News Ireland daily BLOG by Donie

Thursday 25th February 2016

Why it pays to vote all the way down the ballot paper

Patrick Smyth on how our unpredictable STV system works and why all preferences should be used


We have the Prstv system in Ireland. A complex system where the voter has more influence over candidates than almost any other country in Europe. But how exactly does it work?

We were discussing a particularly obnoxious candidate. Call him “Murphy”.

My wife assured us that her’s was the best approach – she would use her usual method , casting Murphy as her last preference, No. 15 on a 15-candidate ballot paper, and working her way up from the bottom.

Our friend demurred. He would not dream of putting any preference beside Murphy’s name, however lowly, for fear that his vote would somehow creep, transfer by transfer, eventually into the latter’s pile and assist his election.

Though our friend was difficult to persuade, the trust is that my wife is right: anything higher than a 15, and particularly a failure to use all his preferences, could theoretically help Murphy, however slightly.

I will return to why that should be. But the message is crucial: under our almost unique voting system, the Single Transferable Vote (STV) – Malta, the Australian Senate, and the Northern Ireland Assembly share it – it pays to vote all the way down the list to maximise the effectiveness of one’s ballot forand against individual candidates.

It’s as simple as 1,2,3

STV has the key virtue of being simple to use as a voter, as simple as 1,2,3, although counting is another matter. And reading the entrails of the results involves yet other levels of complexity and sublety for political operators and psephologists. When results are dug-down-into, they show patterns of party and regional differences, of local disputes, of generational change, of ideological sympathies and alliances.

As a voting system, STV inspires peculiar devotion – twice the politicians tried unsuccessfully to abolish it – and not least because of the extended horse-race character of the counts whose compulsive theatricality more than any technical objections did for automated voting.

Its feature of allowing voters themselves to rank candidates within the same party places a particular emphasis on the individual and encourages intra-party rivalry, parochial ‘favour’ politics, and perhaps even the proliferation of independents and small parties that we are seeing today.

To read the entrails it is necessary first to understand the ‘quota’, the number of votes in any constituency necessary for one person to be elected or, to put it another way, the number of votes which, multiplied by the seats to be filled, would allow only that number of seats to be filled.

In a three-seater where 100 people vote, four people can achieve 25 votes each – (25 x 4 = 100) – whereas only three can achieve 26 votes each – (26+ 26+26+22 = 100).

This produces a formula for the quota that applies to any number of seats: Quota = (100/3+1 ) +1 =26 Or = Total Valid Vote/ (Seats+1) +1

Quotas for three-seat, four-seat and five-seat constituencies work out in percentage terms at 26, 21, and 17 per cent respectively.

To analyse results at national level, or in a constituency after the first count, a rough rule of thumb that will provide a prediction of the eventual outcome is to tally the number of quotas or parts of quotas that each party achieves and to add to them an assessment of how much they can expect to pick up in transfers from parties or individuals who will be eliminated.

But transfer rates are incredibly difficult to predict – particulary so in this election – and at national level resulting predictions from percentage shares of vote have become increasingly impossible. In not a single constituency is the last seat, in many cases even the last two seats, predictable.

Far from proportional

Known to one and all as “proportional representation”, in truth the STV is far from that. As David Farrell and Richard Katz point out in a recent academic article, modern STV elections are only “reasonably proportional” in allocating seats in terms of parties’ share of the poll at local and national level . “In a technical sense it is a misnomer to identify STV as a proportional system at all.”

Parties can work to improve the efficiency of their vote by maximising the rate at which their candidates and allies transfer between them. A formal coalition deal may help – Labour, for example, delivered 71 per cent of its transferred votes to Fine Gael in 1973, as opposed to only 32 per cent in 1969.

And parties can also help that process by spreading their first preference votes between their candidates to minimise the extent to which they are transferred as reduced surpluses rather than as eliminations. In a system which encourages internal party competition this is by no means easy. (Surpluses arise when a candidate goes over a quota – his/her spare votes are redistributed at a reduced level, while the transfers from eliminated candidates are whole votes).

