A Regular Choice Between Voting Systems

With May's general election set to emphasise the shortcomings of First Past The Post more than any other in recent memory, Vishal Wilde posits that we should empower voters by allowing them to choose their electoral system as they vote, and by embracing plurality in electoral systems. Many eligible voters do not actually vote when the time comes for various reasons. One significant reason is for some is the belief that their vote doesn’t have a tangible impact on public policy or that the party they vote for might never come into power. The Liberal Democrats attempted to address this (albeit with their own gains in view as well) by having the Alternative Vote referendum of 2011 that was subsequently rejected by the electorate. However, the fact that 32.1% wanted to change to the AV system shows that a significant proportion of the electorate don’t think that the current system works effectively or fairly.

The problem is that not everyone will agree on one voting system but we might instead design and employ a voting system that amalgamates and integrates major voting systems simultaneously by allowing voters to pick a voting system and mark their candidate/political party choices simultaneously as they do so; then, the seats are allocated accordingly in proportion to the voting systems chosen and constituencies are redrawn as well.

This obviously sounds very different to what we have in place and it can be argued that this would make each vote unequal but the principle is simple: All votes would still be equal if each voter was given the same opportunity to determine how they would like their own vote to impact the political process instead of being wholly constrained to one single predetermined system – after all, why shouldn’t people be allowed to decide how they’d like their vote to count when they cast their vote?

Consider that the influence of each vote is clearly unequal in a system that is determined entirely by the first-past-the-post (FPTP) criterion? If people feel the need to vote tactically so that they don’t ‘waste’ their vote in constituencies where it is highly unlikely their preferred choice will ever come to power and, furthermore, if some people choose not to vote at all, everyone’s votes are unequal and not everyone has real freedom during the election process.

Suppose now that voters had the choice between PR and FPTP and that 40% of voters wanted PR whilst 60% of voters were content with FPTP. We might then say that 40% of the seats in Parliament would be PR whilst 60% of seats would remain FPTP (of course, this is applying the principle of proportionality where other principles might be applied but it will be apparent that when we amalgamate several voting systems into one, we can apply various principles and issues will persist with any one of them).

This would mean that those people who live in constituencies where their first choice of political party or candidate have no chance under the FPTP system would now have an incentive to vote (rather than abstain entirely) since they could vote for them via PR and, therefore, previously marginalised and largely powerless individuals from various constituencies would have a real impact on the way in which our parliamentary democracy functions.

For example, a political party that never wins under FPTP but which still has a sizeable support base across the country would gain seats despite the supporters’ dispersion because those voters may simply choose to vote PR whilst others in their constituency continue to vote FPTP. In this way, more voters would realise that their preferences can be properly accounted for and their time and vote will not be wasted on the day of the polls.

A potential problem here is that this would entail a constituency being divided in terms of whether they vote PR or FPTP and there might need to be a continuous redrawing of constituency lines in order to account for this (i.e, if very few people vote FPTP in a certain locality, their locality might be amalgamated into another, larger constituency so that they have an MP representing them. The complication here is the continuous need to redraw constituency lines and it would be difficult to agree on what to do here (of course, an algorithm can do this easily but the criteria under which it does this would be controversial).

However, this would mean that in many constituencies, many voters would benefit from an MP representing them due to the people who voted via the FPTP option despite the fact that they actually voted via the PR option. In fact, one could argue that if the constituencies are enlarged then there are more constituents per representative and this might diminish the quality of that MP’s service.

This problem could be dealt with in a variety of ways but one such way might be to assign some of the representatives elected by PR to various constituencies and actually have more than one MP for some constituencies. They might also be from different political parties to encourage competition between the MPs that may, therefore, improve political performance and incentivise efficient governance.

Of course, there are so many ways that we could increase the freedom with which people vote – for example, we could also allow people to choose between having a Presidential or a Parliamentary Government each time they vote a new government into power. In this way, voters would be able to choose between the different underlying moral principles that the various structures of government supposedly reflect.

Finally, the proposal to enhance the power of peoples’ votes might be rebuked on the basis of its being too complicated for people and this might make people less likely to vote in the first place. However, people would also have incentive to become more educated about the entire political process, different voting systems, various distributions of power, the moral principles underlying them and so on; via granting more choice about how their vote is utilised in the first place, there is increased incentive to self-educate.

Tactical voting will always exist, no matter what voting system we use but by granting the voter more freedom in terms of voting method, we can potentially ameliorate election turnout. So, a fundamental democratic principle can undergo innovation and be elevated to new heights when we simply apply the principle of freedom.

It will be apparent to the reader that I obviously haven’t worked out all the details, complications and practical considerations that empowering votes and, thereby, freeing the electorate would entail. Neither do I purport to know exactly what the fairest voting system would be. I do, however, believe that elections in which a significant proportion of the population think that the system must change to even make it worthwhile for them to vote simply undermines democracy. More freedom in voting will increase faith in democracy, improve political efficacy and ameliorate voter turnout.