Australian and German elections
The Proportional Representation Society of Australia (PRSA) has issued very interesting reports – the best we have seen – on the recent general elections in Australia and Germany.
Like Fair Vote in the USA, PRSA campaigns only for preferential voting – specifically Single Transferable Vote (STV) in multi-member constituencies – and sets an example to those electoral reform organizations that dilute the message and spread their resources thinly over peripheral reforms even though STV remains legally their core object.
As Australia uses a version of STV, one might think that there was little for PRSA to do, but Australia uses a perverted and artificial version of STV, distorted by politicians to suit politicians, especially the major parties, instead of voters.
First, voters have to express a full range of preferences. If they stop after the first three or four because they do not like any of the other candidates and do not want to express a preference for any of them, their vote is invalid; i.e. even their first three or four preferences are not allowed to count. This encourages the so-called “donkey” vote when, because they have to express preferences, voters just endorse the order on the ballot paper.
Next, ostensibly to make it easier for voters to cast valid votes, Australians can vote “above the line”; i.e. vote for the order determined by a political party. Because of the difficulty in choosing each preference individually, many do that which, of course, gives tremendous power to the parties, thus substantially reducing one of the most important advantages of STV over all other voting systems.
Whereas reformers in the UK and USA campaign for STV (ranked choice voting) to be used, Australian reformers campaign for a simpler and purer version of STV, which would benefit voters and produce results closer to voters’ wishes.
Some critics of the Australian system would like to tinker with the existing system by, for example, introducing artificial thresholds but, as PRSA points out, “Proposals to impose an exclusionary threshold usually betray either misunderstanding of how the single transferable vote works, or seem aimed at propping up the failed system of party boxes, without recognizing the potential for unstable or distorted results to arise whenever arbitrary interventions are made.”
Germany uses a mixed voting system. Voters elect single-member constituency representatives by first past the post like the UK and they have a second vote to top up the parties proportionately. In other words, it is reasonably fair to, and representative of the parties, but less fair to, and representative of, voters than STV is. However, parties that fail to secure the threshold of 5% of the national vote are denied top-up seats, so there is a bias towards the larger parties.
PRSA reports that nearly 16% of the votes were wasted in the German general election this year. This is partly because of the 5% national threshold. “While two parties obtained more than 5% of the party list vote in respectively six and seven of the sixteen states in the German elections held on 22 September 2013, they just failed to do so nationally, and therefore did not qualify for the apportionment of seats to the Bundestag…. Had the threshold been set instead at 4%, both the Free Democrats and Alternative for Germany would have emerged with more than thirty party list seats”.
This shows the distortion that artificial devices, such as thresholds, can produce. It also shows what a large difference a small change in the arbitrary choice of threshold can make to an election result and it shows that the German system is less fair to parties, especially small ones, than it could be.
Although opponents of STV may say that STV has a threshold, it is natural and not artificial. Moreover, it applies at constituency level – not national – so a strong local or regional party can win representation despite being weak nationally. Most important with STV, a vote that does not help to elect a candidate from the party of the voter’s first choice may nevertheless help to elect another candidate whom the voter likes. For example, if the Green Party is not strong enough in a particular constituency to win a seat, Green voters may help, with their later preferences, to elect other ecologically minded candidates.