Is electoral reform ‘the solution’?

By: Prof. David Farrell

In today’s Irish Times, Dan O’Brien is back on his hobbyhorse pushing for electoral reform as a means of improving the calibre of our elected politicians.  The essence of his piece is that: (1) our politicians are sub-standard when compared with those in other countries and that (2) a big factor causing this is the poor ‘choice architecture’ offered to voters in an Irish election.  According to Dan, the unfortunate voters have to choose between poor quality, ‘fat laden’ candidate options.

The quick fix it seems is that we should replace our STV electoral system with the PR List system that predominates in Continental Europe, where as he puts it ‘the healthy options’ are put top of the menu of choice.

This is not the first time Dan has raised this point, and not the first time I’ve disagreed with his ‘analysis’. That last use of quotation marks is deliberate.  For someone whose discipline is so firmly rooted in the need for evidence-based analysis, there is a surprising lack of that here.

A few quick questions:

  • On what evidence, other than anecdote, can Dan demonstrate that our politicians are of a lower calibre than their counterparts in other countries?
  • In his ideal world, who determines what are ‘healthy options’?
  • How are these supposedly ‘healthy options’ selected?
  • And what about those List systems where voters can change the rank-order of candidates – the more common variant of the species of List?  What happens to the ‘healthy options’ then?
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