Who would govern Ireland under the electoral college system?

Analysis shows how country’s political map changed dramatically over the past four elections

17th November, 2020
Who would govern Ireland under the electoral college system?
Fianna Fáil would have won an electoral college election in 2020, with Sinn Féin winning the popular vote by 2.3 per cent

Irish people are known to be self-deprecating. We don’t deal well with compliments and, at times, don’t look at the success of people such as Bono or Bob Geldof positively either.

Yet when we compare ourselves as a nation to other well-established countries around the world, things change. We seem to look at ourselves with rose-tinted glasses, especially when there is a US election ongoing.

Over the past couple of weeks, I have read commentary from Irish people as well as the national media about the US presidential election. There are many differing opinions, but at one point or another, they all have one question: Why does the US use the electoral college system? This is usually followed by the claim that they should choose the president by popular vote.

This got me thinking. What if Ireland used the electoral college? Furthermore, would these results be different from the national popular vote?

An apples-to-apples comparison is quite difficult, given that the Taoiseach is not directly elected. However, let's assume that the leader of the party with the most electoral votes is the Taoiseach.

How does the US electoral college system work?

Each state in the US has two senators regardless of its population. The number of house representatives is determined by the population, much like the number of Dáil seats per constituency is determined in Ireland. Each state’s electoral college vote is simply the number of its national house representatives plus 2 senators.

For example, Wyoming has two senators and one representative, giving them 3 electoral college votes. Whichever candidate gets the most votes in each state is awarded all the electoral college votes attributed to that state, regardless of the margin of victory, except for Nebraska and Maine. But I am sure you all know that now, after watching countless hours of John King and his magic wall last week. Let’s talk about how this would work in Ireland.

How can this be translated to Ireland?

To calculate the number of electoral votes (EVs) for Irish counties, I assigned two “senators” to each county and added the number of Dáil seats in that county to get the EVs. Dublin had the highest number of electoral college votes with 47, while five counties (Westmeath, Longford, Leitrim, Sligo, Roscommon) were tied with the lowest value of four electoral college votes.

Whichever party had the highest number of first preference votes in each county was awarded all the electoral college votes from that county. For the counties that are joined to form a constituency (Sligo-Leitrim, Longford-Westmeath, etc) whichever party won that constituency was assigned the EVs for both counties.

Enough methodology. Let’s take a look at these maps and my version of an Irish magic wall.

2007 election

Ah, 2007. The height of the Celtic Tiger and Bertie’s reign of the land. The boom was booming, cranes decorated our skylines, and helicopters flew from all over the country to attend the Galway Races. This one was no surprise:

Apart from Roscommon and the Fine Gael (FG) stronghold of Mayo, Fianna Fáil won every county and therefore an easy 206–12 electoral college victory. They also won the popular vote, raking in 41.6 per cent of the first preference vote to FG’s 27.3 per cent. Yet Bertie’s reign would last for less than a year before things got really ugly, fast.

2011 election

Four years and the death of one government party later (RIP the PDs) Ireland was a different place. The financial crisis had torn the country to shreds, IMF was everyone’s least favourite acronym, and people wanted change. So, who did they go to? The party they had gone to every other time there was any crisis and Fianna Fáil were in power: Fine Gael.

In what was an incredible swing, FG took 31 out of 32 counties for an electoral college victory of 210–8 over Sinn Féin. It is interesting to note here that although in the US there are states that consistently vote red or blue, the Irish voting population has a small percentage of loyal voters. The only county to remain loyal to one party in the elections from 2007–2020 was Mayo; the home of the former FG leader and Taoiseach following the 2011 election, Enda Kenny.

2016 election

Following five years of harsh austerity but relatively successful economic growth, Ireland’s political landscape turned a new page. We were no longer a country dominated by the two civil war parties who had been the leaders of our country since 1932. Instead, people across the country turned to independents, who in stark contrast represent a very small minority of the members of congress in the US (three out of 535).

Fianna Fáil, who lead the country into its worst recession of all time eight years prior, were once again winning counties across Ireland. But the big story was the wins for independents in five counties, giving them 29 EVs which they would keep hold of in 2020 also.

However, with their victory of the 46 EVs available in Dublin in 2016, FG scraped an electoral college win over FF, 90–86. They also won the popular vote by a slim margin, 25.5 — 24.4 per cent. They formed a minority government with Fianna Fáil supporting them from opposition.

So, as we look back over these three elections, you might be thinking that this is boring. I have just given you the same results as what happened in real life. FG lead the country again and they won the election. That is true; until we come to the fateful year of 2020.

2020 election

Isn’t it hard to believe that we had an election nine months back? But we did, and it may have more similarities with the US 2016 election than you think.

Although you may have forgotten about it with FF and FG still in power, the 2020 election should always be considered as a Sinn Féin (SF) win. They took five of the eight counties FG had won in 2016 (including Dublin) and increased their seat total in the Dáil from 23 to 37. Yet even with that Dublin win, SF did not take enough counties and narrowly lost to FF in the electoral college, 86–84. This included a narrow 1.5 per cent loss in Sligo-Leitrim which would have given them the win. Instead of the world focusing on Philadelphia for a week, I am sure all eyes would have been on Carrick-on-Shannon.

Back to those similarities with the US 2016 election. Election results are analysed in Ireland by seats won in the Dáil. FF won 38 seats to SF’s 37 and were therefore given a slim victory by the Irish media. But what if we analysed election wins by the popular vote that much of Irish Twitter and media was preaching for last week?

Sinn Féin won the 2020 popular vote, and quite comfortably.

Some 56,000 more people in Ireland wanted Mary Lou McDonald as our Taoiseach than Micheál Martin. That is 2.3 per cent of the total vote. It is larger than the margin of victory Joe Biden held (at the time of writing) in Wisconsin, Georgia, and Arizona combined. Without those states, he would not be President-elect as we speak. Yet, Irish politics continues as normal with the two civil war parties in power, although as a team this time rather than enemies. Did we not think about this when we were looking at the US results?

Does Ireland and the Irish media not realise that the Irish election system is and has always been an electoral college?

We combine the number of seats won by parties across the country (which equates directly to EVs in the US) and whichever party has the most seats eventually ends up with their leader being the Taoiseach. Not only that, they have control of the Dáil (the equivalent of the US Senate), and because the Taoiseach awards 11 Senate seats to those in government coalition parties, always have control of the Irish Senate (the equivalent of the US House).

Ireland’s governance system: time for a change?

If you look at this without your rose-tinted glasses, Ireland’s electoral system and elected representatives are much less representative of the Irish population than we think. In the US right now the Democrats control the house, the Republicans control the Senate (pending two run-off elections in Georgia) and we are about to have a Democratic President. This means that although the Democrats will have a lot of influence when implementing policy, a bill will not pass without Republican support.

If you really look at this without your rose-tinted glasses, Ireland’s electoral system and elected representatives are much less representative of the Irish population than we think.

Ireland needs to realise that for a functioning democracy, all voices must be heard. We can’t continue to allow 50 per cent of our country to have no say in the policy that we implement. However, it might be too late for our two government parties to realise that they do not represent all of our people as all eyes now turn to the next election which may be sooner rather than later.

But what did this Sinn Féin win signify?

If you look at these results a little closer, it is clear what this Sinn Féin vote was all about. It was a vote against the establishment. It was a vote for something different. It was a vote for a united Ireland. It was a vote for a more inclusive Ireland. It was a vote to make Ireland great again.

Evan Cannon is a data analyst who is based in Philadelphia

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