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Con Houlihan: My vote is for our PR system

Proportional representation (PR) is the simplest form of election known to man, and that is why so few people understand it. Of course, we should teach politics in the schools, not as a compulsory but as a gainful subject. And then when people go out to the polls, they might understand what they are doing.

Many people think that if you give your number one to a candidate and vote no more, you are doing him a great favour. In fact, it is quite likely that you have wasted your vote. This vote is called a "plumper".

And innocent people imagine that if you give people your lesser chances, you are harming your favourite man. The great thing about PR is that if you vote for all the candidates, it is almost certain that your vote will be effective in the end.

Let us suppose that you are at the polls and you vote for your favourite candidate -- you should then vote for your second favourite. If your first choice happened to be eliminated, your number two vote would become a number one. And let us suppose your first two choices were eliminated, your number three vote would become first choice. And so on, all the way down. If there were 10 candidates and you voted number nine for somebody, that might get him elected.

It sounds complicated, but in the working it is very simple. It means that your ballot paper, if numbered intelligently, can survive until the final count. The trouble with many people is that when they have voted number one, two and three, they then proceed without making a real choice -- they just fill the ballot paper as it is in front of them, in alphabetical order.

That is illogical. It should be borne in mind that if you vote for your candidates one, two, three, four and so on, the votes underneath cannot harm your candidates.

There is one thing to be aware of in all of this: there is a lot of trickery in elections and you cannot be too careful. If there are 10 candidates, there doesn't seem to be much point in giving a 10th vote because that isn't really your preference. However, you should mark him or her as number 10. There is always a danger that some unscrupulous polling clerk will put a one into the empty space and go up the paper and turn your one into a 10. That is why the scrutineers at the count lean in over the rails to make sure they know what's going on.

This trick may seem unimportant, but if it's carried out here and there, it means that someone is losing a vote while his rival is gaining a vote. And scattered over an area, all those dodgy votes could have an effect. Everybody who has ever worked at an election can tell you that you need to watch your back.

Proportional representation began early in the 20th century. It is reputedly the brainchild of a philosopher called John Stuart Mill. It was adopted by the Fabian Society and later it became an obsession with a body called the PR Society, to whom a woman called Enid Lakeman has given tremendous service.

Despite all this, the method used in British elections is a crude form called "first past the post" Ironically, the country where PR originated still doesn't use it. It uses a system which is manifestly absurd. For example, if an election involves 10 candidates and only one seat and there are 100 electors, one man might get 11 votes and be elected, although 89 people had voted against him. This is why Margaret Thatcher had the majority of seats in the Parliament, but never the majority of the popular vote.

First past the post makes some sense in the context of racehorses, greyhounds and athletes, but it is so unfair in elections that you wonder why it has lasted so long in Britain.

The English boast that Westminster is the Mother of Parliaments, but it can hardly be called the Mother of Democracy when its voting system is so crude.

PR was introduced for the elections after the Easter Rising because it was believed that it would ameliorate the bitterness between the different parties, and, of course, it has done that. And it is being maintained despite two efforts by Fianna Fail to replace it with the British system.

If you are ever canvassing, you will find out for yourself that people can refuse you without being offensive. After a while at this terrible drudgery, you will learn to translate words into common sense.

If somebody says "sure, we never refuse ye, and we won't let you down this time", you can say to yourself that might be a number five. Then if someone says "your family and ours were always great neighbours and we couldn't turn you down", this is probably a number four.

Then if someone says "we are dedicated to our man, we have been giving him our vote for a long time, but we will give you the highest number we can", that is a possible number three.

Then suppose somebody says "for God's sake, come in out of the cold and have a cup of tea or something", that is a guaranteed number two. Finally, if someone says "for the love of God, you know you're wasting your time coming here, didn't we always vote for you; give over the codding and come on in; there is a bottle of Paddy left over from Christmas and there is still a few dozen of stout in the house", then that is a guaranteed number one.

The trouble with the Irish people is that they are overburdened with the will to please. When first I found myself in Australia, I discovered that the natives had no such desire. In fact, they might go out of their way to hurt you.

That is why Irish men and women are the best bartenders, not alone in London but all over Britain and even in Australia. And that is why when young Australians on their world tour take up jobs bartending, they are not very good at it.

FOGRA Peter Roche, gentleman and scholar, will be 65 on Friday. Our best wishes go to Cora and himself