Long form version of a post I have over on Political Reform.
Discussion about political change, and in particular where electoral reform is concerned, tends to start by identifying a problem by examining its symptoms and then seeks to alleviate those same symptoms. Often times through green-field gerrymandering that presupposes we are able to start from scratch at some future election. Such green field efforts aim for defined outcomes rather than simply ensuring the system is correct and allowing the outcomes to be in the hands of the voters. Such new systems and practices as are proposed also tend to ignore any number of real world practicalities. In this piece, I’m going to try to outline two of the problems as I see them in how the electoral system currently functions, coupled with some the practical realities that accompany them, and then suggest two forms of electoral change that would actually address those problems without seeking to ensure some particular outcome. Neither of the suggested systems would perfectly address the core problems I will be addressing but they would do so sufficiently to ensure that we can move on in our discussions to some of the other problems we face.
Two of biggest problems – and from which almost all others stem – are a lack of real diversity being offered to the electorate in our parliamentary and local administrative elections and a surfeit of clientelism. I will start with the latter.
Excessive clientelism across Irish political life is a real problem we have to face up to. However, we need to recognise that clientelism is not simply the result of the PR-STV system but is rather a potentiality that exists in all electoral systems if the electorate are so minded to reward it. Other nations and local governmental units overseas have taken measures to prevent it getting out of control. It is therefore a situation that needs to be controlled and managed, not necessarily eliminated entirely as it originates from the behaviour of the public. In considering what those measures might involve in particular in the context of our local political environment here in Ireland, we need to consider the scale of clientelism and how it works in Ireland. I will confine myself initially with clientelism at the Dail level but the suggested solution outlined later could work with some modifications for local administration elections too.
Clientelism as a major problem manifests itself when it is possible to get elected from simply doing stuff particular to the everyday needs of individual voters or their families (letter writing, form filling, hand holding, funeral attending, and making calls for people) on a purely local level – the direct person to person contact – such that a sufficient number of people will reward you with a vote such that you can be elected on this support base alone. It is, in some senses, a transactional issue; you are buying votes for work done for those specific individuals who will in turn cast their ballots for you. In Irish elections, you are well in the running for a seat in most general elections if you poll over 6,000 first preference votes and are almost guaranteed one if you poll over 8,000. It is actually possible given the nature of Ireland to physically meet that many people and do that many small things and be rewarded by their extended families and communities over the course of the 3/5 year period that occurs between elections. Worse yet, you can be elected with considerably less than that level of support to the local council and with the winning of a council seat becoming more and more a required stepping stone to the Oireachtas (national parliament encompassing both the Dáil and Seanad) then only those who have won at local election level get to be in the running for a Dail nomination.
What we are presented with is a straight forward problem of scaling; make it sufficiently hard to get in the running for a seat in the Dail simply on clientelism activities alone and you will reduce the impact of clientelism on the governance of the country. Most see the solutions to this as involving some large scale reduction in the numbers of seats so as to ensure higher quotas. This would act as a means to raise the bar sufficiently that you would need too large a number of votes say 20,000 or so or they seek to remove the link between locality and national representation via various list systems. Yet a parliament consisting of only 80 or so members (which is what decreasing the number of seats to increase the quotas to around 20,000 would mean) makes for its own problems in ensuring a deep enough pool from which to draw an executive while leaving enough legislators available. A government of 15/20 members drawn from only 40 or so representatives of the majority party would be a recipe for disaster, almost everyone who had been elected more than once would have to serve in cabinet. Doing less than this by reducing the Dail by much smaller amounts of say only 20 to 30 TDS would do next to nothing to affect clientelism as what is required is to increase the quotas by several orders of magnitude.
List systems of various types are also suggested as a possible solution to the problem of clientelism but lists too bring with them their own set of new problems. It is unclear just who is going to decide who is on the list, and where they are placed and how people get well enough known nationally to get votes and how exactly that would all be funded. When people say that list systems would be controlled by the political parties it is never made clear who exactly in the parties they mean, the membership, local or national, the party executives, professionals who work for the party, the elected party leadership. People often talk of ‘the political parties’ as if they were sentient entities in their own right which shows up that many of those suggesting we should have national lists controlled by the parties have limited knowledge exactly how political parties operate at the senior level. Because – believe me – it won’t necessarily lead to any broadening of the general diversity of the candidates on offer to have the party hierarchy in charge of who gets on lists and what placement they are given.
