Electoral reform to increase female representation

Liam Weeks*

It is widely recognised that adoption of a (closed) list electoral system would give political parties the power to increase the number of women in the Dáil. Women could be placed at the top of each party’s list of candidates, thus guaranteeing their election. However, if we are to see electoral reform, it is unlikely to be towards a closed list system. Few among the political elite seem in favour of it, it would require a referendum that would be difficult to pass, and it may have a number of undesired consequences.  Instead of this, a far easier change would be to modify the current STV system towards the Australian Senate-style model of STV.

Since the basic principle would remain the single transferable vote, neither a constitutional convention nor a referendum would be required. A piece of legislation could bring about such a change.

The Australian system I refer to is detailed in the sample ballot below. Each party’s list of candidates is provided in separate columns, with a thick black line separating party and candidate. Voters can choose to vote above the line in which case they indicate their parties of preference, thus approving the parties’ ranking of their respective candidates. Voters can also vote below the line for candidates, thus allocating their preferences to whichever candidate(s) they wish, thus retaining the element of intra-party choice that is lost under a closed list system.

In Australia, almost 95 per cent of voters vote above the line, approving the parties’ ranking of candidates. This means that whoever is at the top of the parties’ list of candidates is guaranteed election. If adopted in Ireland, parties could use this form of ticket voting to get more women elected. Indeed, in Australia there are more women in the Commonwealth Senate (35.5%) than the lower House of Representatives (24.7%). According to the Inter-Parliamentary Union, only 6 national upper houses have more female members than the Australian Senate. This might be entirely unrelated to the electoral system, but adoption of this Australian Senate-style STV in Ireland, assuming most voters would choose to vote above the line, would give parties the power to increase female representation, without the need for a referendum or gender quotas.

*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.

25 thoughts on “Electoral reform to increase female representation

  1. Oh dear, here we go again. Liam, the matter is so childishly simple. If the leaders of our political parties wanted, needed or whatever, more members of the other gender in politics, they would arrange it so – within the framework of our existing ‘charming’ electoral system. Stick it to the leaders Liam. Now if they witter on about it, you know immediately they have little or no interest in the matter whatsoever. Which is what I suspect is the case.

    You cannot correct a voluntary biased situation by the imposition of a mandatory negative bias against the other, other gender. Its un-democratic!!!


  2. But at what cost, Liam? The Australian ‘above the line’ variant of STV is a particularly extreme form of closed list PR. Not only does my preferred party (i.e. The party I give my preference to above the line) get to determine how my vote will elect it’s candidates, through preference swaps with the other parties my party also determines how my vote affects the electoral fate of those parties’ candidates too. In one fell swoop Ireland would move from having probably the most ‘open’ of electoral systems in the world to having probably one of the most ‘closed’. Do we really want to move to a system where the parties entirely rule the roost?

    • Did anyone ever coednsir electoral reform introducing STV while retaining existing single member constituencies?BillAre you completely happy with the FPTP two-party system, or would you like to see some kind of change?While coednsiring STV I realized how it might help me to vote and how it may help candidates to run the platform of their choice. I realized this could be achieved even in one member constituencies.With STV I could risk voting for a party that may represent a particular issue close to my heart. However, realizing that this party may not yet or may never have broad enough support to win I could ask the tellers to transfer my vote to one of the mainstream parties.The way this would help me and my cause would be as follows:First I get to place my first vote for an issue that is important to me, and have it recorded as such. Second, if the government further adopts the Chretien formula and donates $3.00 per year per vote for every vote this party gets then I also make an annual donation to this party allowing it to grow, or at the very least allow it to continue to raise the issue that concerns me. Even a candidate who loses may be able to continue to be politically active full time if they gain as many as 10,000 votes giving them a coednsirable income.Furthermore a losing runner-up candidate may very well continue to operate a constituency office. A green party member, to mention just one example, may continue to be active part time if he gained two thousand votes, to help pay for equipment, time off from work, or to travel and attend meetings, carry on research, or document activities.The voter will no longer have to fear that voting for a minor party may mean that the mainstream party of his choice will lose. The candidate in turn will not have to fear that all his time and effort are wasted in case he loses. And third it can help a politician continue to develop his skill and knowledge of the economy and constituents even if he cannot make it into the legislature. Fourth, constituencies will remain sufficiently small to allow even small parties to get the attention of the constituents. And in extreme cases dissatisfaction with mainstream party candidates or parties can lead to the complete displacement of the party in some ridings with less risk.Bill, how do you feel about STV with single member constituencies supplemented with a Chretien formula?