Fine Gael won a 10 per cent seat bonus at the last general election – in other words ten per cent more seats than their vote warranted in percentage terms. This time round, if anything, the result is likely to stray even further from the strictly proportional.

Constituency seats

For one thing, there are more three-seaters and four-seaters – the larger the number of seats in a constituency the more proportional the result is likely to be.

For another, the poll findings of huge support for independents and the smaller parties – more than 40 per cent in Dublin in the latest Irish TimesIpsosMRBI poll – would seem to reflect a somewhat disengaged voter attitude to candidates, particularly to those from the main parties. That suggests a likely higher than normal reluctance to vote down through the ballot paper once initial preferences are recorded.

Individually, it is true, failing to vote right down through the list has only a marginal effect. But if this sin of omission is repeated on a widespread basis by fellow voters it can actually assist a candidate who you would prefer to see defeated by lowering the effective quota, and making it easier for him/her to reach it. As an election proceeds and the number of non-transferable votes accumulates, the number required to be elected – the effective quota – falls.

In an election in which there is a strong non-transferable trend, this marginal trend can become very pronounced and results become very unpredictable.

As my wife would insist – “vote all the way through the list”.

EC ranks Ireland 8th in 28 countries for digital skills, fixed broadband costs

European Commission study places Ireland in 8th out of 28 states for digital economy


Ireland is ranked in 22nd place out of 28 countries for digital skills

Ireland lags far behind most other EU member states when it comes to digital skills, according to a new European Commission survey which calls for measures to address the issue.

The latest Digital Economy and Society Index (DESI), which was published on Thursday, ranks Ireland 8th out of 28 Member States. This places the country in the ‘lagging ahead’ category, meaning it performs slightly above theEuropean Union average, but has improved at a slower rate than the EU as a whole.

Countries in the lead ‘running ahead’ category are Austria, Estonia, Germany, Malta, the Netherlands and Portugal.

The study, which measures the progress of EU member states towards a digital economy and society, looks at more than 30 indicators across five broad areas: connectivity; human capital/digital skills; use of internet; integration of digital technology; and digital public services.

According to the latest index, Ireland performs particularly badly when it comes to digital skills. Just 44% of the population is deemed to have sufficient skills to operate effectively on-line, compared to 55% of the EU average. The report also says more progress is needed to boost the number of skilled ICT professionals in the economy as well as the integration of some digital technologies by enterprises.

  • Google to train two million Europeans in digital skills

Broadband access?

The study finds some improvement with next-generation access and take-up of fast broadband having jumped and use of internet services such as online banking and social networking sites also rising.

In terms of connectivity, Ireland’s performance has risen from 16th place to 13th since last year. The index notes that while 96% of households are now covered by fixed broadband, this is still somewhat below the EU average. Moreover, fixed broadband costs are still almost double the EU average, unchanged since last year.

Next-generation access has grown from 71% of households in 2014 to 80% last year the survey finds, while subscriptions to fast broadband services increasing from 45% to 51%.

Ireland has fallen two places in the ‘human capital’ category and now ranks 10th among EU countries, due largely to the country’s poor performance in digital skills, where it is ranked in 22nd place out of 28 countries.

The survey also notes that Ireland is lacking skilled ICT professionals despite the fact that the number of science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM) graduates is above the EU average and that the proportion of IT specialists in total employment is relatively high.

In terms of internet usage, Ireland is ranked 14th, up one place compared to last year with use of news, social networking and banking services having risen since 2015. According to the index, the most popular online activities among Irish internet users is video-on-demand (VoD).

Ireland comes in top spot for integration of digital technology in the EU, up from 3rd place in 2015. However, the report says businesses could better exploit the opportunities offered by electronic information sharing and RFID.

Lastly, the country ranks 9th for digital public services, down one place on last year. While eGovernment use is significantly above the EU average, provision of pre-filled forms is relatively low. Ireland comes in 9th spot for online service completion and in 10th for open data, which is above the EU average but a decline versus 2015.

