Adrian Kavanagh, 26th February 2016
A general election to elect the new members of the 32nd Dail is taking place on Friday 26th February 2016 (TODAY!!!). The results of this election will be determined by many factors – some of which will be local, while others will be national in scope – as has been discussed in nauseating detail across different posts on this website. But voter turnout levels on Election Day will also have a major bearing on the results in different Dail constituencies, as will be discussed here.
Voter turnout, or voter participation, relates to the percentage of people (measured in Ireland as a percentage of the number of people on the electoral register) that turn out to vote in a given election. While there has been some focus on instances of low turnout levels at different election contests over the past few years (such as the Children’s Referendum and the 2014 Local and European elections), the trend nationally has been one of improving turnout levels at general and local elections over the past decade, especially in relation to the very low voter turnout levels recorded in the 1999 Local and European elections and the 2002 General Election. However, there are still some areas and some social/demographic groups that tend to be associated with notably lower than average voter turnout levels in Ireland. If the main support base of a political party or candidate is largely reliant on a low turnout area or low turnout social/demographic group, they may well lose out on a significant number of potential votes because of this.
Groups or areas that tend to be associated with higher than average turnout levels in Ireland include the more rural areas, areas with high levels of residential stability, as well as middle class people, farmers and older people. Lower turnout levels tend to be associated with urban areas and areas with high levels of residential mobility, as well as with working class communities and younger people. As a result, inner city areas and particularly the Dublin Inner City – characterised by higher levels of residential mobility, social deprivation and younger people – tend to have the very lowest turnout rates when it comes to Irish elections. The very highest turnout levels at general election contests, by contrast, tend to be associated with the more rural constituencies, as was also evidenced at the 2011 General Election (see Figure 1).
If a general election constituency covers a number of different social areas (e.g. urban/rural, middle class/working class), the results in that constituency may well be skewed by the differing turnout propensity of the different social groups concerned. Certain areas may end up lacking a lot of “political clout” if it turns out that turnout levels in these areas are decidedly lower than in the rest of that constituency. The same rules also applies in the case of low turnout social groups or demographic groups.
More “accidental” factors, such as not being able to vote due to illness/absence on polling day, not being on the electoral register or difficulties in locating/getting to a polling station, can push down voter turnout levels. But more “deliberate” causes of non-voting are significant too, such as voter apathy or feelings of anger/power in relation to the political system. This behaviour, however, is counter-productive and only serves to benefit the political system/politicians that these non-voters are angry/frustrated with.
People who do not like what’s happening in Irish politics may well opt not to turn out and vote. They feel that they are registering a protest by doing so. But they’re not. The irony is that their decision not to vote will actually help to maintain the political system that they are frustrated, as it is all too easy for the system/politicians to ignore the issues/concerns of people who choose not to vote. And problems in our political system feeds on this apathy and thrives on it. It’s no accident at all that the seeds of our present political and economic crisis were sown in the low turnout elections of the late 1990s and early 2000s. Don’t make excuses and say that your vote does not matter. It does. It is the only opportunity that ordinary people in the state gets (over a period of five years in the case of (most) general elections) to send a message and have a say on the decisions that shape their lives at the national level. If large enough numbers of voters from different groups/areas opt to instead protest by voting on Election Day, then the political system/politicians will have to respond to this/change out of sheer survival instincts alone! Ultimately voting is the only way in which you can ensure that you and your community is heard by the political system and the only way in which you can bring about change in Irish politics. This same rule, of course, applies to people who may be satisfied/content with the current state of politics/the political system or people who do not wish to see radical change.
Voting matters in all democracies. But individual voters matter even more in Irish general elections because of the nature of our electoral system, which often results in very close contests for the final seat (or seats) in individual constituencies. As the Limerick West constituency in 2002 (@ the electionsireland.org site) showed, a general contest in an Irish constituency may boil down to just one vote. (And the Borris in Ossory local election contest of 1999 shows that electoral contests can even be closer!) So one vote can make all the difference. The same rule also applies in the case of preferences. In very close contests, the final seat(s) may well be decided on the basis of voters’ lower preferences. In the 21 candidate Dublin South-West constituency, if the contest there was close the final seat could theoretically go to a candidate because they get a 20th preference on the final count. So voters who use all of their preferences when voting (or as many of them as they possibly can) will also have a lot more potential clout when it comes to deciding the final result in their constituencies.
To conclude, it is worth noting that in 2011, Non Voters, rather than Fine Gael or any of the other parties, formed the largest grouping at that general election. If a significant chunk of these non-voters had voted, this may (or may not!) have had a big impact on the final result.
So my ultimate advice is that you:
- Make sure that you use your vote today
- Use all of your preferences when voting (vote 1, 2, 3, 4…. in order of preference) – or as many as you possibly can