  3. David, I’m not overly committed to any voting system, but if the parties are as committed to increasing female representation as they claim, then they should consider all options. From a purely cynical viewpoint, if I was a party strategist it would also be a far more preferable type of STV.
    In addition, for those not enamoured with independents, this form of STV would probably eliminate most of them from the Dáil.

    • Liam, I’m delighted, my twin goals of eradicating independents and increasing the number of women in the Dail, all through this one change!

      • “Eradicating Independents”
        You are joking, of course.
        On second thoughs, perhaps you are not!
        How democratic is that?

        Am I correct in interpreting this comment – if serious – means that you favour political party members as the only people worthy of being elected?

        And thus you favour any electoral system that produces that result – provided women are included?
        So Mary Robinson (yes, ran backed by Labour, but not a Party member for about 9 pyears before that, if I remember correctly) could not have been elected President.

  4. Irish voters with “open” STV have a power that UK voters, with first past the post, Australian voters with “closed” STV and continental voters, mainly with list systems, lack. Irish voters can really choose their own representatives. As well as choosing the party or,indeed parties, they can choose their representatives for other reasons,including gender, religion, sexual orientation or anything else.

    Let the people choose! If irish voters want more women, they will vote for them. Don’t give up the voters’ power to the politicians.

  5. Liam, a variation on the Sainte-Laguë method to allocate overhang seats as was used recently in the Baden-Württemberg state elections but modified slightly for multi seat PR-STV as I outlined on this site last December (but which no one engaged with) could offer the public more choice but without costing those parties that would offer more choice later seats as happens at present with PR-STV.

    There is more clearer detail in
    this version of the post

  6. Does anyone have a link to actual empihirical evidence that women are actively prevented from becoming candiates by parties as opposed to not putting themselves forward because of the perception that they will face obstacles to being selected and are those barriers not of their own making ie if you want to be a politician it requires making choices and perhaps women are not willing to make those choices in the first place ie you cannot have it all and you cannot be a full time stay at home women at the same time as having a full time career – so something has to give?

  7. Interesting idea. Basically one would be manipulating the PR-STV voting system, still staying within the constitutional requirement for PR-STV elections, so that we’d largely end up with a closed PR-list system.

    I’ve looked at the Australian Senate electoral system before (whilst on a fruitless search for some country other than ourselves and Malta that used PR-STV in a main parliamentary chamber). Unfortunately the Australian example isn’t really PR-STV in any practical sense. If my memory serves me correctly, the Australian states require a voter to rank every single candidate on their ballot paper in preferential order if the voter casts a vote “below the line”. There can easily be 50 or 60 or even more candidates on the ballot. If a voter misses even a single name his vote is deemed invalid. It’s therefore not surprising that circa 95% of voters simply put a “1” in a party box, rather than exhaustively ranking all candidates from, say, 1 to 60.

    At any time, there will be six seats available for election in each state. If a voter, for example, only needed to give preferences for a minimum of 6 candidates for a valid vote, then this laxer requirement would probably ensure a far greater percentage of voters would go “below the line”.

    List systems would probably be friendlier to quotas whether formal or informal. But as has been pointed out already such systems do tend to give greater control to party leaderships. The executive particularly dominates the legislature in this country. Our current PR-STV electoral system, whatever it’s faults, is one of the few things working against this trend. Something closer to a closed list system for the Dáil would probably only magnify this dominance further.