Ireland’s weekly earnings up by 1.4% to over €700 in fourth quarter

New figures show public sector employment rising 1.6% over the last year to 380,000


Average hourly earnings declined by 0.5% from €22.04 to €21.94 in the year to the fourth quarter but were up from €21.46 in the preceding three months

Average weekly earnings rose by 1.4% in the final three months of 2015, new figures from the Central Statistics Office (CSO) show.

Earnings increased from €702.61 to €712.75 over the year having fallen to €691.81 in the third quarter.

Increases in wages were recorded in 9 of the 13 sectors surveyed by CSO. The largest increases were in the administrative and support services category, up 9.9% to €549.76 from €500.42. The biggest decline in weekly earnings was in the financial, insurance and real estate category, down 4.3% from €1,076.12 to €1,029.58.

Over the last five years, average weekly earnings across individual sectors showed changes ranging between a 7% decline in arts, entertainment, recreation and other services activities to a 14.9% in admin and support services.

Hourly earnings

Average hourly earnings declined by 0.5% from €22.04 to €21.94 in the year to the fourth quarter but were up from €21.46 in the preceding three months. The largest increase was recorded in admin and support services, up 3.5% to €17.20 per hour. The largest decrease in hourly earnings was in the financial, insurance and real estate category, down 7.5% to €28.83 from €31.17.

Enterprises with less than 50 employees showed an annual decrease of 0.4% in average hourly earnings in the fourth quarter, from €18.30 to €18.23. Organisations with between 50 and 250 employees recorded an increase in average hourly earnings of 0.1%, from €19.86 to €19.87 over the same period. Results for enterprises with greater than 250 employees showed an decrease of 0.9%, from €25.38 to €25.14.

Over the year, private sector average hourly earnings fell 0.7% from €20.20 to €20.06, while public sector average earnings decreased by 0.1%, from €28.29 to €28.26.

The data show average weekly paid hours rose 1.9% cent over the year to 32.5 from 31.9 a year in the same quarter in 2014.

Average hourly total labour costs stood at €25.45 in the final three months of 2015, a fall of 0.4% or €25.55 for the fourth quarter a year earlier.

The job vacancy rate at the end of the year was 0.8%, an increase from 0.7% over the 12 months. The highest vacancy rate was recorded in the ICT sector, up of 2%. This was followed closely by the financial, insurance and real estate sector with a vacancy rate of 1.8%. The transportation and storage sector had the lowest vacancy rate at just 0.2%.

The rounded number of job vacancies at the end of the fourth quarter was 13,800, representing a rise of 2,900 versus the same three months a year earlier and a decrease of 2,600 on the vacancies reported at the end of the preceding quarter.

The estimated number of persons employed in the public sector rose by 1.6% over the year from 374,000 to 380,000. The largest increase in employees was recorded in the health sector, up 2.9% from 118,600 to 122,000. The largest decrease was recorded in defence, which was down 3.1%.

Over the last five years, overall employment numbers in the public sector declined by 24,100 or 6% from 404,100 to 380,000, the figures show.

Industrial disputes

Related figures show the number of days lost to industrial disputes fell by 25% last year.

Overall, there were 32,964 days lost to disputes during 2015, compared to 44,015 a year earlier.

Nine disputes involving 37,760 workers and nine firms were recorded in the 12 months, with three disputes in the education sector accounting for 73% of the days lost in 2015. A year earlier there were 11 disputes reported involving 31,665 employees.

During the final three months of the year there were two disputes in progress involving 72 workers.

‘No cuts’ to hours at Sligo Hospital emergency department

Saolta University Healthcare Group say’s?


Recommendations in a top-level report in relation to the Emergency Department (ED) at Sligo University Hospital did not include a possible reduction of opening hours, Saolta University Healthcare Group has stated.

A review of the emergency care units across the Saolta Group has now been completed.

The Group’s Executive Council, in collaboration with the local hospitals’ management and clinical teams and the HSE’s National Acute Hospitals senior management team, have considered the report’s recommendations, as has the Board of the Saolta Group.

