Ghosts in the Machine – Electoral Reform Pt.II

Check these guys out. Good info, perhaps bad conclusions...

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:

  1. 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.
  2. 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.
  3. 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.
  4. Due to the fact that an absolute majority is not required to win, candidates can be elected on insanely small amounts of public support.

I Feel ya, bro

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…

Used to make me think I was clever. Actually very stupid.

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*

Are we too slow for Electoral Reform? Pt.1

Nick Clegg - UK Deputy PM

"Waaah! It's not fair I want reform"

This one’s been banging around inside my head for some time now. If you are reading this blog post from any country that has ever been colonised by the British (a’right, calm down, we can have that discussion later), including all of North America and India, then the likelihood is that in your most important elections, your nation uses the First-Past-The-Post (FPTP) system. One notable exception is Australia, whilst other, non-colonised nations also use FPTP. So Read This Post as it is surely relevant to a massive segment of the world’s population.

I figured there was something up with the FPTP system quite some time ago when someone mentioned that it was possible for a government to win an election without gaining the support of the majority of voters. Hmm, I thought, that don’t sound much like the democracy they tell me about at school. So you get an idea how long this has been rattling around in there for.

Shamefully, despite having been politically active for at least a good few years, I never really bothered to get my head around what was going on with the electoral system. Equally shamefully, I suspect that the vast majority of the eligible voting population also has little idea. On the one hand, the premise seems innocuous enough – the guy who gets the most votes wins the election. Seems fair enough. So how does the situation occur that a party can win an election without a majority?

Well, shock horror, it turns out that it ain’t quite so simple. Things get an added layer of complexity when you factor in constituencies. If the whole country went to the polls and voted for one party or t’other without them, then FPTP would work fine. However, we do have constituencies, albeit with varying names and definitions globally.

David Cameron - UK Prime Minister

"No, it's not fair, but in just the right way, HaHaa!"

Imagine a situation like this (or, if you live in the UK, no need to imagine): Each Constituency elects one member of Parliament. The Candidate who polls the most votes (not necessarily a majority – there may be several Parties and Candidates) will win the seat in Parliament for that constituency. Let’s say there are 100 constituencies, and 10,000 voters in each – a total of 1,000,000. Now let’s suppose there are two parties only. Party One wins 5,001 votes in every single constituency (oh, come now, I’m just trying to elucidate the point), whilst Party Two receives 4,999 votes in all constituencies. Right, so clearly according to the rules Party One has won all 100 seats in Parliament. Party Two, however, gets no representation in Parliament whatsoever, despite gaining 49.99% of the votes. If you further the analogy and throw in a third party, then things can become even more skewed and so on.

From this simple, although admittedly extreme, example one can deduce most of what is wrong with FPTP. I will defer to the wisdom of the Electoral Reform Society. The problems are thus:

  1. Representatives can get elected on tiny amounts of public support, especially in poly-party candidacies.
  2. It encourages tactical voting, as voters vote not for the candidate they most prefer, but against the candidate they most dislike.
  3. FPTP in effect wastes huge numbers of votes, as votes cast in a constituency for losing candidates, or for the winning candidate above the level they need to win that seat, count for nothing.
  4. Parties on the winning side are disproportionately over-represented and vice-versa

There are other issues, of course, but these are my pick. Point 1 is understandable – if the vote were split between five popular parties, then its gonna be one helluva task to get an absolute majority. That said if the issue can be solved, then great. And it can. On point 2, this particular form of tactical voting can be prevented, but perhaps not all forms. Points 3 and 4 are the real kickers for me, with point 4 being exemplified earlier. But point 3- well, Wow!

According to ERS, in the UK:

“In 2005, 70 per cent of votes were wasted in this way – that’s over 19 million ballots.”

Boy, 70% of our votes wasted! How come no-one told us about this? I’ll tell you why – one point not mentioned in the list above is that FPTP tends towards a two party system (by way of disproportionate representation in Parliament). Now, if you were one of the two largest parties (I’m looking at you, Labour and the Conservatives), why on earth would you want electoral reform when the current system favours you? Equally, if you were one of the smaller parties, why wouldn’t you want electoral reform? So you see, this reform issue is not, as far as the politicians on all sides are concerned, a matter of differing opinions on fair representation for the people. It is a purely political means to gain/keep a grip on power.

This issue is far too big for one post, but I can assure you that I will be blogging on this topic again, as it is one that really requires that we fight against the established parties. So what do we do? Well, you could tinker about with having multi-member constituencies for example, but it starts to get rather complex and the subtleties are hard to fathom for anyone. Thankfully, most of the hard work there has already been done for us. I shall be back to discuss what we can do to improve the system, and how you can help to push that change forward.

On a final note, I found these principle arguments for FPTP quite amusing. The ERS claim that,

“It’s [FPTP] simple to understand …and doesn’t alienate people who can’t count.”

and that,

“People are often fearful of change and slow to adapt, thus as we’ve got it now, so we may as well keep it.”

Really? Well I’m most glad that Prince Philip and Jordan are able to vote. But for the rest of us, these argument holds no water. People who can’t count? Where are these folk, living in a rock at the bottom of the English Channel (teehee, see the irony, water, channel. How delightful!)? And how about we’re too slow, please don’t change stuff to help us! Drivel, I tell you.