Vote down the ballot or don’t, but know how it works: STV transfers

Ireland’s having an election tomorrow. And, as usual, it’s stressing me out a lot. One of the things that’s stressing me out is ongoing Twitter discourse about how best to use one’s ballot in an election under the STV system. In summary, people are offering competing and contradictory explanations as to why you should or shouldn’t rank candidates all the way down the ballot. The whole thing is confusing many people, many things that are being said are various combinations of misleading and outright untrue, and it’s becoming ever clearer that Ireland’s CSPE curriculum is not fit for purpose.

Like almost everything, I have a view on this, and, in the interests of disclosure, that view is that you should vote all the way down the ballot. But I’m not going to try to convince you of that, really. What I think would be more helpful is to outline, as simply as possible, how it affects an election when you do or don’t preference candidates. You can then decide for yourself how you’d like to use your vote.

This will not be an in-depth look at how STV  functions overall, how fairly it governs voting, or how it compares with other voting systems. If you’d like to learn more about STV voting as a whole, here are some good places to start.

How your vote affects things

There are two relevant things to understand about the mechanisms of STV vote transfers on this issue:

  1. It is impossible for a low preference on your ballot to count against a high preference on your ballot. For instance if you give, say, Labour your 6th preference, Labour will only get a transfer of your vote once the candidates you have ranked 1 to 5 have been either deemed elected or eliminated. So giving Labour that 6th preference can never, under any circumstances, reduce the electoral chances of your higher choices. It can only hurt ones you rank lower or do not rank.
  2. Until all seats in a constituency are filled, candidates will need to be elected. The bar to election will be lowered if no one can meet it. For example, let’s say the last seat in an election comes down to two candidates that I refused to preference, because I don’t want to “give either of them a vote”. All other candidates have been either deemed elected, or eliminated. One of those two candidates will have to be elected to fill all of the seats. Whichever of them has the most votes after transfers will be elected regardless of whether or not they meet the quota. If my vote doesn’t transfer, that just means the winner will need one fewer vote to win, because neither of them got it. I can’t hurt both, because it’s a zero sum game, so the bar is just lowered.

What this means

It does not make sense to vote only for the parties you like and not vote for the parties you dislike. As I outlined above, 1. you are never doing active harm to your preferred parties by also preferencing those you prefer less, and 2. a contest between the parties you don’t like may happen anyway, and when you don’t preference any of them, you’re simply removing the ability to influence that contest.

With all that in mind, the way your ballot works is that you stop preferencing  only when you have no preference between the remaining candidates. That is to say 1. you dislike all these candidates equally, and you dislike them all more than the ones you gave preferences to. Because the ones you refuse to rank are still competing against each other, you’ve just opted out of influencing that contest. If you care even a little bit about how that might turn out, you should express a preference.

Why I think you should vote down the ballot

So, Fine Gael and Fianna Fáil are terrible. Most of us agree on that. However, the various far-right parties of Ireland (Renua, ACI, IFP, NP, and I suppose Aontú) are significantly worse. They are unlikely to ever be in government, but the more votes they get, the longer they can continue existing. And if they secure even a handful of TDs, they will have a vastly bigger platform from which to spew their hateful bile. This empowers other bigots, makes hate crimes more likely, and makes marginalised groups feel unsafe in their own communities. This is the perspective I’m working from.

So let’s talk about my constituency. There are 15 candidates. One IFP, one Renua, two FG, one FF. If I give Renua and the IFP #14 and #15, and then the FF/FG block #11-13, I am ensuring that my vote does everything it can to keep fascists out of the Oireachtas. If it comes down to, say, FG versus Renua, I am helping the FG candidate win, as they’re the lesser of two evils. If the far-right candidates get eliminated, then my ballot effectively stops at the 13th preference, and FG/FF are now bottom of that ballot. I am helping literally anyone else (#1-#10) get elected over FF/FG.

On the other hand, if that nightmare scenario (one seat remaining, and it has to go to either the centre-right or the far-right) never occurs, then my ballot never helps FG/FF. Since I’ve preferenced them below everyone else (PBP, SD, G, SF, Lab, in whatever order), it is literally impossible for me to ever help them get elected over those candidates. So I am not, as people have put it, “giving Fine Gael a vote”, except in the one tiny set of circumstances when that would actually be a really good thing to do.

Given there’s at least one far-right candidate in almost every constituency, and given I think literally anyone is preferable to the far-right, I think you should vote down the ballot. Or, I suppose, vote down the ballot until you get to the fash, and then leave them blank. You don’t need to discern which fash you think is the worst, if you don’t want to.

Side note: It can actually be kind of hard to work out a full ranking when there are 10-20 candidates, since you’re not permitted to have a gap in your ranking. My strategy is to start from the top, ranking candidates I like, and also start from the bottom, ranking the terrible candidates, and then kind of work it out as I go in the middle.


I hope that clears things up. I feel both that I’m being extra-cautious and repeatedly or unnecessarily explaining things that might not need so much explanation, and that this is a counter-intuitive topic that is hard to discuss properly in words only. There is also a shocking lack of good internet content about it, and this is, as always, another argument for better civic education in schools and an independent electoral commission.

Above all: vote tomorrow, and vote left.

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