OK United Kingdomites. You face a choice, and there is only one right answer. Your electoral system is a heap of horseshit. You can stick with being very poorly represented, or you can introduce a system which is better. Not a lot better, but better.
Look at what just happened to Canada. An unpopular Conservative government fell and the vote swung to the left – but the Conservatives got back in! The opposition was split between a centre and a left party, and though the left made huge gains, the centre one remained big enough to split the vote. That is your system, that’s what it does. It delivered a government that 3 in 5 Canadians despise.
As I guess anyone reading this already knows, Election 2011 is finally over. Seán Kyne of FG won the seat by, oddly enough, the same margin of 17 as before the recount. Though if anyone thinks that that is evidence of accuracy I can assure you quite categorically it was not. As I said late last night, while there are many merits to our system, the introduction of an element of chance means that when it comes to such small margins of difference they might as well be playing roulette.
There will be plenty congrats for 5 new TDs. Mine go to communications student Jackie Fox (@Foxkehs) for ‘citizen’ results coverage via Twitter that beat the professional media, to Rónán Mistéil for aggregating those results into charts at amazing speed, and to Andrew Gallagher for fast and fascinating volunteer psephology.
Now, how would you like your new government this morning?
I had to cry off there and head home. I’ve a big day tomorrow, and the late election nights have worn me down to an interesting frazzle shape. It’s all right for the politicians, they’re stoked to the eyeballs with purest triple-distilled adrenalin. I can only barely bring myself to care who is in the next government.
Now it isn’t Fianna Fáil.
So I’m missing some serious election fun… Guess what’s happened? They found errors in the errors they found before, so this recount has actually changed the quota slightly. That of course means every transfer, every surplus, has to be recomputed.
Healy Eames may yet be in with a chance.
On the sidelines, under the aegis of the Galway West Twitter hashtag (#gyw), we naturally fell to discussing the pros and cons of the Single Transferable Vote model of PR.
It was a good night for the cons.
One of the most interesting points though, made here by blogger andrewgdotcom, was not about STV in general but rather the method we use to do it. You remember a couple of days ago I said that there was an element of random sampling involved in the counting system we use, but “it’s precise enough with large numbers“? Well he demonstrates that when we get down to tiny differences in the total vote like they’re currently fighting over, it is not precise enough. Such small numbers are well within the margin of error. In other words, they’re random.
In other other words, instead of holding a recount they might as well toss a coin.
“Look at the Guard,” a mother says to her child in Irish, perhaps to impress upon him the importance of good behaviour. For we are at the crucial thirteenth count in the Galway West Dáil constituency, and this time…
They’re starting over from scratch. Again.
I have not the words to describe how boring this is. A few people are counting things. A lot more people are watching them count. That. Is. It. As if life had grown more serious in all the years since Sesame Street, but no more complicated.
There is drama here, but so deeply encoded that it’s a closed book to outsiders. Like a poem in Braille, or the heated debate dogs carry on via lamp post. There’s the Fine Gael candidate, looking tired, talking to the man who used to (almost completely fail to) teach me history in school. His brother used to be a Fine Gael TD back in the 80s. Insiders. Connolly’s cadre are the more numerous and the younger. (Unless you count children; I think the Fine Gael people have brought more.) FG coterie generally looks better off and better dressed. Though if the guy with the huge bunch of keys dangling beneath his huger beer gut is one of theirs, he’s really letting the side down. At one corner a veritable flock of men in dark pinstripe suits. Though they are without their gowns, I’d swear in court that they’re barristers. (Not baristas thank you, spell check.) Connolly crowd not exactly badly dressed, but somehow visibly socialist. This really is the ties versus the jeans.
Just a quick update before I jump in the shower. Why do people say jump in the shower, anyway? It’s a foolishly dangerous idea. I prefer to lie down and gently roll into the shower. Anyway, here in Galway West everyone’s a winner. We’ve outlasted every team in the whole country to become the last still counting.
When Fidelma Healy Eames was (finally) eliminated in the middle of the night, her redistributed vote elected Brian Walsh. His surplus made no big difference, and as this left three candidates and two seats the lowest – Catherine Connolly (XLAB) – was eliminated and the other two – Noel Grealish (XPD) and Seán Kyne (FG) – deemed elected. However as Catherine Connolly was only last by 17 votes, she called for a recount.
That’s how tight it is; they’re rechecking the valid poll of well over 50,000 to make sure 17 haven’t gone missing somewhere. It’s possible.
Of course if they do find it for her, Seán Kyne would be perfectly entitled to call another recount… We may be here for a while yet.
But assuming they don’t, the last recount begins at 4:00 this afternoon. Seventeen votes, to make the difference between a Fine Gaeler and a left-wing independent in the Dáil. Seventeen votes to overturn my pessimistic prediction, and make me happy to be wrong.
Oh God this is tense. I have to get away from this damnable count before I do harm. When we went to the shop a short while ago I was swearing at every car on the road. And I wasn’t even driving.
But it’s just getting more and more amazing. Now the rumour is that Fidelma Healy Eames is disputing the result, even though Fine Gael has instructed her to stop. I don’t think that will exactly improve her chances of staying in the Senate. So she’s fighting now for the existence of her political career.
Fighting against her own party.
Dammit, how can I let go? This is so much damn fun! The latest rumours also suggest that the Healy Eames camp managed to get a load of Connolly’s votes excluded on the technicality that they were not embossed sufficiently clearly. (Ballot papers are embossed by a polling station worker before they are given to the voter.) It is quite literally a hanging chad situation. Lawyers have been seen.
