10 April 2017

Legislative Studies and Practice Programme Blog: RaISe

The Legislative Studies and Practice Programme was established in 2009 to provide university graduates with the opportunity to experience working in the Assembly and get a peek behind the curtain of political life in Northern Ireland. The Programme runs in partnership with Queen’s University Belfast and is part of a Master’s qualification in Legislative Studies and Practice. Students contribute fully to the work of their placement office and use their experience to undertake original research leading to the development of a dissertation.

Now in its eighth year, this series is taking a look at the current group of students and finding out how they are adjusting to their placements in the various working environments of the Assembly. Having already heard from Ross Graham in the Bill Office and the students working in the Committees, we now catch up with Jessica Galway and John McCaul who are working in the Assembly’s Research and Information Service (RaISe).

Jessica Galway

As an East Belfast native, Parliament Buildings and the Stormont Estate were a familiar sight for Jessica. After studying Government and Politics at A-Level and English and Politics at Queen’s University, Jessica gained a greater understanding of what was happening on her doorstep and a desire to find out more. The LSP Programme provided just the opportunity to gain an invaluable insight into the functioning of the Assembly and a chance to put the theory she had learned into practice.

John McCaul

John has studied Modern History and Politics at Queen’s University and, through the British Council NI’s Study USA Programme, also attended Warren Wilson College in Asheville, North Carolina. John learned about the LSP Programme from previous alumni and was excited at the prospect of being placed in the Assembly and the chance to enhance his analytical, researching and communication skills.

21 March 2017

Legislative Studies and Practice Programme Blog: Committees

The Legislative Studies and Practice Programme was established in 2009 to provide university graduates with the opportunity to experience working in the Assembly and get a peek behind the curtain of political life in Northern Ireland. The Programme runs in partnership with Queen’s University Belfast and is part of a Master’s qualification in Legislative Studies and Practice. Students contribute fully to the work of their placement office and use their experience to undertake original research leading to the development of a dissertation.

Now in its eighth year, this series is taking a look at the current group of students, finding out how they are getting on and what they are making of their experiences in the heart of the Northern Ireland Assembly. Having already learned how Ross Graham is finding life in the Bill Office, we now catch up with the students working in the Committees – Zoe Rogers, Brendan Corr and Daniel Lowe.

Zoe Rogers – Committee for Agriculture, Environment and Rural Affairs

Law student Zoe developed a keen interest in social justice and human rights law during her studies. During internships with faith-based charities, CARE and Evangelical Alliance in Northern Ireland, Zoe also gained an interest in the process of law-making, the role of civic engagement and the impact of public policy on wider society. With these interests, the LSP Programme provided a perfect opportunity to further develop Zoe’s skills, gaining first-hand experience of a working legislature combined with further study and a chance to undertake original research.

Brendan Corr – Committee for the Economy

Having studied History and Politics at Queen’s, Brendan has always had an enthusiasm for all things political. Through his studies and an internship at political lobbying company Stratagem, Brendan also gained a first-hand perspective of political matters and an interest in how policies and legislation are actually developed. After learning about the LSP Programme from a friend, a little further research told him that this was a course he’d love to do.

Daniel Lowe – Committee for Infrastructure

Daniel has studied Theology in Queens and Business at Maryville College, Tennessee through the British Council’s Study USA programme, eventually graduating with a QUB Certificate in American Business Practice. After learning about the LSP Programme, Daniel recognised the opportunity to gain first-hand experience of the political process and to be in such close proximity to the people and the procedures behind law-making.

3 March 2017

What happens after the election on 2 March?

After the election, the Northern Ireland Act 1998 states that first sitting of the Assembly (called a Plenary sitting) must occur within eight days of the election (not including Saturdays and Sundays). This means that the latest the Assembly can meet for the first time is Monday 13 March 2017.

At this first sitting, all newly elected MLAs will have the opportunity to give an Undertaking and sign the Roll of Membership. It is only after they do this that they can officially take their seats. Following this, the newly elected Members can elect a Speaker, Principal Deputy Speaker and Deputy Speakers although this may also be done at the next plenary.

It is not necessary to appoint a First and deputy First Minister at this first sitting of Plenary. Following the Northern Ireland (Stormont Agreement and Implementation Plan) Act 2016, the appointment of the First and deputy First Minister and the other Ministers who will form the Executive must occur within a period of 14 days of the first plenary meeting.

Executive Ministers are appointed using the d’Hondt system (with the exception of the Minister of Justice) as are the Chairpersons of the Assembly Committees which will scrutinise each Department and Minister. Chairs can only be appointed after the appointment of Ministers has occurred.

Following this, the Assembly can now begin its work with Plenary sittings and Committee meetings.

27 February 2017

What is the Single Transferable Vote (STV) and how does it work?

The Single Transferable Vote (STV) is a form of Proportional Representation (PR) and is the system of voting used to elect candidates to the Northern Ireland Assembly. This particular method of voting was first introduced to Northern Ireland in 1973 and is considered by many to be fairer and more representative system as it maximises choice as well as giving voters the opportunity to indicate a preference between parties and also for different candidates within parties. Many argue that it also results in fewer wasted votes as votes for smaller parties and independent candidates can still count through a transfer to another candidate. It's a complicated subject but we wanted to try and shed some light on it with the help of our Education Service.

