Electoral Systems For The UK (Part 1)

I was roundly castigated for being a political ignoramus with my first look at electoral reform, which was probably sound.  However, far from being deterred, I still want to continue to try and understand the debate in spite of the heckling, and see if I can get to grips with the issues, arguments, and general blah! blah! blah! about this crucial issue. 

I am not sure that I have progressed much further, but here is how I see it; I ask for some patience as you read it as it will be posted over a few blogs rather than just one, with the first being about the main types of voting, then the next a general discussion and my conclusion.

Nuts And Bolts Of The Voting Systems

First-Past-The-Post

First-Past-The-Post (“FPTP”) is the current system in the United Kingdom.  With FPTP, you divide the country up into as many constituencies as you want representatives (i.e. one representative per constituency), then get voters to make their choices and the elected representative in each constituency is the one that gets the most votes, however small the margin between first place and second place.

Alternative Vote

The Alternative Vote (“AV”) system is used in Australia for its House of Representatives and most of the Legislative Assemblies of it States and Territories.  AV is an extension of FPTP in that you still divide the country up into as many constituencies as you want representatives, so AV still results in one representative per voting region, but it enables voters to express their preferences for alternative representatives if their own initial choice cannot win.  So when voting, you rank the candidates in order of preference until you can no longer express an opinion, ranking them 1, 2 etc.  When the votes get counted, if one of the candidates gets a clear majority, i.e. someone has been ranked 1st by more than all the other 1st preferences combined, then they are elected.  However, if no-one has a clear majority, the count starts analysing the preferences of the weaker candidates: in reverse order, you take the candidate that came last and then determine the 2nd preference, i.e. alternative vote, for those who voted for the bottom candidate and allocate those to the remaining candidates and recount, continuing this process until one candidate has over 50% of the votes, and so becoming the elected representative.

Party Lists

Proportional Representation is what I always called the Party List system per the Electoral Reform Society.  PL is, also, the system already used in England, Scotland and Wales for electing MEPs, taking an open party list approach.  The basics of PL are simple: starting with a multi-member constituency, the voters vote, then you work down the list of votes cast to elect representatives in proportion to how many votes each gets until all the representatives’ positions have been filled. 

The complexities in this relatively natural system relate to how you actually construct the system:

(i)                  Voting lists – these can be open or closed, i.e. you vote for candidates who are named on the ballot paper (“open party list”), or you vote for a political party without knowing who the candidates are (“closed party list”), then after the election the political parties work out which candidates they want to represent you in their order of preference;

(ii)                Shape of the constituency – in PL, all constituencies are multi-member, and the larger the constituency and so the greater the number of potential representatives, the more proportional the end result, i.e. the more representative the MPs are of the voters’ actual voting preferences;

(iii)               Minimum voting percentage – most countries (except for example the Republic of South Africa) set a minimum threshold that the minority parties need to exceed before they can get any representation, which seems to be predominantly in the range of 1.5% – 5%. 

(iv)              The final wrinkle is how you actually calculate the number of seats to give each party, which (while fundamental to the actual system) is largely irrelevant to the discussion of the best voting system as the detail can be decided afterwards through an analysis of the various mathematical calculations together with a bit of political horse trading.

Single Transferrable Vote

Single Transferable Vote (“STV”) is used in Northern Ireland for Assembly, European and local elections, most elections in the Republic of Ireland and local elections in Scotland.  In 1917, STV was, also, chosen by the House of Commons for roughly half of constituencies with the remainder to use AV, but this never passed through the House of Lords and was dropped.  It is, also, the preferred choice of the Electoral Reform Society.

STV works on the basis of multi-member constituencies with representatives found via a quota system; representatives are determined by calculating a quota that successful candidates must reach to be elected for each constituency and then working out those candidates that get over that threshold in the constituency. 

