Proportional Representation: How it Works

Boy does proportional representation, the method of voting in Ireland, confuse those unfamiliar with it! It makes elections fascinating occasions, almost akin to a blood sport at times, as seats are fought over fiercely and frequently won by incredibly thin margins.

Irish people will talk politics forever and relish a good argument on the subject and there is no doubt that proportional representation gives voters plenty to talk about at election time.

Multi-seat Constituencies & Transferable Votes

To understand the system, there are first three things that need to be clear:

  1. All constituencies are multi-seat constituencies
    Each elects between 3 and 5 candidates depending on population size. Voters choose from a list of candidates and the 3-5 who get the most votes are elected.
  2. A party can have more than one candidate in a constituency
    The larger parties almost always do. This means that the parties are not only competing against each other, but that there is competition between candidates within parties too.
  3. Every voter has a single, transferable, vote
    This means they vote for candidates in order of preference, giving a number 1 to their favourite, 2 to their next choice, 3 to the next and so on. They are not obliged to vote for more than one person but can if they wish indicate their preferences in numerical order right down a list of 10 or more candidates.

To those accustomed to a single seat first past the post system, this seems very complex and, while voting is pretty easy,  it is quite complex when it comes to counting the votes.

So, let’s take a look at how vote counting works in Irish elections.

Setting the Quota

Once voting is over and all the ballot sheets have been taken to a count centre, the first task is to count the number of valid votes cast in order to set a ‘quota’. This is the number of votes that a candidate will need in order to be elected.

In a system with single seat constituencies, the winner is simply the person who gets the most votes; with multi-seat constituencies it is a little different. Instead the total number of valid votes is divided by the number of seats available plus one, and then one vote is added to come up with a quota.

Thus in a constituency with 5 seats, where 120,000 votes were cast, the quota would be 20,001, calculated like this:

  • 120000/6 +1= 20001

Once someone gets more votes than the quota, they are elected. However it is also possible to be elected without ever reaching  the quota, as we will see below.

Counting the Votes

Election Papers

Votes are counted not once but several times in a series of counts.

The First Count

During the first count ballot papers are divided according to the first preference – or number one vote – indicated in each. There are two possible outcomes at the end of the first count:

  1. One or more candidates reach the quota and are therefore elected
  2. No candidate reaches a quota

These both affect what happens in the second count.

The Second Count

A. If a candidate has been elected:
Their surplus votes, that is any votes over the quota, are distributed among the remaining candidates according to the voter’s second preference.

The surplus votes are chosen at random following a strict protocol. For example if a candidate had 800 votes more than required to meet the quota, then 800 voting papers would be chosen at random from their total votes.

B. If no candidate reaches a quota:
The candidate with the least number of votes is eliminated and all of their votes are redistributed according to second preferences.

Any ballot papers that don’t indicate a 2nd preference are discarded at this point.

Third and subsequent counts

Again, at the end of the second count there are the same two possible outcomes:

A. One or more candidates reach the quota and are elected
Their surplus is redistributed

B. No candidate reaches a quota
The candidate with the lowest number of votes is eliminated, their votes redistributed.

This process continues, often though as many as 10 or even more counts, until the required number of candidates has been elected.

Elected without a Quota

In the end stages of a count there may be candidates who are elected without reaching a quota. This happens when a point is reached where only two candidates remain and there are no votes left to be redistributed – the candidate with the most votes at this point is deemed elected.

Managing the Vote

Looking for a vote

While voting in a PR system is very easy – you just number your votes in order of preference – in practice it is a subtle method that allows for a lot of strategy to be used in deciding how to vote.  All parties have election strategists who pay close attention to how they can maximise their chances of winning a seat, or for larger parties the chance of winning more than one seat in a constituency.

Here are just a few of the strategies commonly employed.

Carving up the constituency

Parties with more than one candidate in a constituency will come up with a plan which they hope will result in their getting the highest possible number of seats and ask their followers to adhere to this plan. Quite often they split a constituency geographically. For example, voters in the south of the area may be asked to give their first preference to one candidate while those in the north are asked to favour another.

While this can be very effective it can also backfire,  especially in elections where a party does significantly less well that it expected to do. Where polls indicated in advance that voting will be tight the arrangement can break down and candidates who are nominally party colleagues can become ever fiercer rivals as election day approaches.

