AP Explains: Irish elections a study in epic eccentricity

AP News
Posted: Feb 27, 2016 7:09 AM
AP Explains: Irish elections a study in epic eccentricity

DUBLIN (AP) — Ireland started counting ballots Saturday, but the country may have to wait until Monday for the full official results — and the prospects for forming a government. The AP explains the peculiarities of Ireland's democracy and its lovingly slow dance with election results.


In Ireland's system of proportional representation, voters get one ballot but can vote for as many listed candidates as they like in order of preference. You can vote for every single politician with a hand-written No. 1, 2, 3 and so on. In Dublin South West, voters could pick from 1 to 21.

The preferential voting means ballots must be counted and recounted in multiple rounds. At the end of each round, another winner on top is declared or, if nobody new has crossed that mathematical finish line, the weakest loser is eliminated. Ballots that awarded the loser a No. 1 are recounted, with lower-preference votes transferred to any candidates still in contention.

The system is designed to ensure that small parties and independents get a better chance to win a seat. The goal is to fill all 158 seats in Dail Eireann, the key lower house of parliament that elects the government.

They compete on an electoral map that looks like a golfer's scorecard, with some of Ireland's 40 districts electing three lawmakers, others four, the most unpredictable ones five.

Not even the canniest analyst can confidently forecast who wins that fifth seat, because such "winners" may be profoundly unpopular figures who received few No. 1 votes, but eventually scrape together enough lower-level vote transfers to eke out a victory.



Ireland is a high-tech hub, but the Irish love low-tech elections. In 2002, the government started to purchase 7,500 computerized polling booths but the system aroused a wave of Luddite fears backed by analysts' warnings that the system could be hacked. Politics buffs complained, in all seriousness, that e-voting would allow the results to come in much too quickly, depriving the nation of a weekend-long fest of savory speculation over who might win that last seat in Galway.

The electronic polls were mothballed in 2004 without ever experiencing full-fledged battle at an eventual cost exceeding 55 million euros ($60 million). They were sold to scrap merchants in 2012 for 70,267 euros (about $77,000). Irish elections remain a pencil-only affair with armies of real human beings eyeing the ballots, over and over, into the night.



The first results in Irish elections are always unofficial — and deadly accurate. For this you can thank the tallymen, a ragged band of political zealots from every party who specialize in watching ballots as they're counted.

The tallymen — predominantly middle-aged men, old-school clipboards in hand — are permitted to stand on the far side of tables stacked with sorted ballots. They tilt their heads awkwardly to read each upside-down ballot as official counters record the result.

The first "tallies" measuring volumes of No. 1 votes flowing to each candidate are calculated within a few hours of the opening of the first ballot boxes. Some tallymen seek to identify the trends of where the No. 2, 3 or 4 votes will go, hours before official ballot-counters even consider that.

It's mammoth unpaid work, and serves no other purpose than to give politicians and the public expertly informed gossip on what results are coming.



Ireland's students spend 12 years or more studying Gaelic, the medieval tongue of Ireland, but only a minority leaves the system fluent in what today is an overwhelmingly English-speaking land. That doesn't stop Ireland from symbolically rejecting English in its politics and government.

The Fianna Fail party (FEEN-uh Fall) means "Warriors of Destiny." Fine Gael (FINN-uh Gayle) means "Tribe of the Irish" and Sinn Fein (Shin Fane) means "Ourselves" but traditionally benefits from the more poetic riff of "Ourselves Alone."

The government is led by a Taoiseach (TEE-shuck) which is commonly translated as prime minister but actually means chief. The deputy prime minister is the Tanaiste (TAWN-ush-tuh), which technically translates as "nearly the chief."



Winners of most parliamentary seats will be declared by Saturday night, but close results for final seats and recounts could delay the full national picture to Monday. The new parliament convenes March 10 to attempt to elect a new Taoiseach, who requires a majority of votes cast.