PR-STV or proportional representation – single transferable vote, is a unique electoral system in that it is very much a candidate centred method of voting, which accommodates intraparty competition in elections. However, it also allows the voter to support a political party simultaneously if they so wish. It differs greatly from the other two major electoral systems, the plurality system through its’ proportionality and from PR list systems by placing a significant importance on individual candidates rather than on political parties. (Coakley and Gallagher 2010, p.130) An electoral system is defined in Farrell, Mackerras and McAllister (1996) as ‘a set of essentially unchanged election rules under which one or more successive elections are conducted’. Depending on your outlook on electoral systems these differences can be viewed as positives or negatives of PR-STV, critics of this electoral system chose to see these differences as negatives. This essay will investigate if the preconceived notions that PR-STV can cause a dysfunctional legislature and be a hindrance in the development of the nation as a whole as it is candidate based and examine if TD’s that are elected in Ireland are forced to divide their time between their constituency and legislating. Ireland will be used as a case study throughout this essay as it is one of only two countries, along with Malta, that uses PR-STV to elect it’s national parliament. Ireland was chosen as a case study as PR-STV is explicitly written into its’ constitution in article 16.2.5° as the electoral system that is to be exercised in Irish elections and although having twice been put to the people in the form of a referendum offering change PR-STV was retained on both occasions as the preferred method electing public representatives in Ireland. As there are many different electoral systems and which produce varies affects on the role of parliament and it’s stability it is impossible for the purpose of this essay to examine for than three in depth. The affect of PR-STV, compared with list PR and first past the post electoral system: on proportionality, on the party system and government stability and finally on the role of the TD will all be examined in depth in this essay.
Coakley and Gallagher (2010) are very much in favour of PR-STV as an electoral system this is clear through the chapter specifically dedicated to PR-STV in Ireland they go against the status quo and challenge the opinions of some academic that some weaknesses of PR-STV can actually be viewed as strengths. An example of this can be seen when Coakley and Gallagher contradict the views of Katz (1980 p. 107) and Blais (1991 pp. 248-9), who argue that intra-party electoral competition causes disunity among parties and in turn is counterproductive to the development of a responsible party system, by stating that intra-party competition does not have a significant impact on party solidarity and party cohesion is strong as well as party discipline is strong in the Dail. (Coakley and Gallagher 2010 p.127) Coakley and Gallagher are both Irish giving them an advantage over other academics as it can be argued they have more experience of the workings of PR-STV as they live in a state that has used PR-STV as its’ method of electing its’ parliament since the foundation of the state in 1922. Gallagher and Mitchell give an objective view in their book on electoral systems and have collected empirical data in an effort to ascertain the most beneficial electoral system to both the voters and the elected representatives. Farrell, Mackerras and McAllister offer a fresh prospective in the area of electoral systems by providing a definition for an electoral system and stating that more clarity needs to be established by academics in defining what constitutes proportionality and how it should be measured. (1996). The comparison between the variations of PR-STV used in Ireland and senate elections in Australia is the main focus of Farrell, Mackerras and McAllister research and hence not all of there research is relevant to this essay as the use PR-STV to elect the Australian senate will not be analyzed in this essay.
The affect of PR-STV on proportionality
Proportionality refers to the proportionality between seats and votes which, is measured by comparing a parties’ share of the votes against the share of seats they receive. (Coakley and Gallagher 2010, p.124) It is important to note that proportionality is essentially affected by voter behaviour. Gallagher and Mitchell (2005, p.549) state that although there is a widespread belief that disproportionality increases as district magnitude decreases, Ireland does not suffer from high disproportionality even though it has relatively small district magnitudes, on average about four, as there is a propensity of the largest party to win a seat bonus which, creates its own ‘countervailing force’. District magnitude is the number of representatives elected from a constituency to a legislative body. In PR-STV electoral systems these are multi-member districts. As votes can be transferred it allows for supporters of smaller parties to be strategically sensible with their votes and to vote in such a way as to help other smaller parties or independents and in turn prevents the larger party from receiving a sizeable bonus. (Gallagher and Mitchell 2005, p.549) This is one reason for Ireland’s relatively low disproportionality. Coakley and Gallagher (2010, p.124) use empirical evidence showing Ireland’s average disproportionality in elections held from 1923 to 2007 to be 3.9. Using this measure in a comparative analysis, Irish election outcomes from 1948-89 are much more proportional than those conducted under first past the post electoral systems and as more proportional than some elections conducted under some PR list systems. However, it must be noted that the figure was less proportional than the outcome of PR list system conducted in Denmark, Finland and Germany (Coakley and Gallagher 2010, p.125). When compared with other PR-STV electoral systems Ireland is ranked second only considered to be less proportional than Malta and is notably more proportional than Tasmania and Western Australia (Farrell, Mackerras and McAllister 1996). In a contradiction to academic research the use of PR-STV in a state that has relatively small district magnitude PR-STV in Ireland produces a significantly high degree of proportionality.