Please vote for another party (really)

Mostly parties ask that you vote for their candidates, then carry on any way you wish. However if there has been even a tentative agreement or understanding that two parties may decide to go into a coalition government following the election, they may suggest that voters go for their candidates first, then continue their preferences for the second party.

Begging for a preference – any preference!

Because an individual vote may be transferred multiple times and count in electing more than one candidate, those canvassing for a party are not deterred when they come upon a voter who declares he will not be giving their candidate a first preference. They will ask (implore) the voter to “Think of me anyway” and give at least a lower preference vote.

The effect is that every voter matters to every candidate, but particularly to those candidates likely to be fighting it out for the last couple of seats.:

Voting strategies & styles

Dublin South Central 2011 ballot papers

Dublin South Central 2011 ballot papers

Just as parties come up with plans, voters too have their own favourite strategies for ensuring their vote does exactly what they want it to do. While some simply follow the guidance of a particular party, many have evolved their own particular approach to the ballot sheet.

The bullet voter or ‘plumper’

These are people who vote for just one candidate and then stop voting and indicate no further preferences. A close relation is the person who votes for just one party’s candidates. Both are sometimes referred to as ‘plumpers’.

I have no hard figures but such voters are a minority. In general the majority of ballot papers in any redistribution do show lower preferences, even across party lines, as candidates are elected or eliminated.

The down the line voter & voting against candidates

The opposite of the plumper, this voter indicates a preference for all or most of the candidates on the paper. This may seem odd – after all in any election there are likely to be just a few candidates you really like, some you are lukewarm about and others you actively dislike. One of the beauties of a transferable vote is that voters can elect people they like but can also use their vote to attempt to keep out candidates they don’t like.

As an example imagine an election with 12 candidates running in a 4 seat constituency, where it’s likely that several candidates will be in contention for the last couple of seats.  For any voter there may typically be:

  • 2 people they would love to see elected
  • 2 more they wouldn’t greatly object to
  • 4 they don’t much like at all
  • 4 more they actively dislike.

After they have finished voting for the candidates in the first two groups why not stop?

Because indicating preferences for the third group means that, if their vote passes down, they are adding to the total of votes against the last group, effectively using their vote to keep out the candidates they really, really dislike.

Some people go right to the bottom, holding their noses and indicating a preference even within the last group, hoping to minimise the chance of a candidate they consider the absolute worst. Choosing how to rank candidates at the lower end of the paper usually presents a much greater challenge than ranking at the top!

Keeping a balance

All Irish governments since the mid 1980s have been coalitions, with two or more parties and/or a collection of independents coming together to get the required majority. The checks and balances inherent in this arrangement means it is not necessarily an undesirable outcome for the electorate. There are many people who try to vote in a way that they believe gives the best chance to a realistic coalition partnership.

This can sometimes mean not giving a high preference to their preferred candidate, perhaps because they believe this candidate will have an excess of votes anyway, and that voting for someone else might help the formation of a strong coalition, or that the candidate is too weak, so their vote would ‘count more’ elsewhere.

Keeping your vote in play – Bottom up voting

There is a theory that by voting first for candidates who you believe will be eliminated early gives your vote a longer lifespan and a better chance of still being there and involved during the decisive late counts.

There is a certain truth in this (provided you’ve called it correctly!) as when a candidate is eliminated, all of his or her votes are redistributed, so you can be certain yours will remain in the pile.

When a candidate is elected and a surplus redistributed, it is quite different. Only a random sample of ballot sheets, equal in number to the excess votes over the quota, are redistributed during the subsequent count. While there may be thousands of votes to redistribute, there can equally be just a handful in the surplus, and in either case your actual vote may not pass down to affect later counts.

Local Issues & Personal Agendas

Some situations arise with transfers where it’s hard to comprehend what voters were thinking. There have been occasions where a staunchly right leaning candidate is elected, has a surplus redistributed and a good chunk of second preference votes go not to his or her party colleague (as you might expect) but to the most left wing candidate on the list.