So how does it work

In the Assembly election on 2 March there will be five seats per constituency to fill. When you go to your polling station you will be provided with a list of the candidates who are standing for election in your local constituency and you will be asked to rate those candidates in accordance with your preference. So, for your first preferred candidate you should put a ‘1’ in the box next to their name, a ‘2’ in the box next to the name of your second preferred candidate and so on. There is no maximum or minimum number of preferences to mark, so you could choose to give a preference to all candidates or to just one or two.  When the polls close on March 2, the ballot boxes will be delivered to various counting stations throughout Northern Ireland. The actual count will not take place however until the following day, Friday March 3 and it may take a couple of days for all the votes to be counted.

How are the votes counted?

Once the ballot boxes have been opened, the first task is to sort out which votes are valid and which are not, the total number of valid votes are then counted, verified and recorded. The valid votes are then sorted into piles according to first preferences and these too are recorded.

What is the Quota and how is it worked out?

The quota is the number of votes each candidate will require in order to get elected and this is where it can get a little complicated but there is a formula to follow to work it out. The quota is calculated for each constituency by adding together the total number of valid ballot papers, dividing this by the total number of seats to be filled plus one. As an example, let’s say that there are 2,400 valid votes in constituency X and five seats to fill, we would add a one to the five seats and then divide the 2,400 votes by six, we then add a further one to this figure. This means that the quota is 401, so each candidate will need to get 401 votes to get elected.
NB: The whole number is always used in calculating the quota. Should there be a fraction, the numbers after the decimal point are ignored.

What is a transfer and how does it work?

So now that we have the quota and know the number of votes each candidate should receive to get elected, it’s on with the count. Voting papers are sorted into bundles according to first preferences and counted. Any candidate reaching or exceeding the quota is elected. If they are elected with more first preference votes than the quota, their extra votes are called a surplus.

The Surplus

Surplus votes from candidates who exceed the quota are transferred to the remaining candidates who were chosen as number 2 (second preference) on the elected candidate/s’ ballot papers (which show a second preference). All votes are transferred at a fractional value. The surplus is calculated as follows: Example: The quota in constituency X is 401 votes and candidate A received 500 votes. Surplus = 500 – 401. Therefore, candidate A has a surplus of 99.

What happens to the transfers?

Candidate A was selected at the first count, having exceeded the quota. It would not be a fair system to transfer just candidate A’s 99 surplus papers to the other candidates. If only the ‘extra’ papers were transferred there would be no way of ensuring that the 2nd preferences on these 99 papers were representative of all the 500 ballot papers that candidate A had received: 401 people would not have their second preferences considered. For fairness, all the candidate’s ballot papers with a 2nd choice are redistributed. These are called transferable ballot papers as the voter has indicated a 2nd preference. The transferable ballot papers are reallocated to the next choice candidates at a transfer value (a fractional percentage of one vote). This reduces the value of each vote transferred, so that the total redistributed vote is not worth more than the value of the candidate’s surplus. So when we talk about transferring the surplus, we really mean transferring the value of the surplus (across all the transferable papers) rather than transferring the actual surplus papers.

Yes, that does sound a bit complicated so let's take a look at Candidate A again...

...if all their papers have a 2nd preference then there are 500 transferable papers to be reallocated. This will be at a total transfer value of their surplus (99). So, 500 papers transferred to equal a total value of 99 means that each ballot paper has an individual transfer value of 0.2. This is calculated by dividing the surplus (99) by the total number of transferable ballot papers for a candidate (500). Calculated as follows:

What happens if none of the candidates reach quota on the first count?

While it would be unusual for no candidate to meet the quota on the first count this can happen. In this instance, the candidate with the lowest number of votes is eliminated and his votes redistributed to the remaining candidates in order of preference. The transfer value of each transferable paper is still 1 vote, as the 1st preference was not used.

Getting to 5 candidates elected

The above process will continue until all 5 seats are filled.


We hope this helps you get a better understanding of how STV works in Assembly elections but if you do have any questions, (or want to leave us a comment), please use the comments section below and we'll do our best to find the answers.

Additional Information

Further information on elections is available from the websites of the Electoral Commission and the Electoral Office:

3 February 2017

How to vote in the March Assembly election

The Assembly election is on 2 March 2017 and you will be able to vote if you are at least 18 years old on 2 March; a British, Irish, European or Commonwealth citizen with leave to remain.

In order to vote you must be registered by 14 February. You can find out whether you are registered by calling the Electoral Office on 0800 4320 712. If you are not on the Electoral Register, it’s easy to get on: just download the form from the Electoral Office and return it to your Area Office; a list of these can be found here.

When you go to vote you will need to bring some photographic ID with you. This can take the form of a UK, Irish or EEA driving licence, a UK, Irish or EU passport, the Electoral Identity Card, a Translink Senior or 60+ SmartPass, and Translink War Disabled or Blind Person’s SmartPass. You can also use the registration form to get an Electoral Identity Card—this is a photo ID that can be used to prove your identity when you go to vote.

If your Electoral Identity Card or any other identity documents have expired, you do not need to renew them to vote at a polling station - identity documents produced at a polling station are no longer required to be current, as long as the photograph is of a good enough likeness to allow polling station staff to confirm the identity of the holder.

If you have registered, you will receive a poll card; these will be sent out from 6 to 8 February and include the location of your polling station. You don’t need to bring the poll card with you to the polling station, it’s sent as information purposes only.

Make your vote count—make sure you’re registered for the election!