So how might we go about requiring that you need considerably more votes than can be delivered through clientelism but not need to dangerously reduce the numbers of parliamentary seats? One solution that would require someone to get considerably more votes to get elected is to have multi-vote overlapping geographical and non-geographically based constituencies. We’re familiar with the concept of panel elections from the Seanad even if they operate on a much too restrictive franchise of local authority members and existing Oireachtas members. The idea is that each voter would have 4 (it could be 3 or 5, I’m not married to 4) votes to cast in 4 overlapping constituencies that would each be electing only a quarter of the number of TD per head as now. However, since there would be 4 of them we’d still end up with the same number of TDs only the quota would be increased by a factor of 4 without incurring the problems associated with having too small a parliament.
So we could have a West of Ireland constituency with 8 seats representing all the counties of the western seaboard with an electorate of 300,000 that also overlaps in places with a Munster constituency that has 10 seats and a 4 seat Southern constituency including part of Kerry, all of Cork and Waterford and a part of Wexford. We could have 3 and 4 seat constituencies for fishing, the Gaeltacht and other non-geographic profession or special interest constituencies based on other criteria. People in Louth could vote in North Leinster, East Leinster and the Border. It would be possible then for the quotas to be three and four times what they are now while retaining roughly same overall number of elected representatives as at present. In such a scenario with non-geographical constituencies (that could be made to dynamically grow as more people chose to exercise their votes for those panels rather than the geographical) we could look to eliminate the Seanad.
With no one being able to get elected just by being the main Killarney candidate or the sole candidate from Dingle, they would have to offer more in the way of a broader policy message for the country and to people spread across such distances that they can’t spend as much time being clientelist agents for. It would not end clientelism forever but it would reduce it considerably.
2) Diversity and Broadening choice at election time.
There is considerable attention given to the lack of diversity in the Oireachtas which derives entirely from the lack of diversity is offered to the electorate. For many reasons, understandable but misguided, most of the attention is on purely the topic of gender diversity with the occasional nod towards the age profile of the parliament.
The truth is that lack of diversity in representative politics is not simply gender specific but encompasses age, income, educational background, and shocking though it might be for some to consider, political opinion. To focus solely on gender is to miss the core problem which is that it is the voters that cause the political parties to tack to the middle and safe, conservative waters in terms of candidate selection. Our parliament should no more have a minimum target for female or male representation any more than it would have a maximum one.
The question is often asked why don’t political parties run more women, more young people, more people who are gay, more openly ideologically opinionated people both left and right leaning, more people who like mountain biking or Aphex Twin (ok that’s probably just me). Yet the question is often asked more as a rhetorical device to castigate political party X or position Y instead of looking at the reality of why parties don’t run broader slates of candidates.
So why do parties cleave to the mainstream with their tickets? The truth is because they are ruled more by fear than adventure, and because most of them have seats that they can lose as much as they are targeting seats that they can win. Political party organisations as campaigning entities exist in the main to win seats, and winning seats is again about numbers and the behaviour of the electorate. You can design new electoral systems all you want but if the public want to vote a certain way or use the system to get a certain outcome then that is what they will do and that is what they will try to get. In part the problem in Ireland is that winning seats, not alone above all but to the exclusion of all else, has been become the sole objective of the party organisations.
So what is stopping parties running much more diverse slates, why not run 7 candidates in a 5 seater? Fundamentally it is down to transfers, you might think that running as broad a range of candidates would be the best option as it would ensure that everyone in an area has a candidate from a party whose policies they like that and who – on a personal leve – they are also comfortable voting for. With our form of geographically based PR-STV that is not what happens, e.g. the Killorglin FFer leaks votes to the FGer from Killorglin costing FF a 2nd Kerry South seat that they should have won based on their share of the 1st preference vote. Even FF who used to run as many candidates as there were seats learned in the end that with PR-STV you will lose seats you would have won by running too many candidates as the transfers ebb away over the course of the counts.
