A spectrum of democracies

I've thought from time to time about the nature of the machinery of British electoral politics a bit in the past, but a couple of months ago (when in the middle of a lot of work-travel) I had the time to think a bit more and come to some conclusions. As a result, I joined the Electoral Reform Society soon after. In this bloglet I'll try to justify that move by spelling out my thoughts. As a warning, I'm approaching this from a position of relative naivety, with insufficient knowledge of specific case studies to have developed the cynicism of an experienced politico. I'll try to consider that as an advantage, so this is a logical/rational (albeit lefty and disaffected) scientist's view, at least so far as I meet those criteria. My lack of specialist knowledge maybe makes this view more relevant for the majority of political fence-sitters than a learned tract would, anyway!

Voting - a scientist's view

STV, FPTP I am naive, so lets take what follows as an honest investigation rather than a Philosophy: vote for individual or for party? Or for a person's policies?!? Funding: cf. US Why vote for someone like you? Most people are dumb Fundamentally, elections are an estimator of public support for certain attitudes to running the country's affairs ERS


The US presidential election is one of those occasional events with the power to inspire thoughts on the nature of our take on "democracy". In fact, we almost always refer to democracy --- the right of people to choose their leaders --- as a single system, but the devil is in the details. Apparent minutae such as who gets to vote, how votes are collated, and how political representation is enacted and monitored have a huge effect on the nature of any given democratic country.

The details are considerable in volume, running from the single transferrable vote (STV) to proportional representation. The US presidency is elected by a system of "electoral colleges", which collate the votes into blocs --- effectively a round of STV to create meta-votes, which are then themselves subject to STV collation. Such a system is, one suspects, a historical accident with its roots in the practicalities of combining voting information across a country the size of the US, rather than what anyone would consider an optimal arrangement. For starters, in designing a new electoral system, it would certainly be desirable to minimise the extent to which a president can be elected against the wish of a majority of the population: a test which the electoral college system substantially fails. The bloc structure of the US election also affects the way in which candidates campaign --- most campaign money and time goes into swing areas since the first past the post (FPTP) system means that those blocs offer disproportionately large opportunities for gain or loss.

In the UK, too, bloc collation plays a role: voters in parliamentary elections vote for a single candidate to represent their region. Typically the winner receives less than 50% of the vote, and hence more than half the voters are disappointed by the result. But that is not all: these first-past-the-post elections then feed into the largely bi- partisan structure of the Westminster parliament: if MPs had a free vote, this would be fine, but in practice many issues are defined by the party line as implemented by the party whips. This is certainly a strange democracy, since not only are most voters unhappy with the choice of their representatives, but furthermore those representatives are openly threatened and cajoled according to the will of their parties' senior figures. Are we really represented on major issues? It's clear that party systems exist not to represent citizens better, but as a strategy to win more parliamentary votes through bloc voting, and to win more parliamentary seats by presenting a coherent image to voters, with the extra marketing resources available to the party collective. I find it incredible that a system which can only damage the effctiveness of public representation is so engrained into US electoral culture that bi-party primaries are practically part of the official political system. In a magic world where only independent candidates were permitted, voters would actually need to know something about who they are voting for: as someone who lives in a region completely dominated by "hereditary" voting practices, unaffected by policy statements or performance, this sounds pretty damn appealing!

An interesting exercise is to get an impression of how distorting a bloc voting stage can be to an electoral result in a 2-party contest. Say we divide an N-person population into m constituencies (let's make them equal, bearing in mind that gerrymandering --- manipulating constituency boundaries --- can make things worse), then how wrong could a result possibly be? In a single round of FPTP, the answer is simple, although not ideal: just over 50% of the vote is sufficient for a win in a winner-takes-all election: a 1/1 ratio. If we introduce our equal-size blocs, then it is possible for one candidate to take 100% of the vote in just under half the blocs, and just under 50% in the others. Add it up, and you'll find that somewhere around 75% of the vote can go to the losing party: a 3/1 "wrongness" factor. Not good. The deviations from the 75% number are due to finiteness effects: voters can't be divided, and the number of constituencies required to win or lose is also sensitive to how finely you divide the voting population. Keeping my mathematician side happy is that the two extreme situations --- m = 1, and m = N --- are actually equivalent! The worse distortions --- from 1/1 up to 3/1 --- occur in the middle. More than two candidates gives a more complex situation, in which such unrealistically extreme voting is even less likely: this is not a realistic construction, but shows the huge distortion effect that bloc voting can induce, and which is certainly technically possible to eliminate in hugely important 2 party races such as the US presidency.

Is it possible to do better than the 1/1 maximal-distortion ratio? Not in contests in which there is only one winner, certainly... but were there more than one president, the representation in the US would be close to 100%! This introduces the topic of proportional representation (PR), which has been traditionally fillibustered in the UK by the entrenched interests of the main parties, who only stand to lose influence by introducing such a debate. Notably, in lovely, sensible Finland, PR is doing a very good job, despite the much-cited fears of political deadlock in coalition- dominated politics: in practice all political parties are coalitions of individuals who manage to work together for collective gain, and to suggest that parties cannot possibly agree on any issues is to acknowledge that much of UK party politics is based on jibes, partisan soundbites and all the beligerance of a spoilt child demanding ALL the cake. PR is the closest that we have yet come to a practicable, low-distortion democratic representation on a national scale, and I certainly hope that it makes its way into mainstream UK political reality within my life. Notably, in the politically active population of Switzerland, PR is enhanced with frequent block referenda --- a few anomalous results aside (referenda in prejudiced and socially conservative regions don't always retur results compatible with modern-day social norms!) it seems to work, and certainly no-one can argue that they aren't adequately represented. Ireland's NO vote in the case of the Treaty of Lisbon referendum showed another danger of referenda: in complex, technical issues, voters may vote based on prejudicial reasons having nothing to do with the actual issue at stake.

Democracy is a great system --- despite its flaws, it still manages to be a much more robust and fair way of determining a nation's politics than any abslutist system to have yet emerged. Despite the theoretical appeal of communism and other "meritocratic" systems, democracies have proven more in tune with the fundamental motives of human beings, and more robust against their worse characteristics. But they are neither perfect --- XXX said "it stinks, but it's the best we've got" --- nor unique. And the ones in practice in the US and UK are far fro the best available. In a world of increasing connection, access to political information and representation, and international identity, we would all benefit from improving how we choose our country's behaviour.

"best possible system", or "it stinks, but it's the best we've got


Comments powered by Disqus