30 October 2011

This is what (an approximation of) Democracy looks like

The people have spoken. Technically 56.1% of those eligible to speak have spoken.
Citywest, Dublin, Friday 28th October
So the events of the last forty-eight hours have shown that our nation is not completely off their collective rockers. A Fianna Fail bag-man has been sent packing back to the envelope-filled smoky back-rooms from whence he slithered and a jolly little gnome with a penchent for purple prose (nothing wrong with that, mind you) is being sent to the big house in the Park, to while away the silent hours of sullen retirement with the deer and cobwebs and the occasional visiting dignitary that just popped in to check he still had a heartbeat.

Also of interest is the defeat of one, but not both, of the Government's proposed Constitutional Amendments. While the citizenry seemed content to let the Oireachtas rifle through the wallets of the judiciary, they seem less inclined to let them also "borrow" the odd bit of legal inquisitive powers while they're at it. In a classic one-two punch over 79% of the electorate who were not members of the judiciary, the legal profession or their relatives happily gave the Dáil excessive power over somebody else's lives, and then 52% of them balked at the notion of the Dáil having excessive power over their own lives. Take that, judges, that will teach you to sit in judgement over us with your chairs and your legal knowledge and your keeping the streets safe and all that forcing of the Government to address matters of critical human rights importance! You'll think twice the next time you're considering ruling against the Attorney General, won't you now?

The results of the Presidential Election and both Referenda were of particular interest to me not because I am a judge, a stag in the Phoenix Park or a stag in the Phoenix Park whose conduct may prompt investigation by the Dáil which may determine, with due regard to the principles of fair procedures, the appropriate balance between the rights of persons and the public interest for the purposes of ensuring an effective inquiry into this matter. No, my friends, these results were of great interest because of where I spent most of Friday, in the Citywest convention centre at the Presidential and Dublin West By-Election count.

And if you don't know why that would excite me so much, then you are probably reading the wrong blog.

In the Really Real World I work with a number of early stage start-ups, advising them on business planning and online strategy. One of these is a film production company that has an innovative approach to filmmaking on a very tight budget, and some interesting ideas about online distribution. For the last eighteen months or so they have been following a, well, let's call him a "community organiser", around with a film crew and when he decided to run as an Independent candidate in the By-Election for the Dublin West Constituency, the crew went along to the election count to document it all, and I tagged along for the ride.

Good Idea: Colour coding the Presidential and Referenda ballot papers. Bad Idea: Putting them all in the same box
Citywest, Dublin, Friday 28th October
The count was held over two floors in the Citywest Convention centre, a sprawling complex and hotel at the very end of the new Luas Red Line extension, in what used to be the bucolic village of Saggart and is now just another jumbled point lost in the anarchic suburban sprawl of Dublin that made Los Angeles seem well-thought out in comparison and NAMA the bloated albatros that it is around our collective necks. The By-Election count was held upstairs, and downstairs saw the Presidential and both Referenda counts for three Dublin county councils (Fingal, South Dublin and Dún Laoghaire-Rathdown), and as I arrived shortly after 9am the ballot boxes had all been opened and the tally was furiously underway.

For those of you outside of Ireland a short explanatory note might be in order here. When we vote, we use these things called 'pencils', and write on what we like to call 'paper'. We also use an equally mysterious system for our electoral process called 'Proportional Representation (Single Transferable Vote)', wherein voters rank their desired candidates in order of preference, with '1' for the candidate they would most like to win, '2' for the next, and so on. What happens next is only really of interest to Irish folks (or Maltese, Indians, Australians or Icelanders since last year), it is enough to say that counting the ballots is a lengthy, manual process and can take a couple of days in a close run General Election. When polling stations close the ballot boxes are transfered to the count centres and held under police supervision overnight, then opened in the morning and the real fun begins.

The tally gets underway.
Citywest, Dublin, Friday 28th October
Politics in Ireland is a patient process with no network TV calling the election as soon as the polls in California have closed and before a single vote has actually been counted, but thankfully we're not quite as bad as Belgium. We do, however, have our own indigenous Early Warning System; instead of a system of media-run 'Exit Polls', we borrowed liberally from the Central American banana trade (as befits our Banana Republic status) and developed a system of tallies. As the ballot boxes are publicly opened onto tables and sorted into nice neat piles for counting at a later stage, throngs of gentlemen and ladies with clipboards stand pressed against the barricades that protect the counting tables and record each ballot as it is added to the pile with a series of ticks on paper. These good men and women are, by and large, not independent members of the public but activists in assorted political parties, recording the results to bring back to their tabulators, the Tallymen (and they are almost all men) who try to build up an overall impression of how the election has gone in that ward.

A backroom filled with Tallymen. Smoke-free since 2004.
Citywest, Dublin, Friday 28th October
In Citywest there was a separate room where these Tallymen from all the major parties (at least according to the stickers on their backs) sat gathered around a single large table, laptops a blazing as runners brought up sheet after sheet from downstairs. Interestingly enough the parties seemed to share their tally information, agreeing on an "official" tally result which was then handed out to the assembled media well before a single vote was actually counted.

