Alternatives to lists and quotas to reduce clientelism and offer the electorate more diverse voting options

Guest Post By Daniel Sullivan

In this piece, I’m going to try to outline two of the problems in how the electoral system currently functions, coupled with some of  the practical realities that accompany them, and then suggest two forms of electoral change that would actually address those problems. These problems and from which almost all others, in my view, stem is a lack of real diversity being offered to the electorate in our parliamentary and local administrative elections and a surfeit of clientelism.

I will start with the latter. 1) Clientelism Excessive clientelism in Irish political life is a very real problem we have to face up to. However, we need to recognise that clientelism is not the result of the PR-STV system but is rather a potentiality that exists if the electorate are so minded to reward it. I will confine myself initially with clientelism at the Dail level though the suggested solution outlined later could work for local administration elections.

Clientelism as a major problem which manifests when it is possible to get elected from simply doing stuff (letter writing, form filling, hand holding, funeral attending, and making calls for people) on a direct person to person level. It is, in some senses, a transactional issue; you are buying votes for work done for individuals who will in turn cast their ballots for you. In Irish elections, you are in the running for a seat if you poll over 6,000 first preference votes and almost guaranteed one if you poll over 8,000.

What we are presented with is a straight forward problem of scaling; make it sufficiently hard by raising the bar to get in the running for a seat in the Dail simply on clientelism alone and you will reduce the impact of clientelism on the governance of the country. Most see the solutions to this as reducing the numbers of seats so as to ensure higher quotas as a means to raise the bar sufficiently or remove the link between locality and representation via list systems. So how might we require that you still need considerably more votes than can be delivered through clientelism but not through reducing dangerously the numbers of parliamentary seats?

One solution that would require considerably more votes to get elected is that we have multi-vote overlapping geographical and non-geographically based constituencies. We’re familiar with the concept of panels with multiple voting from the Seanad. The idea is that each voter would have say 4 votes to cast in 4 overlapping constituencies that would each be electing only a quarter of the number of TD per head as now. The quota would be increased by a factor of 4 without incurring the problems associated with having too small a parliament. So we could have a West of Ireland constituency with 8 seats representing all the counties of the western seaboard with an electorate of 300,000 that also overlaps with a Munster constituency with 10 seats and so on. We could have constituencies for fishing, the Gaeltacht and other non-geographic profession or special interest constituencies based on other criteria. And in such a scenario with non-geographical constituencies we could then look to eliminate the Seanad.

2) Diversity and Broadening choice at election time. There is considerable attention given to the lack of diversity in the Oireachtas which derives entire from the lack of diversity is offered to the electorate. For many reasons, understandable but misguided, most of the attention is on purely the topic of gender diversity with the occasional nod towards the age profile of the parliament. The truth is that lack of diversity in representative politics is not simply gender specific but encompasses age, income, educational background, and shocking though it might be to consider, political opinion with many others. To focus solely on gender is to miss the core problem which is that it is the voters that cause the political parties to tack to the middle in terms of candidate selection. Our parliament should no more have a minimum target for female or male representation any more than it would have a maximum one.

The question is often asked why don’t parties run more women, more young people, more people who are gay, and even more openly ideological both left and right leaning. Yet the question is often asked more as a rhetorical device instead of looking at the reality of why parties don’t run broader slates of candidates. The truth is because they are ruled more by fear than adventure. The simple reason is because political party organisations as campaigning entities exist to win seats, and winning seats is again about numbers and the behaviour of the electorate.

In part the problem in Ireland is that winning seats, not alone above all but to the exclusion of all else, has been become the sole objective of the party organisations. Fundamentally this fear is down to how transfers work, one might think that running as broad a range would be the best option as it would ensure that everyone in an area has a candidate from a party whose policies they like that but who as an person they are also comfortable voting for. With our form of geographically based PR-STV that is not what happens, the votes leak from one party to another costing parties later seats that they should have won. Even FF who used to often run as many candidates as there were seats learned that with PR-STV seats are lost by running too many candidates as the transfers ebb away over the course of the counts.

