Since 2011 may be the last general election by PR-STV in Ireland (if some of the political parties get their way), it is worth looking at the value of the transferable nature of the vote. This is one particular feature that makes STV so voter-friendly and yet its value is sometimes dismissed by media commentators.
For example, there appears to be a myth that transfers don’t matter to candidates – that they need to be ‘in the frame’ after the first count, that is, in a winning position (top 3 places in a 3-seat constituency, top 4 in a 4-seat constituency and so on).
On RTE’s News at One yesterday Seán Donnelly said that only 11 candidates ‘outside the frame’ managed to win seats in 2011. The inference was that transfers affected only these 11 seats and not the 154 others.
This misses a crucial point. Just because the decisive places in the contest were not altered between the first and final count does not mean that transfers don’t matter. It is candidates’ ability to attract transfers that ensures they don’t slip out of the frame. For example, only 22 candidates were elected on first preferences alone. 14 others were within 0.1 of a quota after the first count. If we assume that these 36 candidates would have got elected without any further transfers, this means that 129 candidates needed transfers to win a seat. If they did not receive any they would all have fallen out of the frame.
The importance of transfers can best be observed by considering the cases of Fianna Fáil and Sinn Féin candidates, who were deemed ‘transfer-toxic’, but for different reasons. Sinn Féin had 5 candidates one place outside the frame and 2 that were 2 places off. Two candidates (John Brady and Larry O’Toole) fell out of the frame between the first and final counts.
12 Fianna Fáil candidates were one place outside the frame after the 1st count, with 9 candidates 2 places off. In addition, two candidates (Chris Andrews and Brendan Kenneally) were both inside the frame but slipped out come the final count. None of these 23 candidates could win a seat because they could not accrue enough transfers (even though some had a running mate). There were two exceptions to this pattern within Fianna Fáil. Both John Browne and Robert Troy were out of the frame after the first count but got back in via transfers (Browne had one running mate and Troy two). Troy’s feat was all the more remarkable considering he had barely over one-third of a quota on the first count.
Transfers do matter. Where at previous elections some of the 23 Fianna Fáil candidates might have attracted enough transfers to win a seat, this time round the electorate let it be known that Fianna Fáil was not their second preferred party (or even their third). Eliciting such information from voters is vital in the composition of a Dáil that most accurately reflects the will of the nation. This is something that should be considered when electoral reform is discussed in the new Dáil.
*Liam Weeks is an IRCHSS CARA Fellow at Macquarie University, Sydney. His research is funded by the Irish Research Council for the Humanities and Social Sciences with co-funding from the European Commission.