Tuesday, May 11, 2010

Electoral reform is no easy option

As Britain's party leaders attempt to form a coalition the main centre of discussion is that of electoral reform. The Liberal Democrats have long called for a change in the voting system while both the Conservatives and Labour have been resilient to change. The hung parliament which resulted from last Thursday's election has forced the two main parties to rethink their policy. Tory leader David Cameron has talked of fixing Britain's "broken political system" while Labour has put forward the proposal of an Alternative Vote. There is however several types of democratic voting systems, and parties as well as the electorate, if they get a referendum, face a difficult choice.

Currently Britain uses what is called the First Past The Post (FPTP) system. A voter will place a cross against their choice of a single candidate in a particular constituency. The candidate with the most votes in each constituency wins with all other votes counting for nothing. Proponents of proportional representation (PR) argue that it is the fact that many votes are discounted which makes the current system unfair. While the Green Party for example may obtain around 10% of the national vote, it has never until now obtained a seat in parliament. However many oppose a change saying that lunatic fringe parties would water down politics and disrupt the workings of government. 

Differing systems

One proposed system is the Single Transferable Vote. Each voter receives one vote, which can transfer from their first-preference to their second-preference and so on, as necessary. Candidates don't need a majority of votes to be elected, just a known 'quota', or share of the votes, determined by the size of the electorate and the number of positions to be filled. If a preferred candidate has no chance of being elected or has enough votes already, the vote is transferred to another candidate in accordance with the voter's instructions.

Additional Member System (AMS) is a hybrid voting system. It is part FPTP and part closed party list. Under AMS, each voter typically gets two votes, one for a real person, and one for a party. When all the votes are in, each constituency returns a winner, in the traditional FPTP style. If a candidate was standing in a constituency as well as on a party list, their name is taken off the list, with everyone below them moving up a place. The additional members would then be allocated with the aim of tallying the number of seats won by each party to their share of the vote.

With Party List systems, they can be split into two distinct forms: open and closed. The crucial difference is that in a closed party-list system, votes are cast for parties rather than people, whereas in an open party list system, votes are cast for individual candidates. Under List PR, voters elect candidates in multi-member districts, or sometimes an entire country. The more members per area increases the proportionality of the system, and, in an open-list system, the size of the ballot paper.

The Alternative Vote (AV) is what Labour is currently offering the LibDems in return for their support. Like FPTP, AV is used to elect representatives for single-member constituencies, except that rather than simply marking one solitary 'X' on the ballot paper, the voter has the chance to rank the candidates on offer. The voter thus puts a '1' by their first-preference candidate, and can continue, if they wish, to put a '2' by their second-preference, and so on, until they run out of names or wish not to add further preferences. If a candidate receives a majority of first-preference votes (more people put them as number one than all the rest combined), then they are elected. However, if no candidate gains a majority on first preferences, then the second-preference votes of the candidate who finished last on the first count are redistributed. The process is repeated until someone obtains more than 50%.

The Alternative Vote Plus (AV+)system was invented by the 1998 Independent Commission on the Voting System, commonly known as the Jenkins Commission. It was asked to recommend a voting system that fulfilled, or best fulfilled, four criteria: The maintenance of a geographical link between MP and constituency, the need for stable government, the desire for broad proportionality and an extension of voter choice

Total Representation (TR) is a mixed system that aims to make more votes count in constituency elections. It preserves a large element of the Westminster model with some proportional representation to ensure a greater representation of voters' preferences. Its distinctive feature is that it gives weight to the votes of unsuccessful candidates.

With the supplementary Vote there are two columns on the ballot paper - one for the first choice and one for the second choice. Votes are marked by placing one 'X' in each column, although voters are not required to make a second choice if they do not wish to. All the first-preference are tallied, and if a candidate has a majority, they are elected. If no candidate receives a majority, the top two candidates are retained, and the rest eliminated. The second-preference votes of the eliminated candidates are then counted, and any for either of the top two candidates are added to their first-round totals. Whichever candidate has the most votes after these second-preferences have been allocated is declared the winner.

The Limited Vote or Limited Voting, is a majoritarian voting system used in multi-member constituencies. The Limited Vote allows each elector more than one vote, but fewer votes than there are candidates to choose from. The candidates with the most votes is elected.

Approval Voting is much like FPTP, except that rather than voting for a single candidate, one can vote for as many as one wishes. No ranking is involved, so all the votes have equal weight. The candidate with the most votes wins.

Borda Count is a form of preferential voting where the rankings are converted into points, and the candidate who receives the most points is declared the winner. The number of points per place is decided by the number of options on offer to the voter. Candidates score one point for being ranked last, two for being next-to-last and so on, with the first-choice candidate receiving points equal to the total number of candidates. So if there were seven candidates standing for election, a candidate receiving a first-preference vote would receive seven points.

Some electoral systems involve a combination of different ways to obtain a seat in parliament. This usually involves some members being elected in single member constituencies and other members being elected from lists. Often the list element is used to make up for the disproportional outcomes in single member constituency elections.

Difficult choices

While there is iniquity in Britain's current voting system, many argue that the alternative would be repeated chaos seen in the last few day brought about by a hung parliament. Some have pointed at Israel's system of PR which has rarely brought stable government. Proportional representation favours minor parties, and produces bizarre, and fragile partnerships. In Israel, 1.5% of the vote is enough to win a seat in the Knesset. That means the Israeli Prime Minister of the day either joins with his or her main opposition party to form government or is forced to climb into bed with religious and nationalist extremists to obtain the numbers.

Proportional representation may bring more seats for the Green Party, but it will also provide platforms for less moderate views. In the last election PR may have given the Greens around 12 seats in parliament. However they may have sat in almost equal numbers with UKIP (UK Independence Party), the far-right British National Party and others. Other parties may also find themselves marginalised. Plaid Cymru, would likely have no seats since it only contests seats in Wales – it currently holds three.

The Electoral Reform Society released figures on what may have been the outcome in differing voting systems this week. Under the current FPTP system the Conservative obtained 307 seats against Labour's 258 and the LibDems' 57 with 28 seats going to other parties. Under a Single Transferable Vote it estimated the Conservative party would have achieved 246 over Labour's 207 while the LibDems would have secured 162 seats and 35 seats might have been taken by smaller parties. With AV as proposed by Labour, the Tories would have received 281 seats, Labour taking 262 and the LibDems 79 with 28 going to minor parties. While the hung parliament seen in this election has left a situation where no party has overall control, neither of the other two systems would have fared any better in producing what Labour call "stable government". In fact such systems would likely bring repeated coalition governments following every future election.

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