Ireland Takes Election Reform Seriously with Convention on the Constitution

by Robert Fekete // Published June 28, 2013
house of the oireachtas2

The following is the second post in FairVote's series on the Irish electoral system and the 2013 Convention on the Constitution in Ireland. See the first post, an analysis of Ireland's ranked choice voting system, here.

In July of 2012, the Irish parliament passed a resolution that created a citizens' assembly called the Convention on the Constitution with the purpose of reviewing the Irish Constitution, including its electoral system. We at FairVote are pleased to see that the Irish are willing to scrutinize their current election system, as regular evaluation of the effectiveness of electoral processes is healthy for any democracy. Ireland's Convention serves as a model for how a similar system of electoral review could be developed in the U.S. - one that is transparent, broadly inclusive, and open to innovative new ideas.

The Irish Convention is structured as follows: of the 100 members of the Convention, 66 members are private citizens and 33 members are parliamentarians selected from their political party in the Irish Parliament or in North Ireland. The 66 private citizens on the Convention were randomly selected, and are thus broadly representative of the Irish society. The last member of the convention is the independent chairperson, who only votes in the event of a tie.

The Convention was charged with reviewing how elections are conducted in Ireland, and, after hearing testimonies and deliberating, with providing non-binding recommendations to the Parliament. The Irish Parliament has announced that they will respond to the convention's recommendations within four months of submission, and will provide a timeframe for a referendum if they agree to the recommendations.

Over the course of their year-long mandate to review the Irish Constitution, the convention will hold deliberations that at various locations throughout the country and will make all documents and every session available online. The Convention also allowed the public to submit their suggestions for the topics that were under review. As of June 14, 2013, the convention has received over 1,400 submissions from the public. The convention also heard expert testimony about the relative merits of their own electoral system and those used in other countries.

While it considered a wide variety of electoral systems, the Convention ultimately recommended that the current system of choice voting (known in Ireland as the single transferable vote) be maintained.

The Irish are not the first in recent memory to assemble a convention to evaluate the fundamental structure of their voting system. In 2004, a very similar citizen's assembly was convened in British Columbia, composed of 161 members drawn randomly from voter registration lists who had ten months to propose reforms. As was the case in Ireland, that assembly ultimately recommended the use of choice voting in their provincial elections. While the measure to switch to choice voting in British Columbia came up just shy of the 60% of votes in a referendum necessary to go into effect, it did receive a clear majority (57.69%) of the vote, demonstrating that the assembly's recommendations were widely respected.

Ireland's current Convention on the Constitution, like the citizen's assembly in British Columbia of nearly a decade ago, shows the value of having an independent and influential body discussing electoral reform without being constrained by day-to-day politics or immediate electoral incentives. These assemblies tend to be willing to consider more significant structural reforms, like choice voting, that can have tremendous positive effects on their elections.

In an American political environment where it is a struggle to achieve even minor voting reform, an Irish-style constitutional convention or citizen's assembly could go a long way toward opening the door to many much-needed structural election reforms.

Check back next week for more posts going into greater depth on the specific recommendations of the Irish constitutional convention.