Voting Systems 53

The Tories have made an offer to the Lib Dems of a referendum on the alternative vote (AV) system.

I am not a supporter of AV. The fact that Labour and Tories can both support it, is a good indicator that it is not much of an improvement. Under AV you get to note a second choice on your ballot paper. The bottom candidate is eliminated and their second preferences re-allocated, until somebody gets over 50% of votes cast.

This system does not address the problem of proportionality – that the percentage of seats in parliament should broadly reflect the percentage of national votes cast. It is expected it would slightly improve proportionality, but that is a side effect and not inevitable. Indeed it can exagerrate the seat share of a dominant party. It most definitely does not help smaller parties, but rather tends to promote a flight to mediocrity – it puts a premium on being unobjectionable rather than exciting or different.

Party list systems are proportional, but I find them the worst of all as the parties can promote individual candidates who are personally unpalatable to the electorate. Under party list systems seats are allocated to parties according to the national or regional percentage of votes cast, and then those party seats are filled by the returning officer ticking down a party candidates list. The voter is voting for a party, not an individual.

The Scots system is a combination of AV, regionally topped up to add a proportional element from a party list. This is a horrible system.

By far the best system is single transferable vote in multi-member constituencies (STV). Under this system. large constituencies contain perhaps six or seven MPs. The voter gets a list of all candidates from all parties, and independents, and the voter can rank the actual individual candidates in order of preference from 1 to x. In a seven member constituency, a candidates needs 14.3% of the vote to be elected. If anyone gets that, their excess vote is distributed according to their second preferences, otherwise the person who came last is eliminated and their preferences distributed, ad infintum until you have seven people elected.

This gives a strongly proportional result nationally, encourages small parties and independent candidates, and gives the voter a wide choice of individual candidates.

The most quoted disadvantages of STV are the loss of the link between an MP and their small constituency, and the encouragement to the BNP.

On the constituency link, I think this is romantic tosh. Only the expenses scandal caused any signficant proportion of the electorate to be able to name their own MP. MPs would still have a strong regional link.

On the BNP, there is no region where they came anywhere near to getting 16%. But I am afraid to say that should the BNP be able to get that kind of level of support, I think they would be entitled to their MP.

So there we have it. In my view, STV is by far the best system and the only one worth changing to. I don’t believe AV is significantly better than FPTP.

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53 thoughts on “Voting Systems

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  • writerman

    STV has to be the system adopted, or leave it alone. It’s not worth the trouble of changing from FPTP.

    But still, one shouldn’t assume this is a cure-all. It isn’t. A truly democratic society requires democratic citizens, and that process is altogether more difficult to achieve.

  • Doug Allanson

    I am in sympathy with Anno’s post, but that said, where do you go from there?

    Now I know a bit more about the different systems it seems clear that STV is the way to go. Labour, it seems have promised a referendum on it.

    I wonder if others agree with me that this would however result in a massive change to our political system.

    There would be far far more of the kind of horsetrading we are seeing this week.

    It would be the norm, and apparently the Great British Public are already getting narked with it, or is that just the media stirring up trouble?

    However for my money the advantage is that politicians actually have to come out and say what they really think which I think is a massive gain.

  • Boulton's Big Fat Bum

    Oh dear. That Adam Boulton turns out to be a very disappointed little Tory boy:

    And he totally loses it again:

    Rather exposes the fascistic nature of Sky, even as it pretends to be different to its American scumbag Faux News.

    Ofcom really needs to have a look at the behaviour of this clown. It’s already well known that Dave has promised to dilute Ofcom powers to ensure that SKy can become even more like Faux News.

    We must not let that happen!

  • Craig


    But you don’t get that party list system under STV, as the post makes clear.

  • Seano

    The STV as practised in Ireland has led to clientelism and ‘parish pump’ politics, probably because of the high number of representatives relative to population.

    There is fierce competition between TDs (MPs) sharing a constituency and their constituency work mostly consists of helping constituents bypass bureaucracy.

    There are some tweaks now proposed like forcing TDs to clock in,so they have to spend time at debates rather than going to funerals, envelope-openings etc.

    We’re also cursed with a two centre-right party hegemony that’s a relic of our war of independence. Hopefully the answer will be simply a more civic-minded, clued-in, and pissed-off electorate, and a third party who refuses to go into coalition.

    No electoral system is perfect in practise, and people here have been suggesting the party list system, or the Tasmanian STV.

  • Simon

    Hi Craig,

    Australia has AV for it’s lower house (houses if you include the states), and it works very well. A ballot that numbers all candidates in order of preference is a much richer expression of a voter’s wishes than a tick in a box. “Minor” parties have more sway because major parties explicitly court their preferences. This influence can extend to deals around “preference swaps” on how-to-vote cards. If only for eliminating tactical voting, AV is worth it. As a system it’s more representative, even if it leaves you with major parties governing “on their own”.

    Advocates of proportional representation seem to feel proportionality is an end in itself, no further justification needed. However with democracies looking increasingly flat-footed next to China, I really can’t see that this is a good time to dilute the prerogative enjoyed by the government of the moment. I’d appreciate some discussion on this point.

