Wednesday 7 December 2016

Four things you need to know before you vote

Going to the polls: definitely no selfies but dogs a maybe

Dr Theresa Reidy

Published 25/02/2016 | 02:30

While it’s advisable to check at polling stations before bringing your dog on election day, taking a selfie with your ballot paper is a no-no, though not specifically covered under Irish electoral law. Photo: Collins
While it’s advisable to check at polling stations before bringing your dog on election day, taking a selfie with your ballot paper is a no-no, though not specifically covered under Irish electoral law. Photo: Collins
While it’s advisable to check at polling stations before bringing your dog on election day, taking a selfie with your ballot paper is a no-no, though not specifically covered under Irish electoral law.
The ballot paper for the 2011 presidential election

Ahead of tomorrow’s general election, Dr Theresa Reidy guides you through the voting system – with important advice on how to avoid spoiling your vote.

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So what’s PR and STV again?

The electoral system is the set of rules used to convert votes cast at the election into seats in the Dáil. General elections in Ireland are conducted using an electoral system called Proportional Representation by the Single Transferable Vote (PR-STV). The system has been used at elections since 1922 and is enshrined in the 1937 constitution.

It is an unusual system and the only other country in Europe which uses it for general elections is Malta. 158 TDs will be returned to the next Dáil from 40 constituencies. Between 3 and 5 TDs are elected from each constituency and the decision on the geographic boundaries for each constituency and the number of TDs to be elected is made by an independent commission which is bound by the population rules set out in the Constitution and the electoral laws.

Fianna Fail Leader Micheal Martin during the last TV Debate on RTE Prime Time. Photo: Tony Maxwell/PA Wire
Fianna Fail Leader Micheal Martin during the last TV Debate on RTE Prime Time. Photo: Tony Maxwell/PA Wire

The use of the word proportional in the name of the system is the critical part. It means that there should be a close relationship between the percentage of votes a party gets and the percentage of seats it wins.

In theory, when a party gets 10pc of the votes, it should get around 10pc of the seats. In practice the system, does not work out as perfectly proportional, no system does. But it is generally agreed that the system is fair and it provides for the election of small parties and independents which leads to a diverse Dáil and allows communities to have a strong voice at national level.

Taoiseach Enda Kenny during the last TV Debate on RTE Prime Time. Photo: Tony Maxwell/PA Wire
Taoiseach Enda Kenny during the last TV Debate on RTE Prime Time. Photo: Tony Maxwell/PA Wire

How secret is a secret ballot?

Your vote is secret. When you have finished marking your ballot, you should fold it over and place it in the ballot box. No selfies! There are no specific laws about taking selfies but it is an offence to reveal the content of your ballot in the polling station so no posing with it, no matter how much you want to. For the same reason, voters should not write any messages or slogans on their ballot.

Sinn Féin leader Gerry Adams. Photo: Collins
Sinn Féin leader Gerry Adams. Photo: Collins

Again, it may reveal the identity of the voter and could result in the vote being deemed invalid and thus excluded during the counting process.

UK voters at their last general election sparked a big trend on social media by bringing their dogs with them to vote. Photos of voters posing with their pooches at polling stations were covered in newspapers across the world. The electoral law in Ireland does not cover dogs at polling stations but health and safety could strike so best to check whether your dog is welcome before you arrive together.

Tanaiste Joan Burton pictured at Labour HQ
Tanaiste Joan Burton pictured at Labour HQ

How do I vote?

Polling stations will be open from 7am to 10pm. A polling card is not required to vote but voters may be asked for identification so it is important to have some with you.

Voting under the PR-STV system is a straightforward process. Each voter will be given a ballot paper for their constituency. There is a lot of information on the ballot to help voters.

A photograph of each candidate is included along with information on any political party affiliation, their address and occupation.

Each voter ranks the candidates in order of their preference by placing 1, 2, 3…. in the box alongside the candidate. The number of candidates on the ballot will vary from one constituency to the next.

Laois has just 6 candidates, Donegal has 15 and Dublin South West has 21. You may express a preference for every candidate, voting all the way from 1 to 21 if you are in Dublin South West or for as many candidates as you want to express a preference for.

The great advantage of PR-STV is that it is an intuitive system allowing the voter to express an opinion on all of the candidates if they want to. It is often said, that whilst a person has one vote, they can offer many choices.

How do I avoid spoiling my vote?

Many voters choose to express only a few preferences, often voting from 1 to 5. The important thing is to express a clear preference. If you would like to vote for just one candidate, put the number 1 next to their name.

Returning officers usually accept a single X next to a candidate’s name as a clear preference. But you should not put multiple Xs on the ballot as this will result in your vote being spoiled.

The same would be true if you put the number 1 next to a few candidates. The vote cannot be counted as the returning officer cannot be sure about the order of the preferences and it will be deemed invalid.

Dr Theresa Reidy is a lecturer in the Department of Government at University College Cork.

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