Perhaps another reason for the lawyers is disputation over the ballot paper. In Galway West (as in Wicklow, another zombie count) it was printed in two columns. A “depressing number” (to quote one source) of voters filled it out as two separate ballots, as if there were a local or a European election going on at the same time. There may be ructions now about whether you can interpret some sort of valid vote out of that, but I think if someone doesn’t understand which or quite how many elections they’re voting in, they have disqualified their vote. For Christ’s sake.
Stop press! Word is Healy Eames demanded that her party give her a place in the Senate if they want her to stop disputing the count. Can she not be arrested for that?
How national revolution becomes local news. Hard even to find any information on the Galway West count now. Last night I had to turn on local radio, hoping that updates would break into a show featuring covers by showbands of hits by other, better showbands. And that bizarre dancing-on-the-radio céili music with a piano. You remember? Where they put extra emphasis on the end so that everyone knew when to stop. I swear I had no idea anyone broadcast stuff like that anymore. It’s a grotesque little treasure.
But all I found was that the recount was ongoing. It’s still ongoing this morning. Rumours fly. Some say there will be another recount, though how they can make a rumour of that while there is a recount actually in progress is beyond me. Some say people are taking down their posters so that they’ll still be good for another election in a few months. Some are saying that Fianna Fáil and Sinn Féin are going to reunite and stage a coup. OK, I basically just started that one.
At the moment the only reliable source of updates is one communications student called Foxkehs on Twitter. It appears though that Healy Eames will be eliminated, and after that it’ll be between Kyne (FG) and Connolly, Kyne tipped by the tightest of margins.
If there isn’t another recount… This one really is going all the way, isn’t it?
It’s all right for you lot. Through most of the country it’s all over bar the shouting. Here in Galway though – East and West – we’re recounting, recounting, recounting.
Recounting. The word falls like the rain. Grey cloudstreamers bring down votes, one, two. One, two. One. Testing. *Blink* I should have got more sleep last night. Oh wait, rumour coming through that Galway East’s last seat will go to Labour. Hooray! Here in West, we may not know who our TDs are until tomorrow. Even the seats we thought were won, Ó Cuív and Nolan, are up for grabs again.
It was Fine Gael Senator Fidelma Healy Eames who called for the recount. Understandably, when she was on the point of being eliminated. With only 56 votes between her and the next nearest candidate, she desperately hopes that a recheck of the vote will show that it’s him who should be eliminated, not her.
The fact that this other candidate is also Fine Gael will tell you a lot of what you need to know about the Irish electoral system. We don’t have parties, we have truces.
Uneasy ones. As I was saying, TDs are in perpetual competition. The question is always asked, can they ever actually pay attention to their real job of legislating if they are constantly trying to claw votes away from one another?
Then the question has to be asked, is that actually their job? Officially they may be legislators, but once they’ve elected a Taoiseach all they ever really do is rubber-stamp the bills that the executive creates. Perhaps the TD’s real job is to be at the beck and call of the electorate, acting as go-between with the civil service.
But then you must ask, doesn’t that make the TD a sort of useless secular priest, interceding for the citizen with government in order to get them nothing more than they were entitled to anyway? And hasn’t TDs competing as professional insiders only helped create a culture of endemic corruption?
Then again… other political cultures with very different electoral systems are full of corruption too. Perhaps we have more than most, but in return for it don’t we receive a fantastic level of personal service? I invite your comment.
For the overseas audience, I should explain why our vote continues late into the night, through what appear to be endless recounts. Our system is called ‘Single Transferable Vote’, which means we only have a single vote between all of us. So we have to fight over it.
OK, I’ll be serious. We have a vote each. But rather than just give it to one candidate, we list the buggers in an order of preference. The count is actually a (fairly) simple mathematical game that transfers a vote from one to another until it settles into a comfortable position. The idea is that if you can’t have your first-preference candidate you may get your second – etc.
The system requires multiple-seat constituencies to work (you’ll see why later), the norm is three to five seats. Votes are checked for validity and counted, and the total number of valid votes is divided by the number of seats in the constituency. So say there are 50,000 valid votes cast in a 5-seat constituency, that gives 10,000. You need one more vote than that to “reach quota” and be elected.
The votes are then sorted into piles according to the first preference (or “number 1”) – which is the state of play shown here below, for the current election and the previous one:
Quite a change, eh?
As you see, Fianna Fáil did not get a majority of first preference votes in a single constituency this time. If we used a simple First-Past-The-Post voting system here, they would win no seats at all. Before you say it’s a shame that we don’t then, I should point out that if we did use FPTP, Fianna Fáil would have won every previous election before today.
Every. Single. One.
Under our more scrupulous STV system, their percentage of the seats will be fairly close to their actual percentage of the vote. (About 17%, the way it looks at the moment.) The system is as fair as it’s possible to be in this respect.
If none of the candidates makes the quota on their first preference votes, the next move is the elimination (or ‘exclusion’) of the lowest-polling candidate. The votes in their pile are transferred to whoever is listed as the next preference. (Each vote is a list, remember). If after this redistribution someone reaches the quota, they’re elected. If no one does, the next-lowest candidate is eliminated, and so on.
(In practice, several of the lowest-polling candidates’ piles will often be redistributed at once.)
So what happens when a candidate is elected? Naturally, they almost always get more than the quota on the count that elects them, and the extra vote is called the “surplus”. Say the quota was ten thousand and a candidate has eleven thousand votes. They have a ten percent surplus, so ten percent of their votes are chosen randomly and distributed to the candidate listed as the next preference.
(The random part introduces a slight approximation, but it’s precise enough with large numbers.)
If the surplus doesn’t elect someone else they go back to eliminating people again. And so on until all the seats are filled. It’s somewhat baroque but hey, it’s fair – and it’s fantastically dramatic to watch.
Its disadvantage? Multi-seat constituencies mean local representatives are in competition with each other – not just at elections, but all the time. Even when they’re members of the same party. That makes politics… different. More on this some other time.