Quotas that require a gender divide in candidate slates would be more damaging to those larger parties that might be able to think about win more than one seat in a constituency. They are also wholly unnecessary to achieve the aim of broadening access. Requiring a party that might typically run 3 candidates in a 5 seater because they can win 2 seats to instead run 4 of which half must be of one gender are being targeted compared to the party that is just in the hunt for just one seat that will simply run their usual main candidate along with a token. It would lead to the smaller parties especially running complete token candidates, I’m sure that Joe Higgins and Clare Daly would find compliant running mates of the required gender whose name might be on the ballot but who won’t campaign worth a damn. And it is a measure that doesn’t apply to independent/non party or single issue candidates at all!
If we were to have quotas at all then it would be more reasonable to require all parties contesting the election to offer a panel of candidates equal to double the number of seats with an equal man/female split in others words to have what would be local lists. Some people will not unreasonably say this will hurt the smaller parties more that are in the running for more one seat in a 4 seater or that it would lead to tokenism. Yet so would the notion that we must run 50/50 tickets, but it is a valid criticism of local lists then it is a valid criticism of unequally weighted gender splits.
The suggestion I would make is that we could take one of the positive facets of a national list and say that the total allocation of parliamentary seats for each party is to be based on the national % of the 1st preference vote the party secures, provided that some minimal threshold of 3/4/5% is reached. We could then proceed to elect 75/80% of the Dail in the manner we are used to with uniformly sized constituencies of 4 seats. Let’s say we have thirty constituencies of 4 seats each giving us 120 TDs in this manner. Yes they will straddle county boundaries and the like but what of it, the county system as a unit of local administration/governance is past its sale by date but that’s a post for another time. We could even have some portion of those 4 seat constituencies be non-geographically based, incorporating the reforms suggested in the first part of this piece to increase the quotas!
The first major change we will see is that parties will run broader slates as every last 1st preferences counts for the same in getting their national seat totals! Running that smart female lecturer from Milltown who works in Tralee is no longer a problem even if the sitting male FF TD is based 4 miles away in Killorglin, they can run candidates in every town they want if they like (and if they have the money to do so). Her potential value to the party isn’t reduced as the eliminations take place; and the people still get to decide who is best placed to be elected first. Her extra votes are not progressively discounted by the elimination and transfer stages at the count. So imagine an election where the national vote percentages were FG 30% FF 20% Lab 25% SF 15% Green 5% Others 5% And the result when all the four seats are filled in all the constituencies were 120 – FG 40 FF 25 Lab 31 SF 17 Green 3 Others 2
With 30 to be distributed as mop-ups with the aim is to have a proportionate chamber of 150 the target to be aimed for is
150 seats – FG 46 FF 31 Lab 38 SF 22 Green 10 Others 2
The mop up or top up, overhang is performed by deeming those whose parties had sufficient national support to warrant election for more seats but it is not party hierarchies that are picking insider favourites to fill those slots, it is the people. Very strong independents could continue to be elected by some areas as at present though there would not be an ‘independent’ list or top up element.
With the first allocations to be made to the smaller parties and a gap of 7 seats for the Greens they would get their 7 candidates who had ended up unelected in the order of those who had gotten the most votes around the country. So the constituency with the highest polling Green candidate at the end of the count process would have that Green candidate being deemed to be elected as a top/mop up overhang representative. They would still have to have run candidates who were from somewhere and the choice still remains with the electorate not the party hierarchy as to who is elected. And the parties have been given an incentive to run broad slates.
A counter argument might be advanced that party X might still not pick enough women but if that were the case and if the electorate (who are 50% female after all) care enough about gender alone and party Y runs more women then it is party Y not party X would benefit. The aim of this system is to break down barriers, to encourage more diversity – what happens after that is in the hands of the prospective candidates and the electorate.
In summary, we have real problems in our politics as a result of excessive clientelism and a lack of diversity at election time but we need to consider how any systemic changes being suggested would work in the actual environment that exists in Ireland. Too much discussion is based on laboratory conditions or what happens elsewhere under entirely different electoral systems. We need to recognise that encouraging much more choice is better in the long run than seeking to restrict choice and that our ties to purely geographically based representation is blinding us to inventive but practical options that might assist us to combating clientelism.