Saturday 19 October 2019

Surpluses and tallies: This is the dummy's guide to an election count

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

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 centres across the country. Boxes were stored securely overnight and the count process begins at 9am this morning. The counting for the local election will begin first.

What's the process?

The counting is carried out in stages.

1. Votes are opened and counted.

2. The quota is calculated.

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 and tallies?

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. 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 in 2002.

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

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