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 http://www.danielsullivan.ie/blog/?p=1750
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 http://www.daniesullivan.ie/blog