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How do we elect MLAs?

The Northern Ireland Assembly consists of 90 MLAs (Members of the Legislative Assembly), representing 18 constituencies. While, originally, elections were to be held every 4 years, they now take place every 5 years, bringing us into line with the Welsh Assembly and Scottish Parliament elections and ensuring we don't clash with the UK Parliament elections (Northen Ireland (Miscellaneous Provisions) Act 2014). On 2 March 2017, an unexpected, 'snap' election took place following a breakdown in the relationship between the 2 main parties in government, the DUP and Sinn Féin. We vote by secret ballot in Assembly elections, using a system of Proportional Representation (PR) known as Single Transferable Vote (STV). STV is also used in elections to Northern Ireland Local Government (Councils) and in elections in the Republic of Ireland.

What is Proportional Representation?

The term describes electoral systems in which candidates win seats in a parliament more or less in proportion to the votes cast. Supporters of this type of system argue that it reflects voters' choices more accurately than other systems. A voter can usually indicate an order of preference for one or more candidates. Voters elect more than one candidate to represent a constituency, giving them a choice of representatives to engage with. This differs from the First Past the Post (FPTP) system used for electing Members of Parliament (MPs) to Westminster. Voters using FPTP choose only one candidate. The candidate with the most votes wins the single seat.

What is STV?

STV is a type of PR system. In an election using STV, constituencies elect a set number of candidates. In Northern Ireland this set number was six but is now five. A party standing in an election can put forward as many candidates as it likes per constituency.

Voters have as many preferences as there are candidates. They mark the candidates 1, 2, 3, etc. in order of preference with 1 for their first choice of candidate, 2 for their second and so on. Voters do not have to state a preference for all candidates – they can choose as many or as few as they like.

STV awards seats in proportion to the number of votes cast, with voters’ lower ranking preferences taken into account.

STV has advantages over ‘First Past the Post’ (FPTP), which is used to elect MPs to Westminster. Under FPTP, each constituency elects only one MP. The names of one candidate for each political party, plus independents, are on the ballot paper. Voters choose one candidate only and the candidate with the most votes wins the seat. They can win with a simple majority and many do so with less than 50 percent of the constituency’s support. In this system ‘the winner takes all’. Constituents who voted for the winning candidate are happy, but others may feel that they are not represented. However, MPs are required to represent everyone in their constituency. The STV system increases voter choice because they can vote for more than one candidate. They can choose between candidates within a party, as well as between parties. STV also allows more voters to affect the outcome of an election. In the Northern Ireland Assembly elections, over 80 percent of all valid votes determine the five successful candidates for each constituency. This means the results are more representative of the views of the electorate than under ‘First Past the Post’ and constituents have a choice of elected representatives to engage with .

STV gives smaller parties a better chance in elections, as they may benefit from transfers from larger parties. PR systems tend to produce multi-party ‘coalition’ governments. FPTP is more likely to produce single party governments. Supporters of FPTP argue that coalition governments are not as stable or effective as single party governments. This is because coalition governments are often formed by parties with opposing political principles. This leads to difficulties in agreeing decisions. Parties may withdraw from government and cause it to collapse.

We have used STV in Northern Ireland for local and European elections since the introduction of Direct Rule, following the suspension of the Northern Ireland Parliament, in 1972. FPTP had produced single party government by one party for the life the Northern Ireland Parliament from 1921 to 1972. STV was introduced to provide better representation for those who supported other parties.

Northern Ireland has a unique model of coalition government. Most coalitions are formed when parties agree to work together. Northern Ireland uses the d’Hondt system to determine membership of the Executive. D’Hondt is a mathematical formula used to allocate positions of power proportionally based on the number of seats a party has in the Assembly. This is called a ‘mandatory coalition’. It is a system designed to guarantee power-sharing between representatives from different sections of the community. A PR election system, such as STV, ensures that different sections of the community have their views represented in the devolved institutions. It is important that as many people as possible feel represented and included. Following the 2016 election, parties with enough seats are, for the first time, entitled to opposition rights if they decide not to go on to the Executive Committee.