    Perhaps there’s a certain argument for this in the Seanad (if this is kept). Depends on what form of Seanad (if any) we end up with. One could go with a relatively less powerful body aiming to be somewhat less party political. In that case the Australian Senate electoral system is explicitly party political and disadvantages independents. Therefore wouldn’t be in favour of it in this case. But one could alternatively go with a powerful directly elected Seanad, with strong powers to block legislation, indeed very much like the Australian Senate itself. Then perhaps an electoral system like the one you propose might be acceptable (at least if the ridiculous requirement to have to rank every single candidate was removed). The Australian Senate is structured in such a way as that often it is controlled by opposition parties. In this case this powerful second chamber is in itself a strong check on executive dominance. Therefore, I suppose, the issue of greater party control of candidate selection is less of an issue.

  8. Liam,
    To illustrate how this could work out – not just for women -, perhaps you would care to use the results of the 2002, 2007 and 2011 General Elections, with some assumptions, to simulate what the outcomes might have been, if the Australian Senate STV system had been used.

    As an example of how this might be done, I refer you to D. de Buitléir’s simulation of the much-pushed MMP (German type) electoral system using the results of 1987 General Election in Electoral Reform – A Red Herring?

    Click to access 1987-09-Administration-35-2-Electoral-Reform.pdf

  9. @ DFitz.

    Its a little bit of ‘everything’. You have to be very single-minded, and have fiercly loyal support, both domestic and within the local party structure. I would not use the term ‘prevented’ to describe why women eschew politics; its more of a very uphill struggle. And women do actually have more choices than men, so being a politician is really only a viable option if you are the close relative of a sitting TD and want to follow on. The other critical factor in most constituencies is your geographic location. You have to have a clearly defined ‘power base’ to get your votes from. Apart from all that you have to have the stamina to stand around all night in ‘earnest conversation’ with the local ‘movers and shakers’ who generally have no homes to go to!


  10. Very good assessment by the National Women’s Council of Ireland in 2002 – not much has changed since ….

    Click to access irpol4.pdf

    The four C’s preventing greater female involvement in politics are: Childcare, culture, cash and confidence and perhaps a fifth is candidate selection.

    Childcare: why should the political system have to adjust to the childcare needs of its members anymore than any other employment sector – if you want to be a bus driver you make childcare arrangements, if you want to be a doctor or a teacher or a road sweeper. So why should the political process be expected to be run around the needs of childcare? If you want to be a politician shouldn’t you have the skill to organise proper childcare yourself – I assume all those women who want political careers who have children must have a husband or partner or why don’t they get those partners to carry their fair share of childcare – who is it expecting the woman to be the one to do all the compromising?

    Culture, as above, men do not guilt trip other men for working long hours to provide for their family or have a career and men accept they can’t have it all so where does the culture expecting a women, not to have it all but rather do it allo come from? It’s other women, it’s housewife mothers tut tutting when their daughters, with full time jobs, don’t do the same type of housework they did, when they had all day to do it etc?

    Cash? Do men starting out on a political career get some special access to cash that women don’t and do they do it in a vacumn that they don’t have to consider family ie does a man mortgage the family home to pay for his campiagn without his wife or partner agreeing?

    Are we seriously to believe it was only male politicians who received backhanders and that all women paid for their campaigns honestly? Funny that given not one single person, make or female or any party or none has ever published verifable accounts for how they fund their campaigns.

    Confidence, doesn’t this come from the family – as in how parents treat their children and infer some are more entitled than others? I grew up in a home with complete equality where we were all told we can be whatever we want to be and do whatever we put our minds to – is that so unusual?

    Also, candidate selection. Is it true that a women can’t canvass support in her party and stand at a selection convention and do party HO really take steps to prevent women being selected? I don’t think so.

