Wednesday, 15 April 2015

What's in a Vote?

Imagine you walk into a restaurant, and some people sit there forking up imaginary food and insist that others with empty plates before them should do the same. At the other end of the room, a hungry couple offered a variety of real food refuse to eat any of them because the menu does not contain the perfect dish they have always dreamt about.

That restaurant is our electoral system. There are those who want people to vote even in cases where it would not make any difference. They acknowledge that in seats where the incumbents have the backing of an overwhelming majority of the local constituents, a vote against them would not change anything. Yet they want to see people exercise their vote so much that they would even advocate compulsory voting for all.

By contrast, we also have those who regard it as a complete waste of time to cast a vote for anyone unless that person subscribes to the same policy position they hold on virtually every issue. Whatever differences the candidates may have between themselves, they are all branded as “the same” just because none of them represents these purists’ ideal politician.

Both these outlooks focus on chasing after their own sense of political perfection and neglect to pursue what would actually help to bring about a better government.

A key reason why so many people don’t vote is because with the first-past-the-post (FPTP) system, in a sizeable majority of seats in, for example, the UK Parliament (at least 60% of the seats) or the US Congress, to get the incumbent voted out is statistically highly improbable. Making it compulsory for people to vote in these cases would not change anything except perhaps make them even more disillusioned.

But making the system one based on proportional representation means every vote will count. And when people can see that the number of seats to be held by any political party will be proportional to the number of votes cast for that party, they will have an incentive to vote for the party they most strongly support, knowing each vote will directly increase the proportion of seats to be gained.

Meanwhile, since under the prevailing system the electoral battle is to be decided in the marginal seats, then one should lend a hand by helping to persuade voters in those seats to vote so as to bring about a more responsive government by backing the most appropriate party in each constituency.

Whatever people’s party political differences maybe, they must realise that just as it is necessary to press for proportional representation because a vote against incumbents in totally safe seats under FPTP would be a wasted vote, a vote for a candidate who stands no chance of winning a given seat would also be a wasted vote.

In fact, in the critical seats that could determine if a country would continue to sacrifice the poorest for the enrichment of the wealthiest, voting for anyone other than the candidate who stands the only realistic chance of dislodging the current government supporter, or keeping out an even more plutocratic/scapegoat-persecuting candidate, might well prove to be disastrously counter-productive.

Of related interest to this post: see ‘10 Things about the State of Our Democracy’

Note: As for the old arguments against proportional representation system: (1) the suggestion that first-past-the-post (FPTP) gives a better connection between a voter and the politician thus elected is spurious since the voter-to-winner ratio is so high that there is little real connection, and most people would rather deal with a politician from the party they back; (2) the warning that a proportional system could let in more extremist parties begs the question of why, if a party is so extreme that the country should seek to keep it out of public office, legal restrictions should not be placed upon such a party directly; (3) the pseudo-justification of FPTP delivering a clear-cut majority for the government is flawed in theory (because a country divided on ideological or socio-economic terms should not be ruled by a contrived majority) and in practice (even FPTP is yielding coalition government with the smaller parties gaining more support).


Stephen Johnson said...

You underestimate the importance of the local nature of the constituency election, and the importance of electing the candidate as distinct from the party.

The advantages of FPTP are that the single member constituency contest is the smallest geographical unit, and thus the most local.
It gives the electorate the best chance of engaging with a local campaign. (Compare this with the European election constituencies or the multimember constituencies required by STV. Even AMS/MMP requires larger constituencies.)
It gives the MP a particular democratic legitimacy (compared with a Party List MP).

In addition FPTP has simple and quick voting and counting which is democratically inclusive and transparent, (compared with STV which is complex and opaque.

No wonder there is no agreement on which is the best PR system.

If we are to replace FPTP with a PR system the electoral process has to be straightforward.
It needs a reasonable balance of power between the Party, the MP and the electorate.
Some systems (eg Party List) give to much power to the Party)

Consider DPR Voting

All MPs are elected in single member constituencies - there are no MPs elected from a Party List.
Much of the election process is unchanged. Voting is simple. Counting is simple and quick
No change is needed to the number of MPs, or to constituency boundaries so introducing DPR Voting would make voting reform in the UK relatively easy and cheap.

The vote for the party is not conflated with the vote for the individual to represent the constituency. This shifts power away from the party to the MP and to the electorate. It encourages independent minded MPs and even independent MPs.
However the vote for the party records its electoral support more closely other systems and the number of votes each parliamentary party has in the parliament is proportional to the party votes they win in the General Election.

Henry Benedict Tam said...

I was thinking of PR in a generic sense, and DPRV is a very interesting form of proportional representation. Thanks for sharing this, and I hope it will get wider consideration across the country.

Codgery said...

I have voted all my life for the single issue of likelihood of introducing PR. I am not an expert in voting systems. I like this DPR system - I also like one I designed here ("SV+"):

I think DPR has the advantage that the number of MPs remains fixed. Plus the feature of separating parties from candidates - which may be a benefit or a negative, or neither (in which case it's a complicating factor).

I think mine has two advantages over DPR.
(i) It is COMPLETELY the same process as we currently operate. No need to explain how to put two Xs (and don't under-estimate that as an issue - people HATE change).
(ii) once they're in place, the resulting MPs all have one, equal vote, like now. There is no need to distinguish free votes from party policy votes (could be tricky sometimes).

All PR systems have merits and problems. I think the OVER-RIDING factor is this - which have the best chance of being accepted? This requires several things
- easy to understand
- not poisonous to parties
- media support.

I think SV+ is conceptually the simplest, full PR, system there is, and not poisonous to parties (while not giving them the patronage if lists). You have to deal with there being a variable number of MPs, but you do anyway with all list systems.

I welcome comments or debate. This is important stuff.

Alastair Breward

Stephen Johnson said...

Criticisms of DPR Voting

Re: Separating the vote for the party from the vote for the individual.
In my constituency, the current MP is very good and should be in parliament. But I don’t support his party. Unfortunately the candidate of the party I support is not of the same calibre.
It could be worse, the incumbent MP might be lazy, incompetent, even dishonest.
I believe separating the vote for the individual from the vote for the party will result in better MPs in the House of Commons (and also encourage Independent candidates)

Re the Voting process: I don’t think having two ballot papers and putting one cross on each ballot is too complicated. The vote will still be valid if the voter abstains on one of the papers.

Re ‘Free Votes’ : There is no problem to distinguish such votes. The default situation is the party vote. A ‘Free’ vote would need the agreement of all the parties, otherwise the issue is determined by the default method.

Henry Benedict Tam said...

What DPR Voting brings out is the reality that people can be, and many are, split between the person they like to be their MP and the party they want to have the most say in the Commons; and in that respect, it is not a drawback, but a positive advantage of DPR Voting that it empowers people to register their genuine preferences on these two issues. I'm fast becoming a convert. Would welcome more thoughts.

Antony said...

Both super Ideas and better than anything else on the table - how are you going to get visibility for them. electoral reform society?
I love that SV+ looks, to the voter, exactly like the system today. Wasn’t so keen on the twin idea, although the idea of a different class of representative opens up lots of opportunities.
DPR also very cool, however one of the issues with any proportional system is minority parties exercise disproportionate power as king makers, DPR is even worse in this regard as this power is potentially vested in one person -Douglas Carswell with 13% of the votes in parliament!