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.
Rob Richie, Executive Director of Fair Vote (in the USA), and his colleague, Devin McCarthy, have written excellent articles in Washington Post and Huffington Post and we recommend you to read them. Fair Vote is an excellent electoral reform organization that concentrates on its core objective of promoting ranked choice voting (Single Transferable Vote or STV to UK readers).
Rob and Devin explain how first past the post (winner takes all) elections encourage confrontational politics in which politicians are motivated to serve their core voters more than the national interest and this exacerbated the recent political deadlock in the USA, which closed many functions of the US Government, made the USA something of a joke abroad and threatened the world economy. They then explain how ranked choice voting can reduce the problem.
Although there is not a precise parallel in the UK to the US Government’s shut-down, the lesson is universal. Voting systems matter. Voting systems affect political attitudes, election results and political decisions.
One of Rob and Devin’s points is that the Democrats won more votes but the Republicans won more seats in the House of Representatives. This gave the Republicans more power than the voters wanted to give them and more power than a fair and democratic voting system should have given them. It created the incorrect impression that the Republicans had a mandate from voters to oppose Obamacare at all costs. Of course, we have seen examples similar to this in the UK and in other countries that still use first-past-the-post voting.
Fair Vote sets an example to other electoral reform organizations. It does not campaign for proportional representation generically but specifically for ranked choice voting (STV):
“We are not proposing the party-list forms of proportional representation used in many parliamentary democracies. Although highly successful in Germany and Holland, party lists would clash with U.S. political culture. Americans want Congress to reflect our differences, avoid groupthink and have more members with an electoral incentive to reach across party lines to find policy solutions.”
Party lists would also clash with UK political culture. UK reformers also want Parliament to “have more members with an electoral incentive to reach across party lines to find policy solutions.”
To read the articles and comments on them, please see:
What do you think will be the most important political document in the UK for the next couple of years? The Liberal Democrats’ manifesto for the 2015General Election?
Well, that was the view of the BBC’s Political Editor, Nick Robinson, in the “Today” programme on Radio 4 today (16 September 2013). The present signs are that neither the Conservative nor the Labour Party is likely to secure an overall majority in 2015 and one of them will need Liberal Democrat support to form a Government.
The Liberal Democrats could negotiate, or even hold out for all sorts of policies. A problem with most is that a policy that might attract Labour support would probably alienate the Conservatives and vice versa.
Neither of them might like the idea of changing the way we elect local Councillors but we see no strong reason for either of them to refuse it if they really want power, which they will.
We believe the most important and obtainable policy concession from either of the other two parties is electoral reform for local government in England and Wales and the reform has to be in the form of the Single Transferable Vote (STV).
It is important for local government, democracy and the public. Liberal Democrats should not be embarrassed by the fact that it could also be good for their party. Unfortunately, some of them feel too embarrassed to campaign for electoral reform. Others would simply settle with any electoral reform that would give their party more Councillors. Both are wrong.
The point about STV is that, unlike all other voting systems, it offers voters a genuine choice of candidates not only from different parties but even within parties. It can provide proportionality, not only of political parties but of any other political views that matter to voters. For example, if a local party is split between supporting and opposing a town bypass, STV allows voters to elect Councillors in proportion to their own views on the subject. If voters want, say, more women Councillors, STV uniquely allows them to elect more women.
In some ways, electoral reform for local government is even more important than it is for the Commons. Unlike the Commons, some local authorities have been controlled by the same party for years, decades and even generations; one-party local states! If local voters had really been supporting the dominant local party for all that time, it might be acceptable but the party has often retained power even though most local voters have voted against it.
But why should either the Labour or Conservative Party accept STV for local government? Don’t they both oppose electoral reform? Well, yes, but they oppose many Liberal Democrat policies and yet one of the two biggest parties will probably have to accept some Liberal Democrat policies in order to form a Government in 2015, so why not this one as part of a larger package?
Some Conservative and Labour MPs may oppose electoral reform for the Commons mainly because they worry about losing their own seats under a different voting system. That would not apply to changing the system for local government. Also, there must be many Labour politicians who would like to see more Labour Councillors in the South of England and many Conservatives who would welcome more Conservative Councillors in the North of England.