    I really don’t think there are as many barriers put up by the political system as is implied – certainly the system needs reform and it’s ridiculous that it still acts like a 19th century gentleman’s club but that’s a different issue to it preventing more female involvement in politics?

    Men are effected by cash and culture and confidence too.

    @ Brian; yes, but the location issue affects everyone equally, if they don’t select you as you’re from the wrong area, does it matter if you are a man or a woman?

  11. > “If a voter misses even a single name his vote is deemed invalid”

    Finbar is nearly correct. Last time I looked, the rule was (I think) that a voter had to number 90% of the candidates. Faced with a choice between placing a “1” for a ticket above the line, or (usually) 50-60 consecutive and unrepeated numbers for individual candidates below the line, it is hardly surprising that 90% of Australian voters prefer to save time and avoid the risk of accidentally invalidating their vote. Interestingly, in Tasmania and the ACT – where voters are accustomed to STV-PR with rotated ballots (like the Senate format but no “above the line”, optional preferences provided you number at least as many candidates as there are seats, and different versions of the ballot-paper printed to cancel out the effect of the donkey vote) – the percentage is “only” 80-85%, which implies that electoral architecture can change the political habits of all but 10-15% of the populace.

    I have long wondered why Ireland doesn’t introduce party-grouping of candidates (and random order of groups, and of candidates within each group). Coming from what might be called the “R’s end” of the alphabet, I am not a fan of alphabetical listing. Rotating the ballots as in ACT/ Tasmania does cost more and makes it slightly harder to count, but it does ensure that parties cannot hand safe seats on a platter to their machine boys and girls (of whom there are no shortage in the Australian Senate), and also makes it slightly harder for minor parties to take a seat with less than a full quota (in party-list terms, rotation makes the result more like D’Hondt than like highest-remainder).

    I would not die in a ditch to fight against party-ranking of candidates’ order in the ballot as long as preferences are optional and there is no ticket-voting. But ticket-voting is a bad, bad idea. For the Senate and the mainland upper houses it has at times let minor parties win a seat with 1-2% of the total vote, simply because no one knows who they are. The major parties use them as “filler” on their tickets so they can put their main rivals last. When ALP voters in Victoria in 2004, for example, found that they had elected Steve Fielding of Family First (an amicable male version of Nadine Dorries), at the expense of a Green candidate, because the Labor Party backroom boys had gotten too clever with their tactical ticket-preferencing tricks, there was a lot of grumbling. Unfortunately these sort of odd results tend (or are used) to discredit “PR” or at least “STV” as a whole, even though the Proportional Representation Society of Australia supports STV without ticket-voting and even though ticket-voting was devised by party heavies who despise PR but can’t think of a better way to elect the Senate.

    • @Tom

      Very interesting! My knowledge of the ins and outs of the Australian politics is fairly sketchy. 90% isn’t all that different from 100% though. The group ticket setup heavily relies on human nature: the laziness of the typical voter! 🙂 Better voter awareness of PR-STV does marginally help things. But it’s still tough going to rank 50-60 candidates regardless. I’d suspect a much laxer definition of what constitutes a valid vote would dramatically alter voter behaviour in Senate elections. As you mentioned, Tasmania in PR-STV elections to its own main chamber only requires 5 preferences (number of seats in a constituency) for a vote to be valid. I’d guess that, if this was rule for Senate elections, then most people would go “below the line” and ignore the group ticket section completely. But party bosses very much prefer the current setup.

  12. Above-the-line voting is a dangerous subversion of STV (see How to ruin STV by David Hill, Voting Matters, v1n12, Nov 2000).
    It is important that people are on their guard against the introduction of any alluring proxy-voting scheme, even if gender balance is the noble goal behind it.