Work is now under way by the Group’s Executive Council on developing plans for further consideration by the Saolta board. This will investigate both the implementation and impact of the recommendations.

A key recommendation of the Higgins report, which led to the establishment of the hospital group structure, was that the six hospital groups would conduct individual reviews of the various services delivered by each of the hospitals in its group.

The Saolta University Health Care Group has already undertaken reviews in respect of cardiology, urology and orthopaedic services.

Lobby group seeks ideas for an Irish satellite programme


Earth captured by the Spinning Enhanced Visible and Infrared Imager instrument on MSG-4.

A lobby group for the Irish space industry has put out a call for ideas for the development of a small satellite programme for Ireland.

The Irish Space Industry Group (ISIG) says it is pursuing the idea because similar initiatives in other countries have led to growth in industrial and scientific capabilities.

The call aims to determine the level of interest in developing such a programme, with the ideas then used to lobby stakeholders and inform the programme’s direction.

The group says it is does not have any funding in place yet for any potential mission, but if there is sufficient interest from funding agencies it will pursue the matter further.

ISIG says the scope of the ideas it is inviting is wide, and includes proposals for whole missions, space science, earth observation, spacecraft payloads and technology demonstration, ground segment and others.

“It can be for a service you would like to be provided from space [eg fisheries protection]; a service that you believe will have value to others from space, a technology demonstration mission or a scientific mission,” ISIG wrote on its blog.

The group says ideas that address national needs are likely to be most attractive to government and submissions should clearly set out whether the proposal could lead to further activity as policy in Ireland favours such projects.

ISIG says although smaller missions or payloads are easier to plan and pay for, there a no restrictions on the type or size of the missions that can be suggested.

The submissions should be made by 24 March, with details of the template and the submission address available at ISIG’s website.


Predicting human evolution our teeth tell the story



The research confirms that molars, including ‘wisdom teeth’ do follow the sizes predicted by what is called ‘the inhibitory cascade’ – a rule that shows how the size of one tooth affects the size of the tooth next to it. This is important because it indicates that human evolution was a lot simpler than scientists had previously thought.

The international team included researchers of the Max Planck Institute for Evolutionary Anthropology in Leipzig, Germany: The analysis of digital data on fossil hominins generated by the Department of Human Evolution made this large-scale study on dental development possible.

Alistair Evans explains how our fascination with where we come from, and what our fossil ancestors were like, has fuelled our search for new fossils and how we can interpret them. “Teeth can tell us a lot about the lives of our ancestors, and how they evolved over the last 7 million years. What makes modern humans different from our fossil relatives? Palaeontologists have worked for decades to interpret these fossils, and looked for new ways to extract more information from teeth,” says Evans.

He then discusses how this new research has challenged the accepted view that there was a lot of variation in how teeth evolved in our closest relatives. “Our new study shows that the pattern is a lot simpler than we first thought – human evolution was much more limited,” says Evans.

He led an international team of anthropologists and developmental biologists from Finland, USA, UK and Germany, using a new extensive database on fossil hominins and modern humans collected over several decades, as well as high resolution 3D imaging to see inside the fossil teeth.

The team then took the research a step further by applying the findings to two main groups of hominins: the species in the genus Homo (like us and Neanderthals), and australopiths, including specimens like Lucy, the famous fossil hominin from Africa. Evans explains that while it was discovered that both groups follow the inhibitory cascade, they do so slightly differently. “There seems to be a key difference between the two groups of hominins – perhaps one of the things that define our genus, Homo,” says Evans.

“What’s really exciting is that we can then use this inhibitory cascade rule to help us predict the size of missing fossil teeth. Sometimes we find only a few teeth in a fossil. With our new insight, we can reliably estimate how big the missing teeth were. The early hominin Ardipithecus is a good example – the second milk molar has never been found, but we can now predict how big it was,” says Evans, who is also a research associate at Museum Victoria.

The findings of the study will be very useful in interpreting new hominin fossil finds, and looking at what the real drivers of human evolution were. As well as shedding new light on our evolutionary past, this simple rule provides clues about how we may evolve into the future.


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