The affect of PR-STV on the party system and government stability
The major difference between PR-STV and all other electoral systems is the affect it has on the party system and government stability. By its’ very nature PR-STV allows for the formation of coalition governments and a multi-party electoral system. This is clearly explained in one of Duverger’s ‘laws’: ‘PR formulas facilitate multi-partyism and are, conversely, hardly conducive to two-partyism.’ (Coakley and Gallagher 2010, p.125). PR-STV is not the sole factor in determining the number of political parties in an electoral system as PR-STV has been Ireland’s electoral system since its’ foundation in 1922 but the number of political parties has fluctuated greatly rising sharply in the 1940s after a experiencing a low in the 1930s (Coakley and Gallagher 2010, p.126). First past the post facilitates a very rigid party system that can easily be well organized and disciplined, Coakley and Gallagher (2010, p.126) argue that with all other things being equal a list system of PR will lead to stronger party organisation as there is more freedom given to party elites in choosing who the party’s representative’s will be however, they also are careful to note that parties under PR-STV are not weak in an absolute sense. Katz (1980) argues that where intraparty choice is allowed on ballot papers parliamentary parties are prone to be disunited. This argument is clearly rebutted by the significant degree of party cohesion and party discipline that exist in the Dail.
PR-STV facilitates independents forming a coalition with a political party to form a government if that political party is only a couple of seats short of a majority following an election. A government that formed in this way can be considered to be unstable as it relies on elected representatives who are not members of the party to keep it in power. Independents frequently make up governments in Ireland with five Irish governments since the start of the 1980s needing the support of independent TDs (Coakley and Gallagher 2010, p.127) As these independents realize the government hangs on their support they naturally use this to their advantage and seek extra government spending to be spent in their constituencies or for specific jobs to be located within their constituency in return for their continued support for the government. This naturally leads to the fall of governments from time to time as the relationship between political party and independents breaks down. As governments elected under list PR and first past the post rarely need the support of independent elected representatives they can be considered more stable.
The affect of PR-STV on the role of the TD (elected representative)
PR-STV as a candidate based electoral system requires the TDs to devote a large proportion of their time to constituency service and legislating. Coakley and Gallagher (2010, p.128) make the point that as a consequence of intra-party competition in elections PR-STV allows the voter to express two opinions in a single vote, they can vote for a party and for the TD that they feel will deliver a personal service to their constituency. As intra-party competition is such a fundamental element of getting elected politicians must differentiate themselves from their opponents not through policy but through personal service. This requires a TD to hold regular clinics in his constituency, sit on local committees, attend local committee meetings and even attend local functions such as sporting events and funerals (Coakley and Gallagher 2010, p.129). Election candidates in list PR and first past the post do not have compete against each other to the same intensity as PR-STV candidates this means they do not have to focus their attention on constituency work and parliament debates do not result in debates about constituency affairs. (Gallagher and Mitchell (2005, p.552). However, it must be noted that TDs having to devote much of their time to their constituency is not necessarily a negative draw back of PR-STV. TDs appear approachable to their constituents and there is a greater sense of localism as many TDs are from the constituencies they represent in parliament.
To conclude PR-STV delivers a satisfactory proportionality between votes given to a party and seats received by a party in the context of Ireland however, this may be due to the fact the it can be claimed that Irish elections have turned into Fianna Fail against the rest and satisfactory proportionality is merely a result of voters who are not supporters of Fianna Fail consciously not giving a Fianna Fail candidate any ranking on their ballot paper.
PR-STV facilitates a multi-party system but does not necessarily lead to disunited political parties and a lack of party discipline. A multi-party system could be considered more favourable to voters as it allows for minority parties, representing minorities of society, to form. A clear disadvantage of PR-STV is that is allows for the formation of governments that rely on the support of independent TDs these are in general unstable governments that can frequently collapse as independents demand disproportionate government expenditure and services for their constituencies.
The role of the TD is dictated by PR-STV as they must divide their time between their constituency and national issues such as legislating. A result of this is frequently debates in the Dail can be on constituency issues rather than national issues. This can hinder the progress of the government on resolving national issues.
An All-Party Oireachtas Committee conducted a report into whether Ireland should consider changing its electoral system found that the current system of PR-STV gives the Irish voter the greatest degree of choice to any possible option. Any change to the electoral system would result in reduced power of the voter. (Coakley and Gallagher 2010, p.130) PR-STV can be considered the best electoral system compared to list PR and first past the post as it gives the voter more choice while not providing strong party unity and discipline. Its’ disadvantages are the workload placed on TDs and that governments sometimes rely on independents for power. However, it can be said that the power it gives to voters outweighs these disadvantages.