Northern Ireland’s local elections show the benefit of the Single Transferable Vote

Doug Cowan, Head of Digital

Posted on the 26th May 2023

On the 18th of May, Northern Ireland’s local elections showcased the continued successful use of the Single Transferable Vote (STV). This inclusive and proportional method stands in stark contrast to the disproportionate results witnessed in England’s local elections on the 4th of May.

The Single Transferable Vote system has been used for Northern Ireland’s local elections since 1973. It’s a proportional representation method that gives voters a small group of local councillors who represent the political diversity of their ward. Rather than simply marking a single candidate, voters cast their vote by assigning numbers to the candidates, starting with a number one for their favourite. The upside of all this is that voters are much more likely to have a councillor they actually voted for.

Scotland upgraded to the Single Transferable Vote for their local elections in 2007. The number of people with a councillor they voted for jumped from just half, before they introduced STV, to three-quarters when the system was rolled out.

Unlike the First Past the Post system used in local elections in England and Wales, which often results in councils that look nothing like the political make-up of their residents, STV provides a fairer representation of voters’ preferences.

Low lights of England’s local elections on 4th May 2023

Just like the many wards in England that elect more than one councillor, voters can go to any of their councillors with their local issues. But thanks to the Single Transferable Vote, they have a much higher chance the councillor they talk to will actually agree with them, and are incentivised to work hard to ensure they get ranked higher by that voter the next time an election comes around.

Local election results in Northern Ireland

You can explore the full results of Northern Ireland’s local elections on the BBC.

The local elections in England on the 4th of May showcased the limitations of the First Past the Post system, and help to explain why Northern Ireland and Scotland ditched the system, while Wales has recently introduced legislation to allow individual councils to upgrade to the Single Transferable Vote. When only the biggest group of voters get represented, you can end up with the majority of voters locked out. The majority might want a left-wing councillor, but they end up with a right-wing one, or visa versa.

Conversely, Northern Ireland’s STV system allows voters to express nuanced preferences and not have to worry about ‘splitting the vote’. With everyone represented in the council chamber, local policies generally head in the direction the majority want. Voters get an electoral system that works for them, rather than one they have to work around.

When you combine all the results across Northern Ireland, you can see how the results are very close to voters’ first preferences. Where there are differences, it is due to voters using their second and third preferences to ensure they are represented.

The success of STV in Northern Ireland demonstrates the necessity of reform for the few elections that still use First Past the Post across the United Kingdom. By adopting proportional representation methods like STV, other nations and regions can ensure fair representation and empower voters to have their voices heard.

All local elections in the UK should be run under the fair Single Transferable Vote

Add your name to our call to reform England's local elections

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