We have little doubt that, if the Liberal Democrats hold out hard enough, they will be able to improve the way we elect Councillors in England and Wales.
But it is not enough merely to hold out for Proportional Representation (PR) and then accept whatever kind of PR one of the other parties concedes. Liberal Democrats must demand STV or nothing. This opportunity may will not occur again for at least another five years and may not come again for several generations.
PR for parties (Party Representation) is not good enough. We need PR for people (People Representation) and only STV can provide it.
Do Lib Dems have the nerve to win STV for local government?
No doubt, some of us will agree and some will disagree with the House of Commons’ decision on 29 August not to authorize force against Syria but surely we can all agree that it was a wonderful day for parliamentary democracy. The legislature controlled the executive instead of vice versa.
Not only that, but we also seem to have set an example to our transatlantic cousins. Although they have long prided themselves on the constitutional separation of powers, in practice the President has executive power to authorize the use of military force. This time however, the President decided, after the House of Commons’ decision, to seek Congress’s agreement.
The Commons would almost certainly not have defeated the Government if the General Election of 2010 had not resulted in a balanced House. Balanced Houses happen only by chance with our 19th century First Past The Post (FPTP) voting system.
One of the arguments often put against STV us that it would often create a balanced House of Commons, which our opponents see as undesirable, but there are two points:
With STV, people get a balanced Commons if they collectively vote for it rather than by chance as with FPTP.
Last Thursday’s vote shows how a balanced House of Commons can control the Government more effectively than one in which a single party has a working majority over all the other parties.
According to a BBC report of 18 July, The chair of the Political and Constitutional Reform Committee has said the House of Commons remains "acquiescent in its subordination to government", despite recent reforms.
The Committee has proposed various reforms in its report, but we recommend electing MPs by STV in multi-member constituencies. Although this may not be the complete solution, it should help considerably to reduce the Commons' subordination to government.
STV, more than any other voting system, increases voters’ powers and makes representatives more dependent on their voters and less dependent on the leadership of their parties. This would reduce party patronage and make it easier for back-benchers to call the Government to account. Being more accountable to their voters could also encourage them to call the Government more to account.
Also, because STV makes it easier for a popular but deselected MP to be re-elected, it reduces the power of the leadership to end an independently minded MP’s career.
STV is a proportional system of election that has many unique advantages in addition to being proportionate and this is one of them.
Western Governments are in a quandary regarding the recent military coup that deposed President Morsi of Egypt.
They are probably not very enthusiastic about supporting a leader whose opponents accuse him of trying to move his country away from its newly acquired and fragile democracy and towards an Islamist state. On the other hand, they are reluctant to support a military coup that removed an allegedly democratically elected President. His supporters continue to claim the democratic legitimacy of his regime because he was elected and the BBC often repeats that, but how democratic was his election? It was legal in the sense that it was conducted according to the constitution and laws of Egypt, but that does not necessarily make it democratic. The BBC does not seem to realize that.
As we wrote under “The lesson of Egypt” at http://stvaction.org.uk/node/425 on 28 May, “The two leading candidates [in the Egyptian Presidential election] had fewer than half the total votes between them in the first round [of voting]. In other words, most Egyptian voters did not want either of them to become President” and yet all the other candidates were excluded from the decisive second round.
The only candidates available to voters in the second round were one who was associated with the previous military regime and one (Mr Morsi) of the Islamist-based Muslim Brotherhood. Given such a choice, most Egyptian voters probably voted for the candidate they disliked less as the system did not allow them to vote for one they really wanted.
A new Presidential election now would not solve the problem if it was on the same system. An unpopular President would probably be elected again and this would probably exacerbate the situation and further reduce faith in democracy.
The election should have been by the Alternative Vote (AV).
Voters would have voted only once and would have had a free choice of ALL the candidates. The final winner would have been supported by more than half the votes in the final round.
The winner with AV might or might not have been one of the two who went through to the second round, but he would have had, and be seen to have had, majority support; i.e. he would have had a genuine democratic legitimacy.
