How Much Scope Is There To Change Our Electoral System?

Can we get the builders in to make some changes, please?

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It is often argued that our constitution from 1937 is a major obstacle to radical electoral change. This is both inaccurate and represents a failure to think outside the box (but inside the Constitution)

The Irish constitution specifies the exact electoral system for Dáil elections (i.e. to the lower house of the Irish parliament) in Article 16.2.5:

5° The members shall be elected on the system of proportional representation by means of the single transferable vote.

6° No law shall be enacted whereby the number of members to be returned for any constituency shall be less than three.

What is perhaps missed here is that these are minimal conditions. The smallest constituency size has to be no smaller than a THREE SEATER (that is 3 members of parliament are elected). But there is no constitutional prohibition on how large a constituency can be. There would be nothing to prevent any future government by ordinary legislation simply increasing the size of the constituencies to 6, 7 and 8 seaters. One reason to do that would be to increase the proportionality effect. Three seater constituencies tend to favour the larger parties and smaller parties tend to do worse. In a three seater the big parties tend to get more seats than the % share of the vote, although it is not a very large distortion and some argue it is reasonable in rewarding more popular parties and keeping out small or more marginal parties. The converse applies to larger constituency sizes like 5 seaters, where small parties and independents often find it easier to get elected.

Another reason one may want to increase constituency size would be to ensure that TDs are elected from larger geographical areas in order to make them less focused on purely local issues.

So we could if we wanted have regional constituencies, say for Connacht, Leinster, etc.

We do have very large regional constituencies for Irish elections to the European Parliament-just four (Dublin, North West, East and the South). One of the criticisms of our existing PR-STV system is that many TDs focus on very local issues, and neglect national questions or wider regional issues. Increasing the size of our national constituencies could help moderate this trend-although one cannot be certain if it would work.

If we were minded, a literal reading of the Irish constitution would even permit the most radical reform of all-the creation of one single national constituency of 141 seats! Bizarre? Crazy?

The Netherlands and Slovakia operate electoral systems where the entire nation is effectively treated as one national constituency. If you want Irish TDs to be national representatives and focus on giving national leadership either in government or opposition, then one could argue one way of encouraging this would be to create a national constituency.

There are obvious problems with this admittedly radical idea (but apparently just about within our constitutional limits). Imagine a ballot paper which had the list of names for ALL national candidates….it would run into hundreds of names! There is no way a voter could pick off and express hundreds of preferences from 1 to 345 say! In existing 5 seater constituencies, there is already a bit of a problem there with the voter given a list with say upwards of 20-30 names and photos. Some voters express a preference for all, but many stop after no.4 or 5.

However, there might be ways around this feasibility problem by using either regional ballot papers which might be more manageable, or even more radically by asking voters to express their STV vote (1,2, 3) for parties rather than candidates. Notice, the constitution does NOT detail exactly how PR-STV should operate. It does not say you can only cast a STV vote for a candidate. It is possible to imagine a list system where the voter expresses preferences for parties (or collections of independents) rather than a candidate using the classic STV system (1, 2, 3, etc.). Thus we could have a system of voting by PR-STV for party lists.

I admit no country does this.

I also admit it would be pushing the threshold of constitutionality.

And finally such a bold change should be put to the people as part of a referendum-I don’t advocate a stealthy reform of the electoral system.

But the larger point is, if we really want to modify PRSTV we can actually modify it quite a bit within the existing limits of Article 16 (etc).


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