    I believe the real genius of the Australian system is in combining an AV lower house, producing the executive, with a proportional (elected!) upper house. In this way, the electorate can give a strong mandate to a “clear winner” party via majorities in both houses. Or, just as often, the electorate can give the governing party a “hostile” senate, or lords in your case, requiring it to operate in consensual or coalition mode, appropriate to it’s level of support. I’m sorry but FPTP and an unelected upper chamber is just an embarassment.

    The final lesson from the antipodes, from our botched republic referendum, is that a government will find a way of burying a constitutional change it doesn’t like, even if that change has 75% popular support. The Tories have no divine right to rule. The long disenfranchised lib-dems are entitled to get the best deal from whoever. Labour will support a level of electoral reform that is worth having. Diego Garcia is unfortunate, but let’s get on with it.

    Strength to your arm


  • Subrosa

    Why the libdems are so concerned about a new voting system beats me. They should be more concerned about the voting process ie the corruption and fraud going on. No point in having a new system if the foundations are rotten.

    Firstly postal votes should he halted.

  • Parky

    STV was and maybe still is the system used at my university student union many years ago. It has it merits to be sure when dealing with a few thousand voters.

    I just wonder though how the electoral system would cope with its complicated administration with 40,000 or so papers to be counted for each seat and the votes distributed and if this would lead to further electoral fraud or just plain human error.

    To be accurate, a computerised system may need to be adopted although very stringent safeguards would need to be put in place. The process should be taken away from the local councils as we have seen some of which proved to be incompetent in their administration of the vote just taken. Ideally you should be able to vote from your computer and this could be achieved with accuacy and without fraud as long as appropriate systems were put in place with severe penalties for fraud.

  • Parky

    I’m not saying that STV is impossible, but is there a political will for it in the UK? We live in an illusory democracy with the general election something of an exercise reluctantly carried out by the establishment to mollify the public.

    And of course the Irish are a republic as is Germany and maybe that has more to do with it.

  • richard

    No need to apologise for the multi-member constituencies produced by proper STV: we should trumpet their advantages. Almost everybody – at least 85% and usually about 97% – is represented by an MP they voted for. Constituencies would be real natural communities, consistent with local government boundaries, and virtually never re-drawn; because a rise or fall in population only requires the number of MPs for a seat to be increased or decreased, and that adjustment can be made at every election, not just every 10 years or so. The present system of FPTP with a boundary commission results in nearly all constituency boundaries criss-crossing Local authority borders, breaking up natural communities, giving constituencies with no real identity; and it even fails to achieve its avowed aim of equal electorates, since the maximum discrepancy in modern elections reaches the biggest constituency having 5 times the electorate of the amallest, whereas under STV the greatest discrepancy would be about 5:4.

  • Duncan McFarlane

    On the constituency link a multi-member constituency allows constituents to choose which MP they want to go to for help – and if they get no satisfaction from the first one they go to they have several others they can go to.

    So constituents are far better off in terms of “the constituency link” under PR than they would be under AV or FPTP

  • Doug Allanson

    I’m interested in Simon’s post.

    It is interesting how many old warhorses – Kenneth Baker, Heseltine, John Reed – and some young ones – have been coming out with their died in the wool opposition to pr. I suppose the basis of this is that they feel threatened by the resurgence of a third party and they feel Britain should have a government which can always make a decision.

    In my view this probably goes back to the vision of Britain as a dominant world power ever since the beginnings of the party system about 1688.

    Simon talks about the need to have a coherent voice to speak to the likes of China.

    But world power or not decisions these days are incredibly complex, with an incredibly well-informed global political system and it is probably still more important to take the right decision than a quick one.

    I suppose the likelihood is we’ll get av before pr and we get a gradual entry to all this.

    One other point. The current model of ‘adversarial’ politics really dates from Disraeli who was the first prime minister to obviously manipulate the electorate and parliament to get what he wanted. He famously allied his Tory party with left wing Whigs to get the second reform bill through, ending up with a much more radical bill than anyone had expected. But more importantly he and other politicians, after the said reform bill, realised they had to couch all their statements with the ear of the electorate in mind whereas previously politics had basically been a gentlemen’s club.

    To do this politicians found the two party system with its arcane gameplaying convenient.

    Perhaps now we need to be just a bit more grown up than that.

  • mary

    It’s quite surreal to watch the Welsh Assembly live on Channel 81 Freeview carrying on with their business as normal whilst the Whitehall farce continues ad nauseam.

    They are discussing dementia care!

  • Anonymous

    FPTP/PR/AV, whatever.

    Too late in the day for all that…We are about to go down the plughole, and all you lot can do is talk about PR.

    Get real.

    All this comes to late to help now.

  • Clark

    Yes, getting a representative electoral system is only one side of the problem, the other is having a well informed electorate. The corporate media is a major problem in this, though I have little idea what to do about it.

    I am gross and perverted, I’m obsessed and deranged,

    I have existed for years but very little has changed,

    I’m the tool of the government and industry too,

    For I am destined to rule and regulate you,

    I may seem vile and pernicious but you can’t look away,

    I make you think I’m delicious with the stuff that I say,

    I’m the Best You Can Get,

    Have you guessed me yet?

