Northern Ireland

Referendum offers prospect of voting system change

David and Samantha Cameron
Image caption David and Samantha Cameron prepare to enter 10 Downing Street on 11 May 2010, five days after the general election

In May, there will be a referendum on whether to change the voting system for general elections. So what does this mean and how do the Northern Ireland parties line up? BBC NI Political Reporter Stephen Walker investigates.

Like the rules of horse racing the battle for a Westminster seat has always been simple to understand and simple to explain.

Whoever went 'past the post first' with the most votes became the MP.

Now we are going to be asked to consider the merits of the 'alternative vote' system.

This is where voters rank candidates in order of preference and the winner must secure more than 50 per cent of the vote.

Anyone getting more than 50% of first-preference votes is elected.

If no-one gets 50% of votes, the candidate with the fewest votes is eliminated and their backers' second choices allocated to those remaining.

This process continues until one candidate has at least 50% of all votes cast.

Plans to hold the referendum were part of the coalition deal agreed between the Conservatives and the Liberal Democrats last May.

Electoral reform has long been a key demand of Liberal Democrats and many Liberals see it as a fairer way to elect MPs and say it would make the House of Commons more representative.

The 'alternative vote method ' is not a proportional system which parties like the Alliance Party want but according to their East Belfast MP Naomi Long it is a step in the right direction.

She would 'prefer to see PR' but said plans to introduce the alternative vote would be a 'staging post' and would produce a fairer result

Like the Alliance Party, the SDLP will support a change.

Foyle MP Mark Durkan would also like to see a full PR system in place like the single transferable vote method.

However he will back plans for a change and says the switch would 'stop sectarian voting in Northern Ireland'.

Plans for the referendum have not been met with universal support.

DUP North Belfast MP Nigel Dodds says his party will oppose the voting change.

He believes the plans are a "makeshift policy" and it has been "cobbled together".

He thinks the referendum is a distraction and the money being set aside to stage it would be 'better spent'.

The Ulster Unionists have not decided how they will vote.

In the weeks ahead they will consider the arguments for and against a move away from "first past the post".

Party spokesman Mike Nesbitt says he and his colleagues are open minded.

He said "superficially there is an appeal' but he added we have not "nailed down policy on this".

He said the party was taking a bigger look at the whole issue.

The referendum in May is being held on the same day as the Assembly and council elections.

Ballot papers

The idea of holding the vote at the same time as other elections was to keep costs down and to maximise turnout.

Deputy PM Nick Clegg said holding it on the same day as the other elections would save £17m and is more convenient for voters.

Some Tory MPs have suggested it could skew the result.

The downside is that in places like Northern Ireland, the issue of voting reform may be overshadowed as politicians battle for seats on councils and in Stormont.

Sinn Fein's Alex Maskey says he is worried that the electorate will be faced with three ballot papers.

He told BBC Online, "there is a form of overload here as people have a lot to choose and it is a lot for people to be asked to do".

Lady Hermon, the North Down MP is pleased that people are being given the opportunity to vote on changing the voting system.

She has not decided what way she will vote.

However, she does not think that three ballot papers will be a problem for voters.

She said "we have a well educated electorate".

The Independent MP added that "people will be able to distinguish what they are being asked to vote for".

The voting referendum is all part of legislation that will see the number of MPs reduced and constituencies made roughly the same size.

Shake-up

Northern Ireland could lose three MPs including one of the Belfast seats and boundary changes should result in constituencies being roughly the same size.

It will mark the biggest shake-up in the political landscape in years.

That legislation is going through Westminster and is expected to become law shortly.

Changing the voting system will take a little longer.

We will have to wait until May if we are finally ready to swap horses and end our association with first past the post.