    • Particularly when there is no need to introduce ticket-voting to give gender quotas under STV. Instead it is simple to specify that (say) “as close as practicable to 40% of seats shall be reserved for each gender”, so that in a five-seat race, if and once three male candidates have been elected, all remaining males are summarily defeated; or, from the other end, if and once the number of continuing and/or elected female candidates is reduced to just two, then no further female candidates can be eliminated; they stay in the count until they amass a quota or are elected on a near-quota.

  13. Pingback: Quotas for Votas | Daniel Sullivan - he’s a little political

  14. What David Hill said.

    Two more pernicious effects of ticket-voting:

    1. it makes Australian “mainland upper house” “closed-list STV” (ie, Senate and the State Legislative Councils in Victoria, South Aust, Western Aust and to some extent NSW) one of the world’s few electoral systems that actually encourages vote-splitting. (The only others are some South American List-PR systems that use Hare quota and largest remainders).

    As Irish politicians know well, if your party has 42% while its smaller rival has 11% then in a five-seat race you are much better off dividing your first-preference votes as equally as possible (14% each) than have them cumulate successively on the party’s highest candidates (up to 42% for the highest, with the surplus distribution making this 25.33% for the second highest and leaving only 8.67% for the third). It is significant that the only time one side of politics has won 4 out of 6 Senate places was in Qld 2004 when the Liberals and Nationals ran separate tickets.

    2. A reform that was originally supposed to help manage the problem of large numbers of candidates has actually exacerbated that problem. Your party only gets a square above the line, and its own column below the line, if it stands two or more candidates (although sitting Senators can have one if they run as Independents). It is much easier for a small party or even an independent to get ballot visibility by adding a second or third candidate. Not only does a lone candidate (party-endorsed or not) get shoved in he “ungrouped” column – which by law always goes at the end, on the far right of the ballot-paper – but s/he can only be voted for by citizens who are willing to number dozens of candidates carefully; s/he also loses the ability to direct his/her preferences via a voting ticket. So, naturally, small parties and independents who before 1984 might have stood one candidate (incurring a small disadvantage in electoral visibility to save a deposit) now find that a deposit is worth paying, and even forfeiting, to avoid a massive loss of electoral visibility that is incurred when you run only one candidate. (Even Independents sometimes put up a running mate for this reason.)

    Candidates of very small parties (NDP in NSW 1987, FF – that’s Family First, I rush to clarify) do win Senate seats with a primary vote of only 1-2% when they have their own column and ticket. But no ungrouped candidate has ever come close to winning a Senate seat since 1984.

  15. Why has no-one considered that a change to the Australian electoral system could solve Ireland’s economic woes?
    After all, since so many (but not on this website I would hasten to add) were keen to claim that the electoral system was responsible for the economic crisis, the obvious logic of this argument is to adopt the electoral system of a prospering economy.
    Australia has remained largely unscathed by the global financial crisis. Was this because of its Alternative Vote and STV systems? The British electorate obviously didn’t think so.

  16. “The British electorate obviously didn’t think,” full stop. The crap quotient for that particular referendum (“Australia has to use electronic voting machines to handle AV!” “AV leads to hung parliaments and coalitions formed after the election!” “AV lets extremist parties’ supporters have their votes counted up to SIX (6) TIMES!!! – Even after those parties have won seats and the balance of power!” etc etc) was high by world standards. And I say that even as someone who witnessed Australia’s 1988 and 1999 referendum campaigns.

    To be fair to Liam, it is possible that with fully optional preferences among candidates (which the experts seem to think would be constitutionally mandatory in Ireland), group voting tickets would have less of a steamroller effect than in Australia, for two reasons:

    (a) Because it’s easier to vote below the line – in fact, physically as easy as voting above it (although a “1” will exhaust rather than be treated as a blank cheque even unto the 50th or 60th preference) – fewer people will throw up their hands in confusion and “just tick one” to avoid a risk of spoiling their ballot.