My suggestion is that we could take a positive facet of a national list and have the total allocation of parliamentary seats to a party is to be based on national % of the 1st preference vote in excess of a minimal threshold of 3/4/5%. We then proceed to elect 75/80% of the Dail in the manner we are used to with thirty uniformly sized constituencies of 4 seats giving us 120 TDs. Then there are 30 seats to be distributed as mop-ups with the aim of having a chamber of 150 TDs that is fully proportionate with the national result. The mop up or top up is performed by deeming those candidates whose parties had sufficient national support to warrant election but who themselves didn’t finish in the top four in their constituencies. Very strong independents could continue to be elected by some areas as at present though there would not be an ‘independent’ list or top up element.

The first major change we will see is that parties will start run broader slates as every last 1st preferences counts the same in getting seat totals. The value of that smart female lecturer to the party who lives close to another party’s candidate isn’t progressively discounted by the elimination and transfer stages at the count take place; and the people still get to decide who is best placed to be elected not party hierarchies picking insider favourites. The mop up or top up is performed by deeming those whose parties had sufficient national support to warrant election. Independents could continue to be elected by some areas as at present though there would not be an ‘independent’ list or top up element. The aim of this system is to break down barriers; what happens after that remains in the hands of the prospective candidates and the electorate. In summary, we have real problems in our politics as a result of excessive clientelism and a lack of diversity at election time but we need to consider how any systemic changes would work in the environment that exists rather than under laboratory conditions. And we need to recognise that encouraging much more choice is better than seeking to restrict choice and that our ties to purely geographically based representation is blinding us to inventive but practical options to assist in combating clientelism.

A longer version of this post with examples is available at

Daniel Sullivan is a UL engineering graduate. As a member of Fine Gael he was a local election candidate for Dublin City Council in ’04 and independently for the NUI Seanad Panel campaigning amongst other issues on the need for electoral reform. He posts on


7 thoughts on “Alternatives to lists and quotas to reduce clientelism and offer the electorate more diverse voting options

  1. Firstly Dan, why aren’t you a candidate in the 2011 election?

    Secondly, PR STV is not the problem and getting rid of it is not the solution, I think the number of TDs pretty much exactly reflecting the number of votes a party gets is a good system.

    The problem is both the mentality of those elected and those who vote for them. In the next Dáil, the new government should bring in a rule that no TD is allowed to privately intervene on behalf of a constituent for any issue that they are legally entitled to ie if you are entitled to a medical card you are still entitled to it even if you are too lazy/stupid to apply for it yourself and ask a TD to and if you are not entitled to it but get one after a TD does something, then isn’t that fraud? Is it possible the HSE would approve a medical card for someone not entitled to because a TD pulls a stroke?

    Then for those TDs who do write to departments, they should have that contact made public and be charged the cost the State incurs by wasting time on such pointless letters to and fro.

    That would go some way to changing the mentality of TDs.

    Then for the public, they need to be educated on their rights and responsibilities by their local councils and the government, for example how many people actually know who to contact in the council if they want to get the grass cut or the lights repaired or whatever so a Direct.Gov site and phone for all areas of public services should be set up and every household should be sent an annual directory of public services each year – it can be paid for by advertising and/or included in the phone book or yellow pages.

    Also, far more stats on contacts to public services from the public and resolutions would be a start – I don’t see why we can’t find out for example how many phone calls to social welfare go unanswered or how long it takes for a letter to be responded to and the issue resolved etc. It’s not like any of them are competing commercially so the data is sensitive.

    I’m sure most of the people who contact a TD know full well they shouldn’t but are so frustrated trying to get someone to deal with their issue, that they know a TD will get to the person better than they can, so they contact the TD.

    As regards diversity. A primary system for each constituency where pretty much anyone who wants can put themself up for selection without the need for approval from head office and rules put in place for the selection convention to be publicly announced and for a candidate to have access to members’ lists – there’s no valid reason for anyone to keep being a member of a party a secret – or to keep it secret they have donated to that party either.

    By having a primary system this means people who are genuine about wanting to stand don’t need to go through the sexist/racist/homophobic old men/women in suits and backroom stuff and it gives the power to select candidates directly back to members of the parties and would make them have to actually think who they want to vote for instead of being like sheep.