Under STV, voters put a number “1” against their first choice, a “2” against their second choice and so on until they no longer have any views.  They can stop at any point, so do not need even to make a second choice.  All the valid ballot papers are then counted up and the threshold calculated as the number of valid ballot papers divided by the number of people to be elected plus one.  So per Electoral Reform Society, “with 100 ballot papers and 3 places to be filled, the quota would be 25”, i.e. 100 ÷ 4 (3+1).

Next, the votes have to be allocated to candidates and to available places to be filled.  This is done by sorting the ballot papers firstly into first preferences.  If any candidate has more first preferences than the quota they are immediately elected.  The next stage is to transfer any surplus votes for those elected candidates, being the difference between a candidate’s actual vote and the threshold, i.e. if I got 33 votes, then 8 of my votes could be transferred to other candidates.  But to prevent the argument as to which votes to transfer, all my votes are transferred but with a reduced value per vote and then allocated to second preference candidates.

After allocating all second preferences, the votes are counted up again and you see who has passed the threshold and then allocate them to places.  If they have not, then the candidate with the fewest votes is excluded and their votes transferred to voters’ second preferences.  This process of reallocating surpluses and excluded candidates’ votes, plus re-counting continues until all the places have been filled in descending order.

Interestingly, the Electoral Reform Society suggests reallocating the whole of any surplus from the first round, but only the last batch of surpluses from later rounds.  It views this as a matter of expediency, which seems bizarre as it inconsistently claims that taking a bit more time and using a computer programme is a small price to pay for the increased fairness and complexity of STV in the first place.  Also, I am not sure why this is called Single Transferrable Vote as while an elector does have a single vote, it is not really that single vote that actually counts as it can be reallocated after being counted once (albeit at a reduced value), while it may, also, be your second or third preference that is chosen.

Hybrid Systems

There are various hybrid systems ranging from AV+ to Total Representation, however these seem to be overly complex and do not really improve on the systems as above.  I have not considered them further, but you can find out more about all the systems at the Electoral Reform Society.

Constituencies

It is interesting that the Coalition is including a question about constituency sizes in the referendum questions for 2011, and that the Labour Party is getting itself into a tizz about this second question.  Also, being in an area that has been boundary-changed twice in the last 15 years, I feel particularly sensitive about this issue.

Having thought a bit about electoral reform now, the nature of your constituency is vital.  To make it fair, each elected representative must relate to almost equal numbers of constituents, so (taking into account movement of people) the shape and size of constituencies should be checked every 2 elections or 10 years.  Secondly, the size of the constituency must not get so large that constituents become so diverse that their very specific local issues get lost in the bigger picture.  So it is a balance between number of constituents, equality and overall size.

That is easy in principle, however you then need to make sure that there is some geographic logic to it as people (or at least me) feel a regional kinship to certain places and geographic regions and you must pay heed to these.  For example, you could create a huge constituency of Yorkshire, but I feel no linkage to South Yorkshire and the issues for Sheffield are not the same as for little old Ripon.  On a more micro scale, we are now part of the Harrogate constituency having been part of the Vale of York, yet my issues are rural, small town rather than those of Harrogate which are more suburban and looking towards Leeds, so for me Vale of York was better.

Also, and I will come to this towards the Summary & Conclusion stage, the referendum question should perhaps be simplified to one of single member or multi-member constituencies, rather than what the voting system is itself.

Voting Itself

This is another key issue.  In the end, not enough people are engaged in the political system often enough, which then causes questions of legitimacy of elections.  Which is the most popular political party when most people do not vote, even though politicians impact all our lives hugely?  Is a government’s mandate legitimate if turn out is low?

It would be possible to make it a legal obligation for people to vote, however this has implications on personal freedom.  The only way I can see that us, the people, will become more engaged in politics and care about voting is if politicians engage with the electorate more, respect them more and make the political system smaller, less bureaucratic and recreate it on a more human scale rather than being a huge, amorphous beast that has no master and no heart.

Discussion follows in next blog…



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