majority in the Dáil and no more, I am very curious why Irish politicians seemed to have reversed their myopia of the 1920s and to be focusing on list-PR to the exclusion of STV alternatives.

      • Political parties are connrcteations of power. Anything that concentrates power into the hands of particular groups takes power away from the people at large. People will move in groups. There’s nothing we can do about that. But we don’t have to institutionalise it.I don’t really understand your second point. We’re discussing parliamentary systems. My point was that there is nothing miserable about AV. It’s a significant upgrade to what we have, fixing many of the problems with FPTP, without getting us stuck in the rut of a more proportional, but ultimately unsatisfactory, system.

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