When you vote in an election in Ireland, you are asked to give your vote in order of preference. This is because Ireland uses an electoral system called proportional representation with a single transferrable vote (PR–STV, or PR for short).
The names of candidates appear in alphabetical order on the ballot paper, along with their photographs and their party emblem (if they wish).
You vote by writing “1” or “one” opposite your first choice candidate, “2” or “two” opposite your second choice, “3” or “three” opposite your third choice, and so on.
You can stop after indicating your first choice candidate or you can continue to give a preferential vote to as many candidates on the ballot paper as you wish.
When you vote with more than one preference, you are instructing the returning officer (the person responsible for the counting of votes) that if your preferred candidate is eliminated, or elected with a surplus of votes, you want your vote to be transferred to your second choice candidate.
PR is used in all elections in Ireland, including:
Voting in a PR election
At the polling station on election day, you will be given a stamped ballot paper. The returning officer may ask to see some identification or a polling card.
You cast your vote in a private space.
The election candidates will be listed alphabetically alongside their picture, the name of their party (if they belong to a political party) and their party emblem (in some cases). You vote by placing the number of your choice next to the candidate or candidates that you have chosen.
You can vote for as many or as few of the candidates as you wish.
If you want to vote for one candidate only, you should mark the number “1” or the word “one” in the box next to the candidate’s name. You should not tick or mark the box with an X.
Pencils will be provided, but you can bring your own pen or pencil if you wish.
When you have voted you should fold your ballot paper so your vote is not visible and put the folded ballot paper into the ballot box.
If you make a mistake on your ballot paper, the returning officer may give you another ballot paper. This is at the discretion of the returning officer. If you have already posted your ballot in the ballot box, the returning officer cannot give you another ballot paper.
Ballot papers that cannot be counted are called spoiled votes. A ballot papers may be spoiled if:
- The ballot paper was left blank
- The voter ticked or otherwise marked their preferred candidate or candidates, rather than numbering them
- The writing on the ballot paper could not be understood
- The ballot paper did not have the number “1” or the word “one” next to any candidate
- The ballot paper was not stamped by the returning officer
- The voter wrote their name or identified themselves in some way
- The order of preference was not clear (for example, the voter wrote “3” next to 2 different candidates)
- The voter deliberately spoiled their paper as a protest
How are votes counted in a PR election?
When polling is over, all the ballot boxes are taken to a central counting place for each constituency. The count starts at 9am on the day after polling day. Each ballot box is opened separately and the ballot papers in each box are counted.
The total number is compared with the total number of ballot papers issued for that box - this is done to check that ballot papers have not been put into or taken out of the box since the poll closed.
The ballot papers are then sorted into piles of ballot papers for each candidate.
The ballot papers are counted and sorted, and spoiled papers are rejected.
The total valid poll is the total number of votes minus the number of spoiled papers.
The count then takes place over a number of rounds. As candidates are elected or eliminated, the second, third (or lower) preference votes on that candidate’s ballot paper are counted.
Counting continues until all the seats have been filled.
How is the quota calculated?
To be elected, a candidate must generally reach the quota for the constituency. The last seat can be filled by a candidate who did not reach the quota if all the other candidates have been elected or eliminated.
The quota is calculated by dividing the total valid poll by 1 more than the number of available seats (if there is a number to carry over, it is ignored), and then adding 1.
For example, in a 4-seat constituency with a total valid poll of 25,000, the quota is:
25,000 (the total valid poll) divided by 5 (1 more than the number of seats), which is 5,000. Then add 1. The quota is 5,001.
What happens to surplus votes?
If a candidate receives more than the quota, their surplus ballot papers are transferred to the remaining candidates.
The surplus is transferred in proportion to how many second (or lower) preferences the other candidates received in the elected candidate’s vote. If the second preference candidate on any ballot is either already elected or has been eliminated, then the third preference is used, and so on.
If a candidate is elected at the first count, then all their votes are used to calculate the proportion of surplus that will be given to each candidate.
Candidate A receives 6,000 first preference votes at the first count. The quota is 5,000. A is elected with a surplus of 1,000 votes.
Out of A’s 6,000 total votes, 30% gave their second preference to B, and 20% gave their second preference to C.
B receives 300 votes (30% of 1,000) and C receives 200 votes (20% of 1,000)
Where a candidate reaches the quota after the first count, only the ballot papers that brought them over the quota are examined (the votes that were transferred from the previous count).
If 2 or more candidates are elected at the same time, then the surplus of the candidate with the largest vote is distributed first.
How are candidates eliminated?
If nobody reaches the quota after a round of counting, then the candidate with the fewest number of votes is eliminated, and all their votes are distributed.
More than one candidate can be eliminated after a round of voting if it is clear that they cannot be elected, and they cannot qualify to have their election expenses repaid.
Recouping election costs
Candidates can qualify for recoupment (repayment) of their election expenses (up to a maximum of €8,700 at a Dáil election), if they:
- Are elected
- Are not elected, but their total number of votes exceeds one quarter of the quota
There are extra count rules to give candidates every chance of reaching this vote threshold.
At a bye-election, the threshold is calculated differently to ensure that the minimum number of votes needed to qualify for recoupment of election expenses at a general election and at a bye-election in the same constituency is broadly comparable.
A recount can be ordered if a candidate asks for one, or if the returning officer decides that a recount is needed.
A candidate might ask for a recount of a particular count, or round of voting. This means that the votes that were counted in the last round only are counted again and corrected if necessary.
A candidate might ask for a total recount, which means that all the votes are counted as they are at the time of the request. If an error is found, then all the votes are recounted from the time the mistake happened.
It is possible that candidates that have already been deemed to be elected, could have their election overturned because of a recount. A candidate is deemed to be elected once they reach the quota of votes.
However, once the result is declared, a recount can only happen if it is ordered by the High Court. A candidate is declared elected when the total count is complete and the returning officer has declared the results.
The Department of Housing, Planning, Community and Local Government have published a guide to proportional representation (pdf).