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Dummy's guide to election count: Quotas, surpluses and tallymen


Opening up boxes at the Count Centre in 2011. Photo: Steve Humphreys

Opening up boxes at the Count Centre in 2011. Photo: Steve Humphreys

Opening up boxes at the Count Centre in 2011. Photo: Steve Humphreys

Dr Theresa Reidy’s guide to the election count.

And now comes the count?

Voting is easy but it must be said that the counting process is fairly complicated. When the polls closed last night, ballot boxes were collected and delivered to the main count centre in each constituency. Boxes were stored securely overnight and the count process begins at 9am this morning.

How do you get the quota again?

Each constituency will return between three and five TDs. To be elected, a candidate should have reached the vote quota for that constituency. The quota is calculated using a formula based on the number of votes cast and the number of seats in the constituency. In Ireland, we use the Droop quota, which is calculated as:

(Total valid poll/Number of seats + 1) +1

For example, in a three-seat constituency where 1,000 valid votes are cast, the formula would be:

(1000/4) +1 = 251 votes or 25% + 1 of the total votes cast

The formula works to ensure that the number of candidates who reach the quota cannot exceed the number of seats available.

What's the process?

The counting is carried out in stages.

1. Votes are opened and counted.

2. The quota is calculated.

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3. The votes are sorted according to preference and counted.

4. Any candidate that has reached the quota after the first count is deemed elected.

5. If the candidate elected has extra votes over and above the quota, these extra votes are redistributed to the remaining candidates in the field using the second preferences expressed on the ballot papers. These are called surplus votes.

6. If no new candidate is elected after the distribution of surplus votes, the candidate with the fewest votes is eliminated and their votes distributed in accordance with the second (or next available preference at later stages) on their ballot.

7. This process of election, distribution of surpluses and elimination of candidates continues until all of the seats are filled.

8. On some occasions, the last seat may be filled without the candidate reaching the quota.

How do you distribute a surplus?

The most complex part of the counting process relates to the distribution of surplus votes. When a candidate exceeds the quota on the first count, the second preferences on each of their ballots are examined. The votes above the quota are allocated to the remaining candidates in the field based on the ratio of second preferences which has been determined by the examination of the votes.

After the first count, only the votes above the quota are examined and used to decide the ratio for the allocation of the surplus votes.

What's a tallyman?

The counting process can take several days as the complexities of each stage are worked through. Tallymen are an unusually Irish part of the election process. These are observers from the political parties who attend the count and carefully watch and record the details of the first preference from each ballot while the sorting of votes is taking place.

The tally people collaborate across parties and combine their information on the first preferences for each candidate in a shared constituency spreadsheet. From early morning, this information will be shared in the media.

The tallies can be very accurate, especially if every ballot box has been monitored during the opening process. They provide a strong guide to the distribution of first preference votes and keep us informed while we await the announcement of the first count by the returning officers in each constituency.

In general, does the system work?

The advantage of PR-STV is that if a voter's first-preference candidate is eliminated early in the counting process, their vote carries on and their second and subsequent preferences can play a part in electing further candidates.

Counting of votes is also operated to help candidates and the rules are designed where possible to aide candidates getting back their election deposits and being eligible to be reimbursed for their election expenses.

How close do counts go?

Every vote is vital. Earlier this month, arising from a Supreme Court decision there was a recount from the 2014 local elections where a candidate lost out on a council seat by just a few votes. Over the years, just 10-15 votes have made a difference.

In one of the most famously close elections, Michael Finucane lost out to his Fine Gael running-mate Dan Neville by one vote.

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

Irish Independent

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