Throughout the day the media bemoaned the lack of accurate tallies from count centres across the country, due to the lack of an official Fianna Fail candidate in the Presidential election and the subsequent absence of the fabled Fianna Fail machine and its tallymen of doom. In Citywest we had no such hiccups, for Dublin West had been the home of the late Brian Lenihan and the machine was out in force to ensure the party retained its last toe-hold in Dublin. The backroom was littered with Ogra Fianna Fail pens and stickers and a brimstone-like smell of doomed determination and while their plotting and scheming proved ultimately a failure, at least their tallies were reasonably accurate.

Irish Presidential candidates are easily pigeonholed
Citywest, Dublin, Friday 28th October
Once the ballots have been placed into nice neat piles the process of sorting them into smaller piles based on first preference votes begins. This takes place away from the tables and around a series of pigeonhole bookcases, with each candidate having their own pigeonhole and further spaces for blank/spoiled votes and one for those voters whose penmanship creates the wood-and-lead equivalent of hanging chads. Once sorted these piles are then distributed back out to the counters who add up the total votes in each pile. As this is going on the Tallymen return and start peering over the hands of the counters at each ballot to record who got the second preference, so they have an indication of where those votes will go if the first preference candidate is eliminated (or elected in a multi-seat election) - again this bit probably isn't of interest to those of you with first-past-the-post systems, but believe me it is this second and third preference counting that makes our system the most wonderful and exciting in the world. The rest of you really don't know what you are missing, imagine if all of your Christmas presents were wrapped like a Russian matryoshka doll, the joy of unwrapping would go on, and on, and on until, at the very end, you arrived at the innermost layer and found to your delight a small but perfectly formed legislature.

Best. Christmas. Ever.

With the Ballot boxes open at 8am, the results of the first count of 35,702 votes in the Dublin West By-Election weren't actually announced until almost 4:30 in the afternoon, and the final results weren't announced until late the following day. All of this gave me plenty of time to wander around downstairs and watch the Presidential and Referenda counts, and draw a number of interesting conclusions.

My first preference went to Doubtful. It usually does.
Citywest, Dublin, Friday 28th October
Firstly, if you found my haphazard explanation of PR-STV of no use whatsoever, and are still completely in the dark about how it all works, don't worry, a sizable chunk of the Irish population are similarly confused. About 2% of the By-Election and 1% of the Presidential votes were spoiled, some deliberately left blank, others filled in with good intentions but appalling execution. The number of ballots I saw with several check marks used instead of numbers, or multiple numbers one, two and three, or simply several yeses and nos was alarming.

Secondly those who understand PR-STV really, really like it. Far more ballots than I ever imagined actually gave a preference to every single candidate, when the instructions said to list the candidates in order of preference, 1-13, people really did list all thirteen candidates in order of preference. In the February General Election out of sixteen candidates in a four seat constituency I listed (maybe) seven preferences. This was less to do with the fact that I only supported seven candidates and more to do with the fact there were nine that I really didn't want to vote for, which segues nicely into my third point, that voters aren't as factionalised as I thought.

Dublin West ballot papers
Citywest, Dublin, Friday 28th October
Growing up in a Blueshirt household, I knew that one must never, ever vote Fianna Fail or Sinn Fein. While my own politics are solidly on the left, this prohibition remains entrenched in my subconscious, and so without thinking I lapse into tactical voting to block the Soldiers of Destiny at every opportunity, and will admit to giving a Blueshirt my sixth or seventh preference, on occasion, if it hammers another nail in the coffin of Fianna Fail. Naturally I assumed that all voters were as tribal as this, but watching the counts on Friday I now realise that I was very, very mistaken.

I was startled to see the number of voters who went 1,2 for Mitchell and Gallagher, or Mitchell and McGuinness, or Norris and McGuinness, or even Gallagher and Michael D. I even saw someone vote for Dana, which is just plain crazy. Maybe it was just because it was a Presidential election with a pretty poor field of candidates, but voters genuinely seemed to have made their selection on the basis of the individual, and not the Party.

All ready to go back in storage. Or sold in a clumsy attempt to introduce electronic voting.
And then bought back at a substantial mark-up when e-voting proves to be a failure.
Citywest, Dublin, Friday 28th October
This gives me hope, because it suggests that the nation is not wedded to the Party Political system, that the electorate might actually be prepared to pay attention to The IssuesTM and not simply trot out every five years to vote for the lad whose father their father voted for, and whose grandfather their grandfather voted for. The Irish voter could actually be a far more sophisticated creature than I have ever given them credit for.

They even managed not to elect Sean Gallagher.

Consensus decision making and 'jazz hands' may indeed be a far superior form of real, participatory Democracy, but damn do I love the elegant majesty of paper, pencil and a voting system too complex for 68% of the UK electorate to understand.

Oh, and how did our "community organiser" fair? Well you'll just have to wait for the film to come out to see...

An agrarian people, we choose our leaders by a single transferable gourd.
Fallon & Byrne, Dublin, Friday 28th October

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