There is a good chance that the winner under AV would have been less extreme than either President Morsi or his runner-up and would have been more acceptable than either of them to the Egyptian public. Even if President Morsi had won under AV, it would have been clear from the transfer of votes to whom he owed his power. He might then have governed with them in mind as well as his core Muslim Brotherhood supporters and been less unpopular.
Although it is too late now to avoid the undemocratic result of the recent Presidential election and the subsequent coup, the Egyptian authorities should ensure that the country’s next President has a genuine democratic legitimacy. The best way to do that is to hold the next Presidential election by AV.
There is something unseemly about a union allegedly packing the membership of a local party to get its nominee selected as the party’s prospective candidate. It seems doubly unseemly when it is a safe seat so, in effect, the party will choose the MP. Unfortunately, it is also more likely to happen in a safe seat, because the prize is greater.
On the other hand, if I desperately wanted to become a party’s candidate, I might well encourage all my relations, friends and colleagues to join the party and vote for me. Wouldn’t you? Of course, it seems much worse when one applicant has a lot of colleagues in the same union. That is unfair on other applicants. It will be much worse if it turns out to be true that, as claimed, the union "enrolled" some people as party members without their consent.
However, if it is wrong for a union to steal the selection from the local party, isn’t it worse still for a party to steal the election from the voters? But that’s what the dominant party – not only Labour – does in every safe constituency with our 19th century voting system.
The Single Transferable Vote (STV) in multi-member constituencies would solve the problem. It would give voters a choice not only between the various parties but also between candidates of the same party. In a safe Labour area like Falkirk, there would still be a Labour MP, but voters would decide which Labour candidate. In a safe Conservative area like Arundel and South Downs, there would still be a Conservative MP, but voters would decide which Conservative candidate.
Open primaries have been suggested as a solution, but STV combines open primaries and elections in one event, which is more efficient and less expensive than two events. Please see www.stvAction.org.uk/node/465 for other advantages of STV.
STV in multi-member constituencies is the best system for electing a group of representatives, such as a Parliament, Council or Committee.
In West Sussex, the Conservatives took nearly twice as many seats as all the other groups combined even though more than three out of five voters voted against them.
It took 1,557 votes to elect a Conservative Councillor but 5,475 (more than three and a half times as many) to elect a UKIP Councillor.
In the Worthing Pier division, more than seven out of ten voters voted against the Conservative winner, who had the lowest share of the votes of all the winners.
Although the Conservative Party gained unfairly overall from the First Past The Post voting system, there were examples of individual Conservative candidates who may have suffered from it.
First Past The Post helped the Labour Party in Southgate & Crawley Central, where the party’s candidate saw his share of the vote fall to 37%, but he still defeated the Conservative candidate to whom he lost last time, because UKIP split the Conservative vote this time.
In Selsey, UKIP gained the seat from the sitting Conservative by a mere 110 votes, while the Labour candidate attracted 332 votes. So the UKIP candidate won although more voted against him than for him. If the voting had been by Alternative Vote (AV), the 332 Labour voters could have expressed a second preference, the winner would have represented the majority and it might have been the Conservative.
It was not just the underrepresented UKIP, Liberal Democratic, Labour and Green Parties who were robbed by the undemocratic First Past The Post voting system but also, and more importantly, the voters who did not get the Council they voted for. Some individual Conservative voters were probably also robbed as the examples of Southgate & Crawley Central and of Selsey show.
This is more evidence that England and Wales should use the more democratic and efficient Single Transferable Vote (STV) for local elections like Scotland and Northern Ireland already do.
The Conservatives were the main beneficiaries and the Labour and the Green Parties were the main losers in Cambridgeshire of the undemocratic First Past The Post voting system used in last Thursday’s County Council elections.
The Conservative Party won 32 seats instead of the 23 that its support deserved while Labour won only 7 instead of 12. First Past The Post really punished the Green Party by denying it any seats at all although its fair share would have been 3.
The Liberal Democrats and UKIP got close to their fair shares but both lost slightly. The Liberal Democrats won 14 instead of 15 and UKIP 12 instead of 14.
Independents seemed to do well by winning 4 seats instead of the 2 that their votes would indicate but it is difficult to calculate how independent candidates with perhaps very different views from each other would have fared. Voters who supported one independent candidate may not have wanted to support all the others.
