Our handy guide to understanding just what is going on over the next two days

Ireland's crazy voting system got you confused? Not to worry, here's a handy explainer

Our handy guide to understanding just what is going on over the next two days

Voting at the RDS, Dublin during the 2014 Local and European elections Image: Roling News

The broadcast moratorium has descended and after weeks (it may have felt like months to many of you) of campaigning we’re finally getting some peace and quiet and a trip to the calm of the ballot booth.

But for a lot of us the actual mechanics of the voting process are a bit of a mystery. Not least among them our quite odd, and almost unique voting system of proportional representation single transfer voting (PR-STV).

It’s just the Republic of Ireland and Malta using the PR-STV method, and even most of us will admit we barely understand the finer points of the counting process.

So to arm you for the days ahead – and in case you need to be the go-to oracle on PR-STV down the pub tomorrow – here is our guide to next two days.

The basics of the ballot

By completing your ballot paper in order of preference you are essentially saying: I want Ms. X elected, and in the event she reaches the quota and doesn’t need my vote I’d like it to go to Mr.Y next.

Only one preference on your ballot paper is active at any one time, and if your vote isn’t selected (at random) to be part of the surplus after each round then it is effectively dead. So your number 1 could be the only one counted, or you could enjoy an epic run to 24. There’s a minor element of chance built into all of this.

What will happen on Saturday?

All of the ballot boxes are taken to a central counting location in each constituency. Agents from each candidate are allowed to attend the count to oversee the whole process – and they’re present for the first step, the opening of envelopes containing any postal and special voters’ ballot papers.

The whole thing gets underway at 9am on Saturday. The number of ballots is counted and the total checked against a return filed by each presiding officer. After this the action starts, with all of the papers mixed and then sorted according to first preferences for each candidate.

What’s the tally?

The tally is the practice of watching and noting the count – and trying to accurately gauge how the votes are stacking up.

This isn’t an official count – parties will do it themselves, and often collate tally figures to reach an agreed prediction – but it can often be very accurate on first count results. It gets a little weaker on lower transfers.

What is the quota?

The quota is the number of votes that guarantees election.

Here’s how you calculate the quota:  The total number of valid votes divided by the number of seats, +1 seat. So, if you have a total voting population 40,000, in a four seat constituency, the quota would be 40,000 divided by 5 = 8,000 + 1 = 8,001.

How does the count work?

All first preference votes are counted – anyone reaching the quota is automatically elected.

Right, that’s the easy bit, it all gets a bit tricky from here. You could be crying out for an old fashioned Yes/No referendum by the end of this.

If a candidate receives more than the quota, their surplus votes are then transferred proportionally to the remaining candidates.

So here’s a (simplified) example.

(First, A note: There are a lot of clauses built into the process for different eventualities, but in the interest of not killing us all with confusion we've stuck to the basics here.)

Mary Lou McDonald of Sinn Féin wins election on the first count in Dublin Central with 15,000 first preferences. Let's say the quota here is 10,001, so McDonald’s 15,000 - the quota of 10,001 = 4,999 surplus.

So it is those surplus votes – the 4,999 - that then get shared around the remaining candidates. The other votes, 10,001 of them, are now dead. So if your vote is in there then you've elected your number 1, then your second preference, and anything below it, isn’t getting picked up.

But first we need to go back and count all of McDonald’s votes again, to get a percentage breakdown of second preferences that went to each candidate.

We’ll carry on with this example.

The 15,000 votes are recounted for second preferences and the results are:

(This is not a prediction, we’ll leave that to Ivan Yates, this is just a simplified breakdown.)

  • Christy Burke: 40%
  • Maureen O’Sullivan: 30%
  • Paschal Donohoe: 20%
  • Gary Gannon: 8%
  • Joe Costello: 3%

So we then need to split McDonald’s surplus (4,999) between the five. These surplus votes are chosen at random, which can be a crucial factor in recounts (more on that later).

So Burke gets 2,000 votes (40%), O’Sullivan gets 1,500 (30%), Donohoe gets 1,000 (20%), Gannon takes 400 (8%) and Costello receives 150 (3%).

McDonald’s surplus first preference votes are picked at random from the pile and divided up into parcels to be split among the remaining candidates in the amounts above. They have to be physically moved – again, this is important later.

If any one candidate is put above the quota then they’re elected and their surplus is then split. At this point the surplus is divided again among the remaining candidates. Crucially, only the votes they received from the first candidate – that’s Mary Lou McDonald in our example – are passed on.

As this goes on the bottom candidate is eliminated in each round – presuming a surplus in the next round couldn’t see them elected – and their votes are distributed among the remaining candidates.

And so we go through that quite complicated process until we have enough candidates elected.

It’s important to remember that the surplus of the first elected candidate is chosen at random from their total. And then all of the surplus votes passed down are picked from this pile. So if a recount is called it can bring different results if the randomly selected surplus ballots are different.

  • An important distinction here. A re-check and a re-count are different beasts entirely. A re-check is when they essentially make sure all that was done was done right. They're winding back the race and watching it again. A re-count, however, is running that race anew. And when there is a recount there is a fresh batch of surplus votes after count one - and that can in some cases prove pivotal. Usually in elections when we hear of a re-count we're actually getting a re-check.

Does a second preference actually matter that much?

Well, no, not too often. Which after trying to understand all of the above is pretty frustrating, we agree.

The truth is that after the first count, based on historical examples of voting in Irish elections, 92% of candidates who will end up in the Dáil will already be ‘in the frame’. In the frame here means they are in the top three in a three-seater, and top four in a four-seater etc.

As Newstalk’s elections correspondent Odran Flynn told us on The Pat Kenny Show on Wednesday, the elections analyst Sean Donnelly – who studies Irish elections in minute detail - has found that if elections were to stop after the first count, then roughly 92% of those candidates who were in the winning positions after the first fence were destined to win the race.

Only 11 of the eventual TDs elected in 2011 were not ‘in the frame’ after the first count.

So once the first counts are in we’ll have a broad idea of what the next Dáil will look like – even in this most chaotic of years – and right up until the last seat we can expect each count to be crucial.

Of course we have to understand that this election is almost certain to skew a few historical trends – and the sheer number of constituencies where things are hanging by a thread means that we could see that 92% average take a hammering on Saturday.

Live from @ElectionNT