A sectarian voting system

Electoral Reform Society,

Posted on the 20th March 2015

The announcement by the two main unionist parties in Northern Ireland that they have entered into an electoral pact for the up-coming general election highlights a major problem with our electoral system.

The idea that parties step down in some seats to maximise their votes in others through an alliance with another party is a direct result of the outdated First Past the Post (FPTP) system. In Northern Ireland this already means that people often vote not for their preferred candidate but for the unionist or nationalist who is most likely to keep the others out.

The electoral pact between the Ulster Unionist Party (UUP) and the Democratic Unionist Party (DUP) is just the latest manifestation of this. The result is that the general election in Northern Ireland becomes another sectarian head-count.

First Past the Post has already been done away with in all other elections in Northern Ireland for precisely this reason: it encourages voting along sectarian lines with the result being unrepresentative of broader political opinion. The use of First Past the Post at general elections in Northern Ireland is the last vestige of an outdated electoral system.

The argument could be made that the Single Transferable Vote system is used at all other elections and the result is broadly the same, with self-declared nationalist and unionist candidates being chosen repeatedly by the electorate. But with STV in Assembly elections, a broader range of opinion is able to be represented. 

In particular, there is a greater opportunity for other parties that reject the nationalist/unionist binary to participate in the political process, such as Alliance or the Green Party who gained nine out of 108 Assembly seats. It also gives a voice to smaller parties and independents, who, together with Alliance, represent almost thirteen percent of representatives in the Assembly.

The last general election saw the UUP get more than 15 percent of the votes but no seats, while the DUP polled 25 percent and gained just under 45 percent of seats. Similarly, Alliance look likely to lose their only seat in May despite polling over six percent. First Past the Post squeezes out minority voices, while solidifying the dominance of the biggest two parties.

The attraction of electoral pacts for general elections, which themselves become little more than a sectarian carve-up of Westminster seats between the dominant parties, would be undermined if a truly representative electoral system were implemented. The rejection of First Past the Post is by no means a panacea for the myriad political issues that beset Northern Ireland, but its replacement at general elections would at least enable a more representative result to emerge.

The announcement of the electoral pact is a retrograde step, but it is the inevitable result of a retrograde electoral system.

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