For the purpose of this blog, each party’s fair share has been calculated simply over the whole county. In practice, there would be slight differences according to which system of proportional representation (e.g. STV) was used, where the boundaries of the electoral divisions were and, of course, how people voted.
Changing the system would probably change the way many people vote. For example, there are many parts of the country (especially in rural areas) where Labour supporters know that voting Labour is useless under First Past The Post, so many of them either vote Liberal Democrat to try to defeat the Conservatives or they abstain. They would probably vote Labour in accordance with their consciences if STV was introduced. In other parts of the country (mainly urban) it is Conservatives who would waste their votes under First Past The Post and who would vote by STV for their true beliefs
Kent County Council elections 2013
An analysis by Michael Steed and Eric Syddique
Kent Conservatives will exercise untrammelled power in County Hall with the approval of little more than a third of the voters – they won nearly 54% of the seats for 36% of the votes.
The overall results in Kent were:
Party -- %Votes -- %Seats
Cons -- 36.1 -- 53.6
UKIP -- 27.0 -- 20.2
Lab -- 19.9 -- 15.5
LibDem -- 9.8 -- 8.3
Green -- 3.8 -- 1.2
Others -- 3.3 -- 1.2
The smaller opposition parties, notably the Liberal Democrats, did not do so badly out of the voting system. The big losers were Labour and UKIP, whose supporters are seriously under- represented in County Hall.
Any system of proportional representation would have produced a council with no one party in charge – as the voters clearly wanted. To provide a picture of what county hall could have looked like, we have applied the rules most used in Britain for bodies elected by proportional representation (the regional list system).
We use Kent’s twelve districts to keep a constituency basis, rather than use a pure, Kent-wide, proportional system. Seats are allocated to the parties in each district by the formula used to elect British MEPs, which favours larger parties.
On the votes cast last Thursday, that would have produced a County Council of 35 Conservative, 26 UKIP, 17 Labour and 6 Liberal Democrat members. Two of the three larger groups would have to work together to form a majority, whether in coalition or on an ad-hoc basis.
The difference between that more balanced Council and the 84 people who will be deciding Kent’s affairs is much greater than the party numbers indicate. In a fair-votes Council, each of the two main party groups would have at least one member from each Kentish district.
In contrast, no group has that now. Thanet, with eight county councillors, will now have no one in the ruling majority group. With PR, the Conservatives, who took exactly a quarter of the votes cast in Thanet, would have two of the eight seats.
Labour now has members from only six districts; with a fair-votes Council, the Labour voters in the county town, Maidstone, and in South-west Kent, all now without a voice, would be represented, with a Labour member from everywhere but Tunbridge Wells.
The biggest difference would be in the composition of the UKIP group. All but one of their seventeen councillors was elected for one of the seats in the coastal belt from Sheppey round to Romney Marsh. In this stretch of coastal Kent, covering Swale, Canterbury, Thanet, Dover and Shepway, there were 44,206 UKIP voters, now represented by 16 UKIP councillors.
Yet there are nearly as many UKIP voters in the rest of Kent – 42,247 to be precise, now represented by just one seat in Tunbridge Wells. The absurdity is well shown by the imbalance between two adjoining districts, inland Ashford and coastal Shepway.
In Ashford UKIP came a good second with 29% of the vote, more than Labour (15%) and Liberal Democrat (10%) combined. Yet each of the latter two parties won a seat, while UKIP was not awarded a single one. In Shepway, UKIP appeared to be far more popular, sweeping the board in Folkestone town, and taking four of the district’s six seats. But when the votes for Shepway are added up, we find that the Conservatives, with 8,368 votes, actually topped the poll ahead of UKIP with 8,265. The UKIP share in Shepway (32.3%) was actually little higher than in Ashford.
With PR, there would have been two UKIP councillors from each district instead of four from one and none from the other; the Conservatives would have won two fewer in Ashford and two more in Shepway.
This example illustrates how the advantages of a fairer voting system are not just about a fairer reflection of political strength. Any constituency-based PR system, such as the single transferable vote used in Northern Ireland or in Scottish local elections, or the regional list system, whose rules we have followed, also produces a much more geographically representative council.