Election update: An even deeper inside look

A lot has happened since my last post,  a month ago almost to the day (Feb. 12 to March 13). The main reason for the long delay was some health issues that made it incredibly difficult to post; rather than go off on a tangent now I will leave that for an editor’s note near the end.

One of the more interesting experiences of the past month was getting an inside look at the Irish election, which took place on Feb. 26. An earlier post described how much I was enjoying seeing the election playing out in a system so different from the US.

National broadcaster RTE was set up for coverage of the Galway West count at NUI Galway.
National broadcaster RTE was set up for coverage of the Galway West count

Because one of the local vote-counting centers was at NUI Galway, I had the privilege of observing some of the election tallying, which is very different from the US system.

Ballots were sorted into cubbyholes for each of the candidates as the transfer votes were allocated.
Ballots were sorted into cubbyholes for each candidate as transfer votes were allocated.

Some background to start: Ireland’s legislature, or Dail, consists of 158 seats spread among 40 regional constituencies, with between three and five representatives from each. Depending on the number of seats available, a dozen or more candidates will run, from a mixture of major parties, minor parties and non-party independents. In Galway West, which includes the city and some surrounding areas, 20 candidates were vying for five seats.

Preferential voting

Where it gets interesting is that voters don’t just cast a ballot for a single candidate, as in the US system. Rather, they rank-order the candidates by preference. The vote tallying then proceeds through several rounds as various candidates are eliminated because they don’t have enough first-preference votes. When a candidate is eliminated, his or her votes are reallocated based on the second or later preferences listed on the ballots that had him/her listed first. An announcement of the new vote totals, which may change the rankings, followed by elimination of another candidate and further reallocation take place for each round.

Independent candidate Noel Grealish, the second of five to be declared a winner, is hoisted aloft by his supporters.
Noel Grealish, the second of five to be declared a winner, is hoisted aloft by his supporters.

In Galway West, this process played out over two days (Saturday Feb. 27 and Sunday Feb. 28) and more than 24 hours of total time to complete 14 rounds of eliminating candidates and redistributing the votes. (I  spent a couple of hours each day.)

My colleague Tim Madigan, right, and I got to meet Fine Gael candidate Hildegarde Naughton, who was elected to the fifth and final spot on the 14th round of counting.

As it went on, candidates were there with family, friends and supporters, awaiting their fate. Tally takers for the
candidates and parties watched as each ballot box was opened and kept their own unofficial tallies.

Those near the bottom of the pack on the first count, which ranked everyone by first preferences, probably knew it was just a matter of time before they were eliminated and their votes were redistributed. But they were interested in seeing where their reallocated votes went, which is important political intelligence for their parties and also for themselves if they were to run again.

Jostling for position

Those in the top five, of course, wanted to see if they could stay there and strengthen their positions on each subsequent count as votes were reallocated to them. Those in the middle of the back, say spots 6 to 9, were hoping as each round progressed that they would pick up enough transfers to climb into the top 5.

Local journalists, some of whom I’ve come to know and spent time talking with, offered predictions about who might benefit or lose out on each reallocation. It was sort of like watching sports teams scramble for the last couple of playoff spots as the season winds down. Overall, it was fascinating to watch.

In the end, Galway West had three incumbents who retained their seats as expected and a couple of incumbents from the current governing coalition who lost, which also wasn’t surprising given how their parties fared at the national level. This meant a couple of new faces from the district going to the Dail. Similar processes played out in 39 other districts across Ireland, leading to a new set of legislators who met for the first time earlier this week (on March 10).

The end result nationally was a very fractured array of parties and interests in the Dail, leading to the current political question on everyone’s mind of how — and even whether — a new governing coalition can be assembled. So the election keeps making news, and remains fascinating to observe.


  Editor’s note on post lag: About a month ago I developed a really bad case of sciatica (nerve-related pain in the leg related to issues in the lower back). The worst implication was that for several weeks I literally could not sit down, even for a few minutes, without severe pain and great difficulty. When I needed to type anything I had do so either standing up  or lying down. I had to really apply triage to computer usage, and the blog didn’t get high priority. The condition has not gone away completely, but has gone from major pain to just minor discomfort and things are mostly back to normal.


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