With just one week to go until the sixth election to the Northern Ireland Assembly, here are some essential facts and figures.
- There will be fewer seats up for grabs
The number of seats in the Assembly will be reduced from 108 to 90. That means that each constituency will return one less MLA than in the last five elections.
- All parties have effectively lost seats before a single vote has been cast
The DUP was returned as the largest party in Stormont last May; it will be defending its 38 seats (but it was, of course, down to 37 due to the suspension of Jonathan Bell from the party). Sinn Féin will be defending 28, the UUP 16, the SDLP 12, and Alliance 8. We can get a sense of each party’s effective baseline by applying their 2016 seat shares proportionate to a 90-seat Assembly. A party might hold the same number of seats from 2016, or even lose some, and still make an effective gain from its last result.
It should be noted that this is not a prediction of the results on 2 March; the graphic below simply illustrates the proportion of seats each party would have in a 90 seat Assembly if it retained precisely the same proportion of seats that it took in 2016.
- Nine outgoing MLAs definitely won’t be returning
Nine of the MLAs elected just nine months ago won’t be standing again on 2 March. Sinn Féin’s Catherine Seeley announced that she will be returning to work as a teacher, the DUP’s Sammy Douglas announced that he will be retiring, and outgoing DUP Junior Minister Alastair Ross (35) announced that he will be leaving politics altogether. The most high profile MLA not to be seeking re-election is outgoing deputy First Minister Martin McGuinness, due to ill health.
- Newry and Armagh is the least competitive constituency
Only nine candidates are contesting Newry and Armagh’s five Assembly seats. The most competitive constituencies are East Antrim, East Londonderry and West Tyrone; 15 candidates are standing in each.
- Turnout has declined in every Assembly election since 1998…
Will the 2017 Assembly election be the first to see turnout increase? If the negative trend over the last five Assembly elections continues, turnout would be projected at just 48 percent.
- But there were different patterns across different constituencies last May
Unionist constituencies tended to see lower turnout than in nationalist constituencies, but last May’s election saw something of a correction to this pattern: there were sharper decreases in voter participation in many nationalist constituencies, whilst turnout increased in several unionist areas. It should be noted, however, that some of the increases are due to very low bases. The highest increase was reported in North Down, for example, but turnout there was still just 49.6 percent. Will turnout be below 50 percent anywhere on 2 March?
- A winning candidate needs the support of at least 16.7% of voters
The smaller number of seats available in each constituency raises the bar for hopeful candidates. Under the PR-STV (Single Transferable Vote) system, a candidate must reach a certain quota. The quota stood at 14.3% in previous elections, but now rises to 16.7%. Of course, not all candidates reach the quota on the first count. As Connor Daly has previously written, this means that transfers (from lower preferences) are likely to be extremely important in this election.