    A freeze in salary and a complete cancellation of expenses and the removal from TDs of any say in the costs of a local office or Dáil staff, except for interviewing and deciding who to employ, and making the name and salary of the person public, would also go some way to attract people to politics, who know full well they are giving up the chance to make more money in the private sector, but give up some of their career to the public sector to do something for their country – not for financial gain.

    Do people like Kenny or Gilmore have the integrity to do any of the above? Of course not, Kenny doesn’t even have the integrity to get his party provide receipts for its expenses or to get former Ministers to stop claiming pensions – giving it to charity doesn’t cut it Mr Noonan. Then Mr Gilmore, like Martin McGuinness, won’t come clean with his IRA past and thinks it is right to say his wife getting hundreds of thousands from the State for land is not worth mentioning? These are the choices facing the Irish public?

    Don’t forget FG said in its policy document it would publish its party accounts in 2010 – it’s 30 Dec and still no sign of the accounts yet? If FG can’t/won’t even do that much, how can it be trusted to do the other things we need it to do, but the real gut wrencher is that FF/G & others have been so bad that there is simply no way they can be returned to office so by default FG/L are the only choice, not because they are worth the punt, but by virtue of the fact they are not FF/G – plus ca change for FG then.

  2. “Firstly Dan, why aren’t you a candidate in the 2011 election?” I won’t be a candidate for the Dail for a number of reasons but I won’t go into them here. I will post on my own site on that later.

    And I’ll give it a day or so to get the New Year out of my hair before returning to the other points you make, and perhaps if anyone else posts any comments (or even reads the post, what with it being the holidays) I’ll respond to them as well.

  3. Overlapping regional constituencies is an interesting outside-the-box idea. Same with your idea of panel style non geographical constituencies. I think non-geographic constituencies will become more and more feasible as internet/information technology gets better and better. At the moment there might still be the issue of how to canvass non-geographic constituencies. The university Seanad seats are a good example. I used to get ballots for these in the post every few years. But a big problem was that I didn’t know who most of the candidates were. These days it’s easier to just go online and check a candidate’s website and see what he stands for and what are his policies. I definitely think non-geographic constituencies of various types will be a thing of the future, as information/communications technology becomes increasingly powerful.

  4. The issue of so called “clientelism” is exagerated. First of all things have moved on a lot in the last few years, less clinics, more emails, less about potholes, more about NAMA and I could go on. The electorate is far more sophisticated than they are given credit for and since the abolition of the dual mandate, whereby TDs are no longer councillors, the public know where the power lies. If its a pothole, a broken light, an uncollected bin, a protest against a planning application, they in the main, and sometimes to the chagrin of TDs, but that’s progress, go to their local councillors.

    Secondly, the phrase “All Politics is local” was not coined by an Irish Politician, but an American, the late Tip O’Neill. People are human and their way of dealing with much experience is by looking for the particular in the universal, to borrow and reverse a phrase of my favourite poet Patrick Kavanagh. People live out their lives in local areas, so education policy for the voter comes down to will their be a school place for their child, or will the leaking roof in their child’s school be replaced. The TD takes these concerns and applies them to universal debates in the Dail, such as the need for planned education facilities to cater for our country’s children. Another example of how this works in practice is the Multi Units Development Bill passed through all stages in the Dail before Christmas. Its been called for in the Dail on a regular basis by TDs including myself since I was elected. Why because our constituents have told us about their negative experiences as dwellers in the numerous apartment complexes that have sprung up all over the country in the last few years. As the legislation went through the house, the input of TDs was informed by the stories there constituents told them.

    In Britain MPs have surgeries, they work at least as hard at constituency work as we do, David Milliband making a virtue of this on the community newsletters he links to on his website, when I last looked. In the recent survey carried out by TCD students for the Oireachtas All Party Committee on Constitutional Reform that looked at how TDs spend the time, the appendix attached to that report showed percentages of constituency work by members of parliaments in other countries, including ones where there is a mix of constituency and list TDs, that were comparable to the percentage of time that emerged for TDs. This was confirmed anecdotally for me by a German diplomat who explained list MPs in Germany do local work because to get on the list they need support from enough party members, who guess what, live their lives in local communities and are impressed with the man or woman with a good record of community work.

