Adrian Kavanagh, 23rd March 2014
Further controversy arose in relations to the new local election boundaries arose at this weekend’s Fianna Fail Ard Fheis, when party leader, Micheal Martin, was alleged to have likened the terms of reference set for the Local Electoral Area Boundary Committee as “the biggest example of gerrymandering or manipulation of electoral areas in 35 years”. Looking at his actual address, it can be seen that Micheal Martin did not actually use the phrase “gerrymandering” in his actual speech, although he did use the actual term in speaking with reporters and the speech itself does refer to the terms of reference for the committee as amounting to the most serious effort to manipulate electoral boundaries since the introduction of independent boundary committees in the wake of the “Tullymander” and the 1977 General Election.
“The only thing Phil Hogan has been micromanaging in the Department of the Environment is his attempt to maximise Fine Gael and Labour seats in May. He’s completely changed local authority boundaries and seat numbers to try and save as many of their seats as possible. It is the biggest attempt to manipulate election boundaries in the 35 years since Fianna Fáil introduced independent Boundary Commissions.”
There is a subtle difference here. There are many ways in which governments may attempt to change electoral rules to manipulate election results and gerrymandering is just one of these (in addition to other approaches such as malapportionment and the changing of electoral systems/electoral rules).
Leaving that aside, could claims of “gerrymandering” hold any basis in this regard? Absolutely not. Gerrymandering is defined, according to the Oxford Dictionary, as an act that seeks to “manipulate the boundaries of (an electoral constituency) so as to favour one party or class“. The main point here is that is a partisan act – it is done by political parties on their own behalf. In the case of Ireland’s history of gerrymandering (before the introduction of independent boundary committees in the wake of the ‘Tullymander’ and the 1977 General Election, usually by the person appointed as Minister for the Environment/Local Government who would redraw general election boundaries in an attempt to earn extra seats for his own party at the following general election. Perhaps the most successful of these gerrymanders was the Kevinmander of the 1960s, called after Fianna Fail minister, Kevin Boland, whose redrawing of the electoral boundaries played a key role in Fianna Fail winning a majority at the 1969 General Election despite winning fewer votes than Fine Gael and Labour combined (although vote transfer patterns and Labour’s candidate selection strategy at that election also played a role). Since the 1977 General Election all boundary committees (both for general/European elections and local elections) are now comprised of independent members and boundaries are no longer being redrawn in such a way as to achieve any political advantage for one party/a group of parties over the other parties. If accusations of actual gerrymandering were made (and in fairness, as stated above, this is not a term that Micheal Martin used in his actual speech, although a subsequent report on thejournal.ie showed that he did use the phrase ‘gerrymandering’ in speaking with reporters) then this would refer to the actual drawing up/redrawing of election boundaries and would be inferring that the committee itself was acting in a politically motivated manner. Which the committee patently was not doing!
Could the changed terms of reference for the drawing up of the local election boundaries have been an attempt to maximise government party seats at the upcoming local elections? I’m not convinced. I think it is possible for terms of reference for boundary committees to have some degree of political influence, but it is more likely to happen in the case of the terms set for the redrawing of Dail/general election constituencies (such as the stipulation on having smaller/three-seat constituencies in area of lower population density) and European election constituencies than it is in the case of local election constituencies. There are far far too many different imponderables involved when it comes to local election contests to make successful any attempt to wrest political gains out of changes to the terms of reference set for these.
In any case, the terms of reference set for the committee ultimately allowed them a considerable degree of freedom, especially in relation to the key decision in relation to decisions made as to the number of seats per constituency. Ultimately the history of gerrymandering in Ireland was based around the number of seats assigned to different Dail/general election constituencies. Fianna Fail and Fine Gael/Labour favoured odd-numbers of seats (i.e. 3-seat or 5-seat constituencies) in areas where they were strong (i.e. expected to win c. 50% of the vote, which would be translated into 2 seats in a 3-seater and 3-seats in a 5-seater). And they preferred to have even-numbers of seats (i.e. 4-seat constituencies) in areas where they were weaker (i.e. expected to win c. 40% of the vote, which would be translated into 2 seats in a 4-seater). The terms of reference allowed the committee a considerable degree of freedom in this regard (the ability to have 6, 7, 8, 9 or 10 seats per electoral area – one more option than the 4, 5, 6 or 7 seat options that the 2008 committees had to choose from (although these were allowed to use 3-seat constituencies in exceptional circumstances). There may be some basis for querying the stipulation that the electoral area/municipal district containing the “county town” should have the most seats, as this seems to influence the committee into having more seats in the most urban of the electoral areas in a county. But having served on one of the 2008 Boundary Committees myself I would assume that the committee probably would have, on the basis of population density concerns, assigned the most seats in a county to the more urban/”county town” electoral area in any course. The decision to increase seat numbers in Dublin and other, generally more urban, local authority areas and to reduce these in the more rural areas also cannot be viewed as an act that will necessarily benefit the government parties. Fine Gael won by far the largest number of seats in rural Ireland at the 2009 City and County Council elections and hence would be the party that should be the most adversely affected by the reduction in the sizes of different rural County Councils. It has been alleged that Labour would benefit from the increased number of seats being allocated to the Dublin local authorities. But voting trends in the past has shown support levels for parties in the capital to be highly volatile and any likely decline in Labour support in May could well be most concentrated in the Dublin region, meaning that the party may well not be in a position to avail of the increased seat numbers. Ultimately, it is my opinion that the terms of reference were not as such to constrain the decisions of the committee in such a way as to force them to choose certain constituency/electoral boundary options that would favour either of, or both of, the government parties.
In short, based on my studies of most recent elections, it would be hoped instead that the increases in seat numbers will encourage more new candidates to take part in elections, will facilitate an increased number of female candidates and will encourage higher levels of participation by different minority groups. In this election, as warned in an earlier post of mine, these aims will not be easily achieved in the more rural counties where the reduction in seat numbers and abolition of Town Councils have left a large number of incumbents fighting for seats, but also fighting for places on their parties’ candidate lists:
“While the larger constituency sizes (the overall increase in the average number of seats per local election constituency) may offer some potential for new candidates to make a breakthrough – and especially for new female candidates and candidates representing minority groups – this advantage may well be offset by the challenges posed by an electoral landscape crowded by a host of determined incumbents who will not surrender their seats without a determined fight.”
And I would also conclude by arguing that if politicians are to use politically loaded phrases such as gerrymandering, it is essential that they use these correctly.
A version of this post has been published as an article on TheJournal.ie website at: http://www.thejournal.ie/readme/were-the-local-election-boundaries-gerrymandered-1378093-Mar2014/