Friday, 5 June 2009

Election Day

Today is Election Day here in Ireland, and for several weeks posters have hung from telephone poles and streetlamps all along the roads. The radio news has been full of polls, debates and interviews, with each candidate gingerly demonising the opposition and proclaiming themselves the choice of hope, change, reform and whatnot.

Superficially, this sounds like any American election, and Ireland has infighting, corruption and voter apathy like anywhere else. Their electoral system, however, offers many improvements over US elections, and a freedom of choice that most of my own countrymen lack.

First of all, Ireland maintains, by law, a strict election season – the advertisements go up a month or so before the election, and must be taken down immediately after. Parties and candidates do not spend two to three years campaigning, as in my native USA, and while I don’t watch much television, I’ve never seen a campaign commercial here.

Come Election Day, Ireland’s voters rank their first, second and third choices for an office, and those are mathematically factored in when no candidate gets a clear majority – and they rarely do. Candidates put up posters for themselves, of course, but in the fine print recommend one or two other candidates to write below their own name. Greens in America have long promoted this method under the name Instant Runoff Voting, and its installation would vastly improve America’s electoral landscape.

Also, one person is not chosen to represent a region of Ireland; rather, each region sends the top three (or more, depending on population) candidates, the public’s first, second and third choices. Americans so rarely have more than two candidates in a race anyway, but here ten people might run for an office and three of them might get elected.

When this is done over an entire country, it’s called Proportional Representation. If the USA had this in our Senate races, for example, and the Democrats received 40 percent of the vote, they would get 40 percent of the seats. If 10 percent of the public – across the country, everyone voting together -- wanted to vote Libertarian, that party would get 10 Senate seats. Ireland’s smaller version, PR inside small districts, means that candidates are local, yet factions within each locality get a voice in government.

These rules, as opposed to America’s winner-take-all system, allows third parties to exist in Ireland. There are two parties much larger than the others -- Fianna Fail (Fin-a fall, rhymes with tall) and Fine Gael (Fin-a Gail, rhymes with hail) – but neither has a clear majority, and several third parties and many independents are major players as well. In a typical election, Fine Gael and Fianna Fail might each take 40 percent of the vote, but the remaining 20 percent will be divided among the Greens, Labour, the Progressive Democrats and Sinn Fein (shin fain, rhymes with rain). There is usually a healthy smattering of independent candidates as well, activists well-known in their local area and not beholden to any party. No matter which major party wins, they cannot govern unless they form a coalition with one or more other groups.

America used to be much more like Europe is now, in the late 18th and 19th centuries – third parties thrived and operated as major players on the political scene. We never had ranked voting or proportional representation, but we had electoral fusion – that is, more than one party could pick the same candidate.

This meant that, while there were two large parties, they could not elect any candidates alone – they needed to make concessions to other factions to be elected. Our history books do not reveal much of this activity for two reasons; first, they only deal with the federal government, when much of the action was at the state and local levels. Second, they tend to list the major party of national candidates, so that William Jennings Bryan is referred to only as a Democrat and not as a Populist.

Third parties only attained the presidency once – the Republicans were arguably a third party when they elected our greatest president in 1860 – but they remained a force in politics until around a hundred years ago. Then, in state after state, the two largest parties consolidated power by eliminating fusion, forcing third parties out of elections except as “spoilers” that, like bees, sting once and then die. The few states that did not do this – say, New York State – are the few that still have active third parties.

In 1996, a group of Minnesotans tried to fight this, forming a third party and endorsing a major-party candidate. After the Minnesota courts ruled their action illegal, they brought their case to the USA Supreme Court, which handed down one of their less-known and more jaw-dropping rulings -- that the USA owes its “sound and effective government (sic)” to “the emergence of a strong and stable two-party system.”

As recounted in Lisa Disch’s excellent book The Tyranny of the Two-Party System, Supreme Court justices described in terror the consequences of having multiple parties. Justice Stevens envisioned a “parade of horribles,” elections in which there would be a “newly formed ‘No New Taxes,’ ‘Conserve Our Environment’ and ‘Stop Crime Now’ parties would face off against an opponent running for ‘The Fiscal Responsibility,’ ‘Healthy Planet’ and ‘Safe Streets’ parties.” How this would be negative, or even radically different than the current system, Stevens did not say.

The presence of only two major parties in the US not only limits our choices to two extremely similar groups, it also encourages the belief that these groups are all that can exist. Belief in a left-right spectrum is ubiquitous in America, and presents a massive barrier to non-mainstream ideas– say, peak energy or localisation. Since all meaningful issues – education, crime, health, religion – are considered political in America, and politics is binary, everyone’s first and last question will be “Which side are you on?”

I’ll go into more on that last point in a later post, but for now let me just note that, contrary to what the US media claim, democracy is not an ineffable quality that the US government bestows on the world through conquest. It does not involve flags, loyalty or unity. Its actions are far more painstaking and, to mainstream US culture, feel more alien – gathering in a library basement, calling your neighbours, canvassing door to door, protesting in the streets and forming your own factions. It means you move, and move, and move, until you are a movement, and what you and your neighbours want eventually percolates into the halls of power under sustained pressure. It means people get a chance to vote for what they want, and get to vote for parties that believe in it.

Ireland’s politics need a lot of reforming, but one fact stands out for me. Most Irish people vote – between 60 and 90 percent, depending on the election – perhaps because they know their vote counts for something.

In my country, most people don’t vote – not because they are stupid or callous, but because they think that their vote counts for nothing. And they are usually right.


Leo said...

A quick note on your comment about there being a strict election season - it's not as cut-and-dried as you imply. What happens is that all those posters that go up would normally be considered as littering. But there's an exemption in the month before an election, and as you say, they have a week afterwards to get them all down. Outside of this time candidates are perfectly free to advertise using normally adrvertisement channels.

Also, I believe that you have never seen or heard an political advertisement on television or radio becuase they are not permitted. Parties are given a brief (5 minutes at most) broadcast in the fortnight before the election to make their case. This is fairly similar to the system in the UK.

Brian Kaller said...


I didn't know the legal details well enough to include them, but I thought campaign commercials were illegal here. It's something my own country, the USA, should consider, rather than allowing candidates to be marketed like toothpaste.