    So for me in relation to Clientelism as a perceived problem, I think it is fanciful to think that changes to the electoral system will change the fact that the voters will think it is their prerogative to contact their TDs about their issues, be they about their local area or ice melting in the North Pole. I believe our electoral system is not broken, but that it is far preferable to any alternatives that have been proposed, and I would oppose any attempt to change it. Finally the Seanad can provide a place for the type of alternative electoral mandate you are looking for above, but in the Dail everyone should be elected on the same basis in constituencies of roughly similar populations in every corner of the country, more or less what we have already.

  5. @Daniel Sullivan
    Was reading back over some older posts on this website and came across this post again. Actually, on re-reading this, I think you’re definitely onto something with some of your ideas. So decided to give some feedback. Six months is a long time! But hopefully better later than never!

    There’s a lot to be said for your second main idea: a top-up list based on 1st preferences that’s tagged onto our more usual PR-STV constituencies. That scheme seems basically to be a mixed member PR variant, with a perhaps 80/20% constituency/top-up ratio instead of the usual 50/50% mix (am not familiar enough with MMP to know if anything like this already exists elsewhere). I guess there’s no particular reason single-seat constituencies have to be used with the MMP electoral system.

    Picking candidates in the top-up component according to the actual votes they garnered in the constituency they ran in also has advantages. It avoids the need for a party controlled top-up list. And candidates only have to campaign within their own local constituency, reducing the need for more expensive regional campaigning. Your scheme for filling the top-up seats reminds me a little of swimming heats/semi-finals in the Olympics! 🙂 The top three in each semi-final automatically get through to the final, plus the two fastest times from the remaining swimmers. A swimmer might lose out, even after coming fourth, because of the vagaries of being drawn in a slow heat. Same with the your electoral scheme above. It’s not perfect. One might lose out because of the particular vagaries of the constituency one is in. But I guess it’s still reasonably fair.

    It’s an attractive MMP variant. If we ever adopt MMP here, it would be a good scheme to adopt (and for many of the reasons you set out in your longer blog article). MMP is not particularly favourable to independent candidates though. Your scheme does minimize party control. But a party still has the option of not running a candidate at all. Under our current PR-STV a snubbed candidate can still run as an independent “gene pool” candidate. Under your scheme such a black-listed candidate would have a far smaller chance of being elected as an independent. So there’s something of an increase in party control. But there is nevertheless the upside of increased proportionality in the electoral system itself (and as you say it’s no longer disadvantageous for party to run additional candidates).

    I do particularly like your idea of electors having multiple votes in overlapping constituencies. And I’m a fan of idea of of non-geographical constituencies (as previously advocated on this blog). Multiple overlapping votes could indeed be a good way of making this a more practical possibility in Dáil elections.

    I would have some practical reservations regarding the particular scheme you describe. IMO having 4 or 5 simultaneous overlapping votes is just a bit too much. This should probably be limited to a 3 maximum, or just 2 at once might be better.

    I’d also worry that the media/radio/newspapers would have difficulties covering large numbers of constituencies (geographical or non-geographical) at once. In my area the local media happily covers 4 nearby Dáil constituencies come general election time. I’m sure it could easily stretch to cope with more than this, perhaps up to 6 or 7 without undue problems. For 10 or more it gets quite cumbersome.

    You also mention the possibility of special interest non-geographical constituencies, e.g. fishing or the Gaeltacht or around particular professions. This type of categorization has always seemed a little artificial to me, or at least very difficult to regulate and administer. Who actually enforces the panel heading? The only practical possibility would be to allow the voters/candidates themselves to self-police the category. Allow voters to register for whatever non-geographical constituency they wish with no restrictions (same for candidates).

    IMO it would be simpler to randomly allocate voters to numbered constituencies. Or perhaps allocate voters to non-geographical constituencies according to some non-geographical personal attribute like year of birth, e.g. allocate all voters with a year of birth ending with the digit 1 to constituency 1 etc. (would be very easy to administer).

