The Assembly Election: How to Use Proportional Representation

21 June 1998

If you don't, you can't complain about the outcome because others will use their votes. In the recent referendum 81% of the electorate voted. This was probably the highest turnout in any election in the history of Northern Ireland. This was because people cared about the future. The election on Thursday 25 June is just as important. What kind of Assembly do you want?
Your vote on Thursday 25 June will decide!

Proportional Representation (PR)
PR (Proportional Representation) is the method of voting for the 25 June election. It means voting 1, 2, 3, etc, for candidates in the order of your preference. Most people are familiar with it: we have used it for many years in all local elections. However, PR is complicated. We can't answer all the questions about it, but we can answer some. If you need more information, contact us and we will try to get you in touch with some experts.

In a straight vote (used in Westminster elections) you vote for one candidate only. However, PR gives the opportunity to list candidates in order of preference. This allows you to show not only which candidates you like, but also those you like less than others.

Suppose you have to choose 6 people to live on a desert island out of 9. You really like 4 of them -- let's call them
John, Philip, Ann and Catherine, but you dislike the other 5, let's call them Adam, Eve, David, Ruth and Naomi.
But of these 5 you can tolerate Adam and Eve (in that order) easier than David, Ruth and Naomi (in that order).

Under PR you get the chance to show your different preferences by listing in order of preference those you like: 1, 2, 3, 4. But you would then go on to list the others in your order of preference.

In this pamphlet we call this `voting down the line'. Look at example 1.

1 John
2 Philip
3 Ann
4 Catherine
5 Adam
6 Eve
7 David
8 Ruth
9 Naomi

One problem, however, is that voting papers are listed in alphabetical order. So the way the above vote would look on an actual voting card is as follows:

 

5  Adam
3 Ann
4 Catherine
7 David
6 Eve
1 John
9 Naomi
2 Philip
8 Ruth

In the following example the voter had a different order of preference: Ruth, Philip, Naomi, etc.

 

4 Adam
9 Ann
7 Catherine
6 David
5 Eve
8 John
3 Naomi
2 Philip
1 Ruth

Simple Rule:
Vote down the line if there are some candidates you like more than others, or some that you dislike more than others.

It may seem strange to list all the candidates in a constituency because this often means listing candidates with whom
you disagree. But PR gives you the opportunity to show which candidates you are most opposed to, and which you
are less opposed to, as well as choosing those whom you like.
For example, suppose there are 9 candidates in your constituency and you are very opposed to three of them.
Let's use the names of the same imaginary people as in our desert island example. But this time let's assume that
the people you most like are Adam, Eve and Naomi (in that order) and the people you most dislike are John, Philip
and Ruth (in that order).

In that case you would vote as follows:

 

1 Adam
5 Ann
Catherine
4 David
2 Eve
7 John
3 Naomi
8 Philip
9 Ruth

Suppose you only listed the ones you like: Adam, Eve and Naomi. Then don't complain if Ruth (your least favoured candidate) wins a seat over Ann (not one of your favourites, but you certainly prefer her to Ruth).

Others, unlike you, will have used their opportunity to vote down the line, so they will have influenced what happens o all the candidates. That is the point of PR: to give you the opportunity to indicate not only who you favourite candidates are, but also your order of preference for the other candidates.

Some reasons for voting `across the divide'
Many people in Northern Ireland are against the idea of voting across the divide. But here are some reasons why you might think it a good idea to do so.

a) If you want to support candidates who voted Yes on the Agreement;
b) If you want to support Unionist candidates, but there are some Nationalist candidates you prefer to others;
c) If you want to support Nationalist candidates but there are some Unionist candidates you prefer to others;
d) If you want to support non-Unionist and non- Nationalist candidates but there are also some Unionist and
some Nationalist candidates you prefer to others;

Some reasons for not voting `across the divide'
a) If you want to support candidates who voted No on the Agreement, the chances are you will vote only for people in the Unionist camp;
b) If you don't care which candidates are elected outside your immediate favourites.

Some questions you might ask before voting
-- Do I want to vote for candidates who support the Assembly or those who are committed to terminating it?
-- Do I want to vote for Unionist, Nationalist, or `Other' (neither Unionist nor Nationalist) candidates?
-- Do I want to vote for working or non-working class candidates?
-- Do I want to vote for candidates who will give a stronger voice to women or not?
-- Who is the candidate you most like?
-- Who would you prefer next?
-- Which candidate do you like least?
-- Which candidate is the second last in your list?

PR gives you to chance to vote for these candidates in the order of your choice.
Of course, it may be that you really don't care whom you're stuck with on the desert island, or which candidates are elected, once those you vote for first are elected. In that case you would only vote for a few candidates and not vote down the line.

How PR works (a very simple account of three counts)

First count
All the First Preferences (votes numbered 1) are counted. If any candidate reaches the quota they are elected. (The quota is reached by dividing the number of valid votes by one more than the number of seats and adding 1. For example, suppose there were 49,000 valid votes and 6 candidates: the quota would be 49,000 divided by 6+1 which is 7,000, then add 1 to get 7001. But this is only for the really curious!)
Candidates who are elected may have a surplus -- that is more than the quota. Suppose Adam gets 10,500. He then has a surplus of 3,500 (10,500 minus 7,000).

Second count
Adam's surplus is then distributed by counting the second preferences on 3,500 of his votes. Let's suppose that these are distributed as follows: Eve: 1,500, Ann: 1000, David: 900, Naomi: 100. These figures are then added to the number of votes Ruth, Ann, David and Catherine already received on the first count.

Third count
Let's assume that Philip only got 500 votes on the first count and is still the lowest candidate after the second count. He is then eliminated. All his second preference votes are then counted and distributed. Let's assume that 350 go to Ann, 90 to Naomi and 60 go to David. The total votes of Ann, Catherine and David are then increased by this amount. (Remember your preferences will only be taken into account after the First Count if you have voted down the line).
The next lowest candidate is then eliminated and his or her votes distributed until either:
a) 6 candidates have passed the quota; or
b) There are only 6 candidates left in which case they are all declared elected since there are 6 available seats.

An imaginary example of three counts:

Result of first count of No 1 preferences:

 

 Adam
10,500

 

 Naomi 6,500

 

 Ruth 6,200

 

 Ann 5,700

 

 Catherine 5,300

 

 John 5,200

 

 Eve 4,800

 

 David 4,300

 

Philip 500

Result of second count: distribution of Adam's surplus of 3,500:

 

 

 Adam elected

 

 Ann 6,700
(5700+1000)

 

 Naomi 6,600 (6500 + 100)

 

 Eve 6,300 (4800+1500)

 Ruth 6200

 

 Catherine 5,300

 

 John 5,200

 

 David 5,200 (4300+900)

 

 Philip 500

Result of the Third Count (when Philip is eliminated and his second preferences are distributed):

 

 Adam elected :  Ann 7500 (6,700+350) elected:  Naomi 6,690 (6600+90) Eve 6,300  Ruth 6,200:   Catherine 5,300  David 5,260 (5,200+60)   John 5,200  Philip eliminated

In this example, Ann has been elected by transfers of Second preferences and Naomi is only 11 votes short of the quota.