The Joint Committee on the Constitution is undertaking a review of the process of electing members to the Dáil, which could lead to a referendum. Chairman Sean Ardagh TD (Fianna Fáil) updates eolas on the progress of the review so far and the responses received during the public consultation.
In the current phase of its work programme, the Joint Committee is undertaking a review of the constitutional basis for the election of members of Dáil Éireann as prescribed by Article 16 of the Constitution.
In this review, the committee has sought to analyse the effectiveness of the current system of proportional representation by means of a single transferable vote (PR-STV) and to explore a range of proposals for its reform.
In this article I shall seek to summarise the submissions that have been made to date to the committee, as well as discussing issues that will be raised in forthcoming meetings and research that has been commissioned by us.
In terms of assessing the performance of the current system, there are a range of criteria by which the effectiveness of any electoral system may be evaluated. These include: the proportionality of the conversion of vote shares to seat shares; the capacity of representatives to balance engagement in constituency service with legislative work in the Dáil; the formation of stable governments; the representation of women and minority demographic groups in parliament; the ability of parties to behave in a disciplined manner in the legislature and the management of intra-party rivalries; and the satisfaction of the public with the functioning of the system.
While the technical criteria are relatively straightforward to evaluate in comparison to alternative electoral systems, criteria that involve sociological and political input are less clear cut. One area where there appears to be broad agreement among contributors however is that the representation of women in the Dáil is unacceptably low. Fiona Buckley of University College Cork demonstrated to the joint committee that Ireland was performing poorly relative to other EU member states (Ireland is 24th out of the 27 states in terms of the proportion of female representatives in parliament).
The extent to which the PR-STV system places undue pressure on TDs to perform constituency work has been at the heart of calls for reform of the system. Points of contention in submissions to the committee to date have centered around the following points:
• the extent to which Ireland is an ‘outlier’ in international terms with regard to the levels of constituency service provided by TDs;
• the importance of constituency service and its benefits;
• whether the pressures to provide constituency service would be altered if the electoral system were to be reformed.
We have received submissions reflecting a range of views on each of these points. It has been suggested that any change in the electoral system that would imply a diminution of the constituency services provided by TDs would have to be accompanied by substantial reforms of the system of local government to allow that system to better fulfill the local representative role, as well as reforms in the Dáil that would see a better-defined legislative role for TDs.
The joint committee has also undertaken a survey of TDs, which was designed to analyse their work practices in terms of the division of labour between constituency-based activities and legislative activities. The results of this survey will be compared to surveys of parliamentarians’ activities in states with alternative electoral systems, including Germany and the Scottish and Welsh assemblies, as well as an identical survey being carried out in Malta, which also operates PR-STV.
Alternative electoral system
In terms of proposals for reforming the current system, suggestions and proposals received to date have fallen into three broad categories. Firstly, several proposals envisage the abandonment of PR-STV in its entirety and its replacement with an alternative electoral system. This type of reform would necessitate a revision of the Constitution, which would be subject to approval via referendum. Most proposals in this regard have suggested that Ireland adopt some variation of a mixed member proportional (MMP) system. In such systems, voters cast two votes: one for a candidate in their constituency and one for a party on a regional or national list. A number of seats, typically around 50 per cent, are allocated in single member constituencies (normally via first-past-the post elections). The remaining seats are attributed to parties on the basis of list votes using some form of proportional representation (PR).
A second category of proposals are rules-based, and do not (necessarily) entail a move away from PR-STV. Such proposals have included: the adoption of more activist integrationist policies (i.e. political education, funding etc.) for new Irish candidates, as well as improved access to the electoral register for new Irish members of society; gender-based quotas; lowering of the minimum age for voting (this measure would also entail a constitutional referendum); alternative systems of constituency delineation; changes in the number of members to be elected; alternative procedures for filling casual vacancies in the Dáil; and proposals aimed at improving the electoral register.
Local government reform
Thirdly, several suggestions for changes have been put forward that are specifically designed to improve the operation of the current PR-STV system. The committee has already received several written submissions along these lines, and has scheduled a meeting in early February that will focus exclusively on these suggestions. Among the suggestions already received are: larger or smaller constituency sizes; alternative methodologies for counting of transfers; randomized listing of candidates; and the use of counting machines for processing paper votes.
A further point is that any radical change from the current system would require popular support, both from a technical point of view due to the referendum requirement, and from a normative point of view as the system of election must be perceived to be legitimate and fair by the voters. Keeping this in mind, the joint committee has also solicited proposals on methods for achieving greater public participation in the process of electoral and constitutional reform from a range of experts.
At the invitation of University College Cork, we held a public meeting at UCC on 26 November 2009 to enable us to hear directly from students from the Department of Government engaged in research on electoral systems and electoral reform, the academic community in Cork, invited interested parties and members of the public. It is proposed that we will hold a similar type of meeting at Trinity College Dublin in February 2010.
At the end of this review, we will publish a report setting out the committee’s opinion and recommendations to the Houses of the Oireachtas and the Government. How, when and if changes come about in our electoral system as a result of our work will then be up to the parliament and the people. The joint committee will move on to review another interesting topic as prescribed by our Constitution.