    I’m the slime oozing out from your TV set!

    You will obey me when I lead you,

    And eat the garbage that I feed you,

    Until the day that we don’t need you,

    Don’t call for help, no one will heed you,

    Your mind is totally controlled,

    It has been stuffed into my mold,

    And you will do as you are told,

    Until the rights to you are sold.

    “That’s Right Folks Don’t Touch That Dial!”

    Frank Zappa, 1973

  • Doug Allanson

    Yes, the Mothers of Invention – or was that Alistair Campbell and Peter Mandelson?

  • mary

    The ghastly porker Adam Boulton (he should diet) having nearly burst his boiler twice yesterday, once with Campbell and then with Bradshaw, is now guietly preening himself and glowing with pride at a job well done as his master’s wish seems to be coming Cameron as PM.

  • Vronsky

    STV is what to go for, and you must go for it first time. If any of the numerous pseudo-proportional fudges is adopted at this stage it will kill the topic for another century. PR? Oh, been there, done that, box ticked.

    STV also not only allows the voter to rank his preferences, it allows him to select among several different candidates for the same party – so that a seat can be safe for a party, but not guaranteed safe for any carefully groomed moron advanced by that party (think Douglas Alexander). STV gives most discrimination to the voter – you can even vote for an individual you like even though you disapprove of his party.

    To those asking how a transferred vote is actually transferred, come back to me when I’ve not been drinking the wine that really ought to have gone into the sauce (Chilean Merlot – tolerable). The Irish way is not the best – it’s not even bloody sensible.

    All PR systems have faults – but that’s a bit like saying that there’s no such thing as a perfect woman and therefore we should shun them all.

  • Simon

    Just responding to Doug, I certainly didn’t mean to suggest the UK needs a coherent voice to speak _to_ China. To speak to China, be in Europe. Decisiveness, though, can be a real problem for democracies, and it’s not clear to me how the STV crowd view this issue. China obviously has no problem with decisiveness, hence my unfortunate comparison. Do proportionally representative coalition style governments deal better with complex modern issues, or do they avoid dealing with them and play blame games? How would this play out in the UK, anyone?

    One clear requirement for healthy democracies is churn, and churn requires swinging voters, the more the better. FPTP and AV, favouring clear winners, make it clear who you have to vote against if you want change. Would PR systems like STV favour more tribal voting? In this regard, AV is clearly better than FPTP, in that people are less tribal with their 2nd preferences, so swinging preferences can and frequently do decide elections. Another big factor, underlined in Norwich North, is the quality of individual representatives. Voters might vote for the teenage footsoldiers of their party of tribal allegiance, but in casting their 2nd preferences, they are much more likely to be swayed by a CV, a strong local profile, and grey hair. The overall quality of representatives will benefit.

    I’m still keen to hear from the STV crowd what’s so great about proportionality in the lower house of a bicameral system. I suspect that you are pumping any system that will get a better deal for your (minority) tribal interest.


  • Duncan McFarlane

    Well what’s great about proportionality is that it means every vote counts equally and people can vote for the candidate or party they agree with most, not just the one they disagree with least among those likely to win.

    Under FPTP or AV then unless you voted for the candidate that ends up with the majority of votes in that constituency (or often the largest minority under FPTP), your vote goes in the bin unrepresented.

    That distorts how people vote and makes them vote negatively for bad against worse instead of positively for who they agree with most.

    Under STV PR almost every vote will count and be represented.

    That means it’s more democratic and it does away with all the “safe seats” where voting for anyone but the party holding it is a waste of time under FPTP/AV.

    You’re saying people are saying proportionality is better in itself. So it is. It’s more democratic and lets people vote positively.

    So why should it need other criteria to justify it? It’s like saying people arguing for democracy’s only argument is that it’s democratic and not a dictatorship – but has no other benefits.

    I’m not convinced that it’s that beneficial to have an elected upper chamber – unless we get a constitution that requires political parties to allow party members votes’ to have the final (and only) say on candidate selection and policy making.

    If we get an elected upper chamber which is controlled by the party leaders and their place-men and women, the way the House of Commons is just now, then you’ll get either a rubber stamp (if the same party controls both houses) or deadlock with nothing happening (if the two are controlled by different parties).

    You could solve that by either a written constitution including requirements for internal democracy in all parties, or by having upper house representatives elected for 10 or 20 or 25 years so they weren’t subject to pressure from party leaders.

  • Duncan McFarlane

    Having said all that Nick Clegg has gone into a coalition on the basis of a referendum on the Alternative Vote, so there’s no chance of getting P.R for UK elections for another 5 years – and every possibility Scotland will vote for the SNP and other smaller pro-independence parties next year (and if not then then in 2016 if the Conservatives win the next General election).

    Having failed to avoid another Conservative government by voting Labour, going for Independence is the only other option (though its possible too many Scots will be afraid Scotland couldn’t make it on it’s own unless the recession has ended)

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