My laptop and my mobile phone were recently nicked, meaning that all the articles that were prepared for your perusal have been irretrievably lost. Much as I would love to submerge the offenders genitals in a vat of sulphuric acid, I have it on good authority that doing so may permanently end my career/life/freedom. Such is the sick twisted world in which we live.
So I’m going to re-write the articles, mainly because I think the topics are some of the most important we face in modern democracies. Hopefully these second versions will be more robust than the first iterations. First of all, let’s recap the major points made in part one. The most important problems which we need to solve with electoral reform are thus:
- Wasted votes. In our First-Past-The-Post (FPTP) system, votes for any party other than the two major parties make essentially no difference to the outcome of the election. In the last General Election, this amounted to 70% of votes wasted. Pretty shocking and undemocratic, methinks.
- Parties whose support base is widely spread but significant are massively underrepresented in terms of the number of seats in parliament. The opposite is also true. By proportionality and proportional representation, I mean only that the number of seats allocated to a party in parliament should be proportional to the number of votes received in total.
- Tactical voting means that often voters will vote for one of the top two candidates, despite preferring a less viable candidate, as if they were to vote for their preferred candidate, the vote would be wasted. This translates to voters voting against their least preferred of the top two candidates.
- Due to the fact that an absolute majority is not required to win, candidates can be elected on insanely small amounts of public support.
What these issues leave us with is a system that is not proportional (see point 1 and 4), nor representative (see point 2) and produces significantly distorted results (see points 1,2,3 and 4). There is a commonly used word for describing this situation – fail. Possibly EPIC fail. For a more detailed explanation of why FPTP has these drawbacks, refer back to Electoral Reform Pt.I.
Unless you really don’t care that our leaders are in fact despots (in which case, bugger off and fly a kite), then obviously a solution must be found. Various systems deal with these issues to a greater or lesser extent, but I’ll save you all some time by covering those which seem to do the job best. I have to admit to being driven to despair at times by the complexity inherent in political and social issues, not because I can’t understand them, but because complexity lends itself to the distortion of issues using language – something that politicians are unsurprising experts at. In fact, voting systems can be quite definitively, even mathematically categorised, so there is at least a ‘truth’ to be found in the controversy.
Today I’m going to demonstrate the most effective form of proportional representation (PR). Commonly known as the Single Transferrable Vote (STV), it practically eliminates all of the above mentioned issues. However, it only works in multi-member constituencies (which we don’t have in the UK). There is a reason why I begin here – despite the fact it is not necessarily applicable to our system (unless we totally overhaul the nature of our democracy…hmm?). It is because there is a version of STV which is applicable to single-member constituencies, and understanding STV is the key to understanding it’s benefits and failings. That’s for another post…
So here’s how it works: voters are presented with a ballot with the names of all candidates which they rank in order of preference. Once the first choices have been counted, if there is a candidate with an absolute majority (decided by the number of candidates), then he/she is elected. The votes received by that candidate above the number required to win are then distributed to those voters second preference candidate (because otherwise they would effectively be wasted), whilst the candidate receiving the least first preference votes is eliminated and his votes are similarly redistributed. This process is repeated until enough candidates have received the necessary votes to fill all of the available seats. Wikipedia has a good simplified example of this process at work.
Now, the important stuff – how does this combat the issues of FPTP and what other issues and benefits does it confer?
On Point One: Clearly, due to the redistribution of votes, every ballot has the chance of affecting the result, even if it is not their first preference. There is one case in which a ballot could be wasted, and that is when a voter does not rank all the candidates. Even in this case, however, the vote is not necessarily wasted.
On Point Two: Multi-member constituencies mean that several parties can be elected within a single constituency, reducing the dominance of partisan politics, increasing representation of differing priorities and strengthening the accountability of the members to their constituents. It is also why STV produces a truly proportional result.
On Point Three: Tactical voting of the kind associated with FPTP is not of any use in STV. Other forms of tactical voting common to other PR systems are also eliminated. However, it has been shown that no PR system can be completely immune to all forms of tactical voting, and STV has it’s own form. However, the effectiveness of tactical voting is much diminished as it would require coordination between groups of candidates or voters, which in reality seldom occurs and even when it does, it rarely succeeds in it’s objective.
On Point Four: Again, due to the redistribution of votes, no candidate can be elected without achieving a majority.
STV is, perhaps unsurprisingly, not perfect. Most of the important issues that can lead to the corruption of the system come down to implementation; re-districting can cause anomalies that variously benefit either the small or large parties and so care is required when implementing the system, but it can be argued that any system or policy objectives can be defeated by implementation – see how the implementation of free market capitalism has been screwed through bad implementation.
In the next instalment, we shall explore the single-member constituency version of STV, and discuss how the coalition is conning us into voting ‘no’ to reform. God Damn, why are the important things so bastard boring? *sigh*