Perhaps the big moment of the recent Assembly Election campaign was Mike Nesbitt’s statement that he would transfer to the SDLP. The debate will rage about whether this was politically or strategically the right thing, but what was widely missed by the media at the time was that his statement was in fact irrelevant, at least in terms of his own vote.
Firstly, the Ulster Unionists and SDLP together were running only 45 candidates – not enough for a majority of the 90 seats in order to pursue their programme, even if they happened to be the largest party in each designation. On top of that, there was no chance of the SDLP winning a seat in East Belfast, where in the previous election they had attained the worst result ever in any constituency by an incumbent Executive party. Even this time, on a rising turnout, the party could muster only 250.
Mr Nesbitt’s vote, therefore, was never going to reach the SDLP.
In fact, it was never realistically going to leave his own party’s candidate, unless he lost his seat comfortably. If your first preference vote is cast for a candidate who does not reach quota on the first count but is subsequently elected (or runner-up), no part of it ever transfers. The only time a portion of your vote transfers is if it happens to count towards an elected candidate at the time of election (i.e. on the count which elects that candidate). Mr Nesbitt’s vote was only ever going to transfer if his own party’s candidate, Andy Allen, performed so terribly that he was eliminated before it was clear which five candidates would be elected (which was never likely).
So in fact the immediate next question for Mr Nesbitt should have been to point out that his vote was not going to transfer, and even if it did it was never reaching the SDLP. Was he really just engaged in a bit opportunism to try to scramble some of his own candidates in the West home on SDLP transfers (if so, this actually worked in Fermanagh & South Tyrone)? And indeed, why go for the SDLP second preference ahead of the potentially relevant Alliance Party, whose MLAs would be needed for him ever to command a majority as First Minister?
The electoral system is complex, and for that reason I personally do not like it. However, the media do need to get a better grasp of it.