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How Does Northern Ireland’s Election Work?

NI map.jpgYou might not be going to the ballot box in Northern Ireland yourself on 5 May, but for those following the election closely for the first time the process can initially seem confusing. Not to worry, as we’ve prepared a brief guide below on how the election process works to make following the election easier.

Northern Ireland Assembly elections use the Single Transferable Vote (STV) voting system, which is different from the First Past the Post method you may be familiar with at a UK General Election. A proportional representation method, STV differs from a Westminster election as it allows a group of people to be elected to represent a single area (5 candidates are elected per constituency in Northern Ireland).

On the ballot paper, voters mark their favourite candidate as “1”, meaning that candidate is their first preference, and voters can continue rank as many of the remaining candidates they desire in order of their preferences; for example, on a ballot paper with 5 candidates, they may rank their second favourite with “2”, third favourite with “3” and then stop if the other two candidates do not appeal to them.

One party can run multiple candidates in the same constituency and will campaign on the basis that one leading candidate should get a voter’s first preference vote, and the next candidate the second preference – this ensures the leading candidate has a higher chance of getting elected as first preference votes are directed primarily towards them and are not dispersed between candidates.

To get elected, candidates in each constituency need to reach a set number of votes, known as a quota. After counting, any candidate who reaches this quota with first preference votes is elected, and their excess votes are transferred on at a fractional value to the remaining candidates according to next available preference.

If no one reaches the quota, the least popular candidate is removed and people who voted for them have their first preference votes transferred to their second preference votes – this process then continues until all posts are filled.

Because of this, some parties are known as being ‘transfer friendly’, meaning they’re able to attract second/third/etc. preference votes on the ballot paper, making them more electable than would be the case in a First Past the Post system which relies on one candidate getting the most votes and winning outright.

Parties like Northern Ireland’s Green Party are a good example of this, as their core message on the environment can transcend other issues and give them a broad appeal, netting them more second/third/etc. preference votes.

But what happens after the voting closes? Unlike a UK general election, in the Northern Ireland Assembly election votes don’t start being counted in the evening and last overnight. Instead, the count will begin at 8am on 6 May, and announcements will occur throughout the day.

After the results are known, MLAs will be sworn into the Assembly and it will be time for the parties to begin forming the Executive. Due to the power-sharing agreement in Northern Ireland, no single party will be elected to form a government.

Instead, the Northern Ireland Executive must be a coalition of at least two parties - the largest party will nominate a First Minister and the largest party in the second largest community (‘nationalist’ and ‘unionist’) will nominate a deputy First Minister, with both roles being equal. Other parties can also choose to help form the Executive, and they will often receive a Ministerial portfolio.

The remaining Ministerial roles are designated using the d’Hondt system, a mathematical formula which ensures parties across the political spectrum receive a proportional number of Ministerial Departments based on the number of seats each party has in the Assembly (apart from the Justice Minister, who is elected on a cross-community basis). This means that Ministers can come from a party other than those who make up the First and deputy First Minister posts – in the last Assembly mandate, there were 5 parties holding Ministerial roles.

With the Executive agreed, the Assembly will begin in earnest for another five-year term. Of course, there are complicating factors to any election – the Democratic Unionist Party (DUP), who are currently polling in second, have so far refused to commit to forming an Executive with frontrunners Sinn Fein, as this election could likely see a nationalist party take the position of First Minister for the first time (covered in a previous blog).

What happens after polling day only the future knows, but until then we hope this short guide will help you follow the elections more closely.

Image credit: PeterHermesFurian

Last updated 29/04/2022