    (b) In turn, the fewer people who vote above the line, the more incentive to vote below since there is a greater chance that taking 10 minutes to write down 50-60 numbers (as opposed to 10 seconds to write one number) will actually affect the result. At present, it is only the political “anoraks” who bother numbering candidates as a point of principle, since these never affect the order of candidates within a party ticket and only very rarely, in extremely close races, affect the distribution of seats among parties. By contrast, in AV races without tickets, and a manageable number of candidates to number (albeit you must number them all, or all but one), many ordinary voters I’ve talked to do take some pride in deciding their own preferences – they don’t always follow a party ticket (since this means “Copy[ing] Numbers Exactly” from a how-to-vote leaflet).

    Having said that, if preferences are fully optional, the (publicly-stated) rationale for ticket-voting – viz, to reduce the number of spoiled ballots – dissipates, although the (real) motive for using ticket voting – viz, to give party apparatchiks as much control over who gets elected as is consistent with a formal system of popular suffrage – remains as powerful as ever.

    I note that the NZ Royal Commission’s 1987 report proposed, as second choice, STV with fully optional preferences, party-ranked groups AND ticket-voting. However the NZRC’s Report did exhibit a rather paranoid fear of “candidates competing against others of the same party” at the ballot-box, so they are not my go-to guys on the question of how best to maximise voters’ freedom of choice.

  17. Liam, I have wondered the same thing – why Irish politicians don’t try to bring in party-grouping and/or party-ranking by amending the Electoral Act, rather than trying to bring in party lists by amending the Constitution. See my comments at Matthew Shugart’s Fruits and Votes blog .

  18. Liam, I have previously wondered the same thing… why Ireland’s politicians don’t focus on trying to bring in party-grouping (with or without party-ranking), which would only require changing the Electoral Act by legislation, rather than trying to bring in party lists, which would require changing the Constitution by referendum. See, eg, my comments here http://fruitsandvotes.com/?p=3860 at Matthew Shugart’s Fruits & Votes blog.

  19. Oh, and my personal favourite from the UK No2AV campaign:

    “It’s not fair that under AV, only minor party supporters get their second and third preferences counted!”

    There are only three ways, rationally, to understand such a complaint:

    (1) The speaker believes that if the first preferences go (eg) Labour 45%, Conservative 41%, Others 14%, then the final runoff is determined solely by the Others’ preferences. Ie, if these split 6% to Labour and 8% to Conservative, then the Conservative wins even though Labour would have 51% of the total votes. Ludicrous to anyone who knows anything about voting systemes, but I did indeed come across a few commenters in the blogosphere who seemed to think this is how AV works, and I wonder how big an iceberg was beneath this tip.

    (2) The speaker believes that a major party candidate should be eliminated – even when s/he isn’t the lowest in the count – so that his/her supporters can enjoy the surpassing pleasure of seeing their ballots transferred to second preferences. I cannot believe that even a Tory Peer is so stupid as to think that is an advantage to throw away your first preference to get your second preference elected.

    (3) The speaker believes that major-party preferences should be counted even while the said candidate still remains in the running. Thus, if the Tories have (eg) 42% while UKIP has 10%, you should add an extra (say) 35% to the UKIP column if five-sixths of Conservative voters have put them second. Of course, this creates a risk that if UKIP voters didn’t reciprocate – if, say, 95% of them plumped – then their second preferences would only push the Conservative up to 42.5%, where s/he would be beaten by the UKIPper – now on 45% – with the help of the Conservative’s own second preferences. True, there are voting systems out there that do this, but rarely as blatantly. Borda reduces the weight of second preferences; Approval Voting disguises first and second preferences as indistinguishable ticks; Condorcet gives at least some priority to first over second preferences. If AV worked the way the naysayers would have to think it should work (something like the Bucklin system, which was tried and quickly abandoned by some US cities in the 1930s), it would be a perverse system.

    In other words, anyone who repeated this particular much-repeated objection to AV is either a sophist or a mathematical illiterate.

    Mind you, we are talking about a country that took nearly a century to update its calendar from Julian to Gregorian.

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