    The following would be one possible example of an electoral system using your notion of multiple votes, but taking some of these quibbles/preferences into account.

    For simplicity I’m going to assume a nice round figure of 160 Dáil seats. Everyone gets two votes at election time; one vote is for their usual local PR-STV constituency and the other vote for a non-geographical (kind of non-geographical anyway as will become apparent) constituency. This immediate ensures that an individual TD will represent twice as many people. The local constituencies must therefore be on average twice the size. This, by itself, might reduce clientelism to a degree.

    However, electing half of the seats, i.e. 80 TDs, via purely national non-geographical constituencies (in perhaps 16 five-seater constituencies) would be infeasible. IMO it would be more preferable to split up the country into four larger regions, i.e. along the line of the 4 European constituencies. In a regional there would be 20 local seats up for grabs (perhaps organized into 5 local 4-seaters) and 20 regional seats (maybe again organized into five 4-seaters). Voters could be randomly allocated to one of the regional “non-geographical” constituencies. Or perhaps voters with a birth year ending with digits 0 or 5 would be allocated to regional constituency number 0, voters with a year of birth ending with number 1 or 6 would be allocated to regional constituency number 1 and so on.

    This scheme would result in half of TDs being elected in what would in effect be European electoral constituencies. Their voting base would be widely dispersed over a very large area, i.e. a quarter of the country. There’s absolutely no way ordinary parish pump clientilism could still operate for these TDs at these scales. And even for the other 50% of TDs who are still elected in more traditional local constituencies, then they would now be covering double the number of constituents.

    I suppose there would be the downside of having TDs elected on two slightly different bases. Both electoral mandates, though, would be equally valid in terms of numbers represented. Obviously campaigning at regional level would be more expensive than at local level. But in some respects regional constituencies could be more attractive for ministers and other office holders.

    Lots of other schemes are possible though. One could, for example, group nearby 5-seater PR-STV constituencies into a larger regional group (perhaps into a group of 5 local constituencies). Everyone again gets two votes. They automatically get a vote in their local constituency. But they are also automatically allocated a vote in one of the other nearby constituencies in their regional grouping (perhaps randomly or maybe using something like the previously mentioned year of birth scheme). Again there would be no overall change in the number of constituencies nationally (we could still have 80 five-seat constituencies). But the make up of constituencies would be markedly different to what we have at the moment. Half of the electors in a constituency would still come directly from the local area. But the other half would be more thinly dispersed amongst four other nearby constituency areas. The advantage of this electoral scheme would be having all TDs elected using an identical system. Still think I prefer having separate local and regional constituencies rather than having single “hybrid” constituencies.

    Anyway, this reply became a good bit longer than planned (with a bit too much unnecessary detail 🙂 !) In summary, I feel your first main idea is a rather elegant variant of mixed-member PR (one that would work well in an Irish context). But your second main idea on multiple overlapping votes is IMO the most interesting notion in your post. It makes possible all kinds of interesting new electoral system configurations. There’s a lot of potential scope in it for reducing clientelism.

    • Finbar,

      I would agree that the pseudo panels I suggested have an element of artificiality and forcedness about them. In part that notion was coming from ideas I had toyed with for making the role and means of electing the Seanad distinctive so as to not duplicate the role of the Dáil. I had previous toyed with the idea of being able to use a form of electronic voting to have actually dynamic panels, using the returns of the previous census forms to ask people for what policy or topic areas they felt there should be a panel for (with some threshold of say 50K) being required. Thereafter the numbers elected to each panel would reflect the numbers who voted on that panel, with the voters being able to decide on Election Day what panel to vote on. It is a rather overly complex system I will admit but it made for an evolution of our much more rigid system with its strict adherence to geography.

      So I do agree with you there.

      As for this modified top up system, I had been thinking about a means to create a top up system that is not at the control of party HQ and only later found the Baden Wutternberg example which has the benefit of the number of top up seats not being too rigid. I’ve seen the behind the scenes of enough conventions to realise that many of the problems identified by those on the outside are not the real problems at all, but rather they are the manifestations of other different problems. A HQ controlled List system will lead us down the UK path of everyone in order to serve in cabinet needs to have attended not alone the right college but studied the same course – Philosophy, Politics and Economics (PPE) in the UK- and followed the same career path of SpAd and so up the ladder.

