Saturday, 30 May 2009

Voting Reform

At the moment, you can hardly go to BBC News without seeing another story about an MP standing down. With parliament being so denuded by the expenses row, the need for reform of some sort is clear.

One direly needed reform is the replacement of the current system for electing MPs. Currently, MPs are elected by pre-defined constituencies through first-past-the-post voting. Unfortunately, first-past-the-post tends to seriously pervert democracy thanks to something called Duverger's law.

Duverger's Law states that a first-past-the-post elections will almost invariably result in a system where only two parties have any significant political clout. This is largely due to people having to tactically vote for candidates they don't like but have a better chance of winning than their real favourite.

In the extreme, this can lead to the absurd situation where there is a third party that would be preferred by the majority of voters, but nevertheless fails to be voted into power. Voters know that unless everyone magically switches to the new party in the same election, the vote will be split and some truly undesirable party will win instead. Meanwhile, the established parties have little incentive to serve the people effectively, as only a truly titanic public discontent could permanently keep them out of the running.

Unfortunately, whenever the topic of alternate voting systems crops up, certain people will start scaremongering about the dangers of such "untested" systems. But in reality, it's hardly the case that everyone is using majority voting.

In Switzerland, for example, the National Council is elected using a somewhat complex but largely effective system of proportional representation: people vote for individual candidates, whose party affiliations determine the number of seats each party gets. Within each party bloc, the candidates with the most votes get seats. For example, if you vote for candidate A of party X, A may not get a seat, but you've at least helped someone else from party X get a seat, instead of indirectly helping party Y.

In Ireland, elections use single transferable vote, which is another system that ensures you can vote for a less popular candidate without wasting your vote. In STV, you simply rank the candidates you like in the order you'd most see them elected. If your first choice can't get a seat, your vote is transferred to your second choice, and so on.

In both systems, you can safely vote for the person you prefer without fear that you're actually propelling their opposite into office. Single transferrable vote would be the most preferable, since it allows people to vote for any combination of individual candidates, and avoids giving undue power to political parties.

The introduction of a new voting system could also coincide with the abolishment of constituencies. But if that's not palatable, STV works just fine for electing a single representative. (In that case it's usually called instant-runoff voting.)

The only real problem with introducing a new voting system is the potential for voter confusion, as unfortunately happened in Scotland in 2007, when the introduction of STV caused a significant number of people to incorrectly fill in their ballot paper. But much of the blame can be laid on organisational mistakes and people plain failing to read the instructions, and the confusion has died down since.

In England, there were serious attempts to introduce STV in both 1884 and 1917, but they ultimately came to nothing due to a lack of support from the political establishment. [1]

To be frank, this is hardly surprising. It's not in the interest of those who have been propelled into power by the current voting system to change anything about it. Any change is likely to decrease their chances of being re-elected. And such established politicians can simply claim that any voting system that is not the current one, no matter its obvious benefits, no matter how well it works in other countries - is unsafe.

But right now, with UK politics in the state it is, we might stand a chance. What can you do?

  • Join the Electoral Reform Society, who are campaigning for the introduction of STV in the UK.

  • If you have one, write to your MP, asking them to bring up and support voting reform in the commons.

  • If you have a vote, please use it. Yes, the current system isn't amazing, but if you don't vote, the crazies' votes will count for more.

[1] Nina Barzachka - "Explaining Electoral System Change: The Adoption of Proportional Representation in Belgium and Its Rejection in Great Britain", p 28-31, University of Virginia, 2007

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