This may seem incomprehensible but the local nature of Irish politics is one reason.  It is often of great importance to a voter that a candidate lives close to them or went to school with their brother or attended their father’s funeral. Other voters may be particularly exercised by a local issue – the retention of a hospital that is threatened with closure or the promise of a new road – and vote according to a candidate’s position on that issue.

Or they may vote randomly or by the candidate’s hair colour or in alphabetical order or by age – sometimes it really seems that odd.

The ‘right’ way to vote

Before every election there are inevitability people instructing others on the ‘right’ way to vote. In truth there is no universal right way – as long as you clearly indicate your preferences, your way is the right way and is as good a method as anyone else’s.

That is really the beauty of proportional representation – you decide which and how many candidates to vote for, you decide what are the important issues for you, no matter how peripheral they may be or how small a minority you are in, and your vote is just as important as anyone elses.

Protest Voting and Spoiled Votes

If a voter does not enter numbers beside candidates in a way that clearly indicates their preferences, or writes anything else on their ballot paper, their vote is spoiled and is not counted.

It is not unusual for protest voters to use their ballot paper to register a complaint by writing on the paper and thus spoiling their vote. It may make the voter feel better but is a fairly futile exercise and those at whom the complaint is directed with probably never see it.

In most cases though voters in Ireland have a chance to vent their spleen prior to the elections with actual candidates, as personal door to door canvasses and local ‘walkabouts’ are a core part of every campaign. In reality most voters even when angry or opinionated in private tend to be quite polite when actually faced with a canvasser or a candidate and some will readily promise their first preference vote to anyone who asks for it.

In one election a voter who did this followed through on these pledges, entering the number 1 beside every candidate on the ballot paper, then at the bottom adding the note: “As promised”!

The Tallymen and the Computer

Tallymen watching the count
There is a special breed of person who comes into public view only on the day of an election count – the Tallyman (who may very well be a woman).

These people arrive at the count as soon as it begins and carefully watch the votes as they are opened, clipboard in hand. As the boxes are opened and the ballot papers arranged face up in piles, they keep a tally of where each vote is going. With tallymen counting at each ballot box this fairly quickly leads to a good estimate of how voting is going. Tallying accurately is no small task and there tends to be cooperation across party lines in coming up with the estimates.

The tally people are good and their figures are usually extremely accurate. How accurate? Well, this is from the General Election 2016 – actual results on the left, tally figures on the right:


Thanks @EoinBearla for image

News outlets value tallymen highly and seek and report tally figures in the hours while they wait for final results. They are even more valued by candidates, since they provide an early warning of what lies ahead, for good or bad.

In a spectacularly badly handled attempt to move to electronic voting and counting, a trial of voting by computer was held in one constituency in the 2007 election. The tallymen had no role. A ballot which was was previously counted painstakingly by hand over hours and days could now be dealt with in minutes.

It was not a success. Partly this was because people had little faith in the integrity of the system (with some reason). The politicians were even more unimpressed as some shocked defeated candidates received unexpected and unwelcome news with no warning at all.

But perhaps the main reason the project was abandoned was that it took all the fun out of the count. Because watching the story unfold as the votes are counted and recounted really is fun.

Published: January 20, 2008 | Updated: February 6, 2020 | Image Credits

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  • Terry Prentice says:

    Good explanation of the voting process. What it does not speak to is how the voting district boundaries are established, and how the single seat and multiple seat ridings are determined. Is there another reference for this information?

    • Katherine says:

      Following each census (every 10 years) an independent Constituency Commission is established to make any required changes to constituency borders that changes in population would dicate. The chairman of the commission is always a senior judge. The members include those holding specified non-political positions – the clerks of the Dail and Seanad, the ombudsman, and a senior civil servent.

      You can read their latest report here.

  • Sean Cawley says:

    Very helpful and clear article…..

  • Noel Muldowney says:

    Delighted to have read your article on proportional representation at this stage and prior to Friday.
    I had a fair idea of the system, new it was quite difficult to work out, but am now delighted to have read your article.
    It will make Friday’s outcome all the more enjoyable to watch and thanks for your very good help on this topic.

    Shall look to your site in future as a definite good reference site.

  • […] is a republic, with a Parliament (known as the Oireachtas) democratically elected by proportional representation. There is universal suffrage – all citizens aged over 18 have the right to […]

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