Learn more about our mission

PR-STV: Should you vote the whole way down the ballot paper?

Proportional representation with a single transferable vote (PR-STV) is relatively unique, Ireland and Malta are the only countries to use it. A ‘party list’ system is more common internationally.

So, what exactly is PR-STV and how does it work?

How do I vote?

Ballot papers show the names of the candidates in alphabetical order, along with their photographs and their party emblem (if they have one).

Voters indicate who they would like to see elected in order of prefencere – so, you should write 1 opposite your first choice, 2 opposite your second choice, 3 opposite your third choice, and so on.

Do not make any other mark on the ballot paper. If you do, your vote may be considered invalid/spoilt and not counted.

You should not write X or tick the box beside candidates, this could also spoil your vote.

When you have voted you should fold your ballot paper, return and place it into the ballot box at the same station.

Sample ballot paper from the Electoral Commission

How does my vote work?

Only one of the preferences in your vote is active at a time.

Your vote stays with your first preference candidate unless and until they do not need it anymore – either because they have been elected with a surplus of votes over the quota, or eliminated from the race.

If your first preference candidate is elected, your vote is transferred to your second preference. If your second choice is elected or eliminated, your vote may be transferred to your third choice, and so on.

Your vote could transfer a number of times at the same election to your lower preference candidates, depending on how many people you give a preference to.

If a candidate receives more than the quota on any count, the surplus votes are transferred to the remaining candidates in proportion to the next available preferences indicated by voters.

As explained by Citizens Information, if the quota to be elected is 5,000 votes and candidate A receives 6,000 first preference votes at the first count, they are elected with a surplus of 1,000 votes.

Let’s say that out of candidate A’s 6,000 total votes, 30% of voters gave their second preference to candidate B, and 20% gave their second preference to candidate C. In this scenario, B receives 300 votes (30% of 1,000) and C receives 200 votes (20% of 1,000).

Your vote then works a little bit harder in Ireland than in countries such as the US or UK where you only get one vote with which you vote for one candidate.

“Ultimately, what you have is an outcome which is slightly more representative of broader consensus, rather than just being a straightforward popularity contest,” Virgin Media’s Political Correspondent Gav Reilly explained in an episode of The Explainer podcast.

Should you vote all the way down the ballot paper?

One of the perennial questions asked every time an election rolls around in Ireland is: Should you vote all the way down the ballot paper?

In short, there are different schools of thought on this – as outlined here.

In some constituencies, it would be quite time-consuming to vote the whole way down the ballot paper but, of course, this is up to the individual.

There are 27 candidates running the Midlands North West constituency, and 23 candidates in both Ireland South and Dublin, for example.

Reilly told The Explainer that voters are at liberty to “cast as many or as few preferences” as they like.

He continued: “The best way to make sure that your vote is as useful as possible is for you to consider in advance how many candidates you might ultimately like to see get elected.

“And indeed, in some cases, if there’s anyone that you absolutely don’t want to see getting elected.”

If there are specific candidates that you “absolutely don’t want to get elected”, you should vote “for literally everybody else”.

Giving an example, Reilly said if there are 10 people running in a constituency including two you really don’t want to get elected, “the best way to try and achieve that is to cast preferences 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6, 7 and 8 for the eight other candidates in your preferred order”.

"You will only ever help a candidate if you are voting for them, a candidate that you don’t put a preference beside gets nothing out of you."

“But the thing that a lot of people don’t always understand or don’t realise, is that if you leave a whole slew of candidates blank and you don’t give them anything, basically what you are telling the returning officer and the count staff is that you are passive, you are meh about which of them may or may not get in.

“And if that is genuinely the case, if you are completely passive about those candidates, you are at liberty to do that.

“But if, of those remaining candidates, there’s some that you’d prefer to see rather than others, you should keep voting until you’ve run out of all your preferences or until you know that you’ve listed all of the candidates in the true preference of order that you have.”

Long ballot papers

Reilly acknowledged that giving out as many preferences as possible get more complicated when there are lots of candidates, but it’s something voters should consider.

"One danger, particularly when you have very long ballot papers where you could have 20 plus candidates, is that you might end up unwittingly giving equal weighting to some people that you sort of feel okay about, and some people that you don’t.

“That is the challenge of the voting system, particularly when there are so many candidates that there is something of an onus on the voter to figure out who they all are, and to figure out what they stand for.”

Reilly added that this is, in a sense, “overcomplicating things”.

“If there are only three or four candidates that you like, and you are genuinely passive about the rest, you are totally free to just cast 1, 2, 3 or 4 and feel like you’ve done your duty, put it in the ballot box and walk away.”


June 6, 2024



Órla Ryan

News Correspondent with The Journal

The Journal
Knowledge Bank

FactCheck is a central unit of Ireland’s leading digital native news site, The Journal. For over a decade, we have strived to be an independent and objective source of information in an online world that is full of noise and diversions.

Our mission is to reduce the noise levels and bring clarity to public discourse on the topics impacting citizens’ daily lives.

Contact us at: factcheck@thejournal.ie

Visit thejournal.ie/factcheck/news/ to stay up to date on our latest explainers


We use cookies to make our site work and also for analytics purposes. You can enable or disable optional cookies as desired. See our Cookie Policy for more details.