      I would agree that this system makes it harder for the out and out clientelist independent to get elected but it doesn’t impede a non-party candidate entirely unlike a pure list system would. My main aim was to avoid giving more control to the party (by which I generally mean the folks in HQ and in various positions of hierarchical authority) but I was also seeking to require of the voters some sort of policy focused consistency in making their choices. And we need to be more question of what exactly are our independents, independent from: parties and policies or cause and effect? As for the unfavoured party –black sheep – candidate if you will, I would suspect parties would recognise the incentive in this system for them to let them run and leave the decision in the hands of the voters.

      My feeling has been for a while is that too many people want system X or Y, for reasons of how the outcome would be changed by X or Y to favour their own personal or professional biases while considering the values inherent to the design and the implementation of electorate system X or Y to be much lower down the list of things to consider.

      A much neglected area of investigation is into why exactly so few people are bothering to contest conventions these days compared to times passed, it would seem at first glance that with OMOV systems it should be much easier to contest a convention and much more encouraged. Instead it seems that as it is much clearer to people long before the convention contest which way the vote is likely to go, so they simply don’t bother to run. Almost all of the votes are decided before the convention comes around at all.

      This is not in our interests as a nation that conventions are so frequently uncontested as it means that those who get to make policy decisions are determined by factors unrelated to ones ideas or political philosophy for the most part, rather the size of your extended family, nature of your personal relationships, geographical appeal an personal wealth are much more significant. It is almost as we have arrived at a situation where those standing for political office do not have much interest in politics at all. Rather they are most interested in and best suited for winning elections, what exactly they would do in office is to be determined by others, think-tanks, the civil service, various groupings in civil society – none of whom are directly accountable or answerable to the general public. It is a move closer to a form of corporate state than most would realise.

      My sincere thanks for the thoughts expressed and the effort in making the comment, I must admit to be being somewhat disheartened that pretty much nobody from the regular posters took any time to read not to mind actually comment on the post. I wasn’t expecting comments immediately given the timing of the post but to get no engagement at all. Well it pretty much solidified in my mind an impression that had been building for some time that the place of us lesser mortals where political reform is concerned is to merely to be the audience for our betters. And I think that is regrettable, after all the rest of us are citizens too.

      • @Daniel
        Thanks for the reply. Was wondering if you’d even spot my reply before it got swallowed up by other responses here!

        I suppose one of the upsides of our current electoral system is that TDs are at least drawn from a geographically distributed base that isn’t too concentrated in one particular socio-economic group, which is something that can’t be said about some of our other pillars of state, e.g. our judiciary, which is drawn heavily from a privileged upper-middle-class elite-private-school-educated background. And as you say, the backgrounds and career paths of UK MPs are becoming progressively narrower. The demise of the grammar school probably didn’t help much either. Party-controlled regional or national lists would probably have much the same effect here. As it is, our TDs aren’t drawn from a particularly wide base anyway, e.g. if one doesn’t have the correct surname one is already at a disadvantage.

        Your top-up system actually probably wouldn’t be all that disadvantageous to independents. As long as the minimum seat representation threshold wasn’t set too high, then loose political groupings of independent candidates, as were formed during the recent election, could be quite successful. Most independents wouldn’t have the resources to campaign at a regional or national level, and your scheme keeps campaigning local. And there’s no rigid and divisive list ordering that would make loose political organizations nigh impossible. If a loose grouping of independents did well enough to be allocated two seats, then the two members that polled relatively highest in their own areas would get the seats. Of course, “party gene pool” independent candidates might not find it so easy to really benefit and tag onto such groupings. But your system would be far from a disaster for more “genuine” independents.

        The example of Baden Wutternberg is interesting. I wasn’t previously aware of this.

        And some of your more general comments in the penultimate paragraph about the uncontested nature of our conventions and lack of interest in policy amongst our representatives I feel to be very true.

        Anyway, thanks for the discussion and for some interesting ideas!

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