Electoral reform 3 – A reasonable way of electing MPs proportionally

At the end of my last post, I left you with my five criteria for a good electoral system:

1. Voters should be able to vote for any candidate from anywhere in the country. It would be a national election.
2. The system should be proportional at a national level.
3. There should be no systematic bias against independent candidates.
4. The ballot paper and voting system should be relatively simple for the electorate, so people can still just turn up on the day and vote as they do now.
5. The system should, as much as possible, favour a reasonable geographical spread of MPs.

And I promised to show you how this could be implemented. It is clear that any voting system that fits these criteria would be more complex than our current system. But a certain amount of added complexity is acceptable in exchange for a fairer system. And by criterion 4, it would still have to be relatively simple for the voter. So without any further ado, here is one possible method:

Every candidate, whether standing as an independent or for a party, would have a nominated constituency. The ballot papers for each constituency would list the candidates who have nominated that constituency, with a tick box by each name. They would also list all the main parties (those fielding candidates in over a threshold number of constituencies), also with a tick box by each. So the ballot papers would be very similar to how they are now, except that they would list the main parties in addition to the locally standing candidates.

Voters would have two separate options open to them: to vote using the ballot paper provided, or to prepare their vote in advance. If a voter just turns up on the day and uses the ballot paper, it would be quite simple. They just cast a vote for as many or as few of the options as they want. This is known as approval voting and it is very simple.

Casting a vote for an entire party simply means casting a vote for every candidate standing for that party nationally. There would also be space to write in any candidates that someone wants to vote for who aren’t listed on the ballot paper – those who have not nominated that constituency but are standing elsewhere in the country. Candidates could have a reference number in case there is more than one candidate of the same name. There would be a list of all candidates standing nationally available in each polling station.

That would be the basic voting option for people who do not prepare their vote in advance. However, if someone wants to vote for several candidates who are not in their constituency, then writing them all on the ballot paper would not be a feasible option. There would be the option to go online in advance (or perhaps use a purpose-built machine available in libraries and/or other public places) to select the candidates they want to vote for. There could be various ways of viewing the list of candidates, such as by party, alphabetically or by constituency. It would be designed to make navigation and use as simple as possible. For example, there would be the option of selecting all candidates for a party and individually deselecting any as required. Once a voter has selected the candidates they want to vote for (as many or few as they like), they would receive a print-out of this. This would then be presented at the polling station on election day, endorsed and put in the ballot box with the rest of the ballot papers.

That is how the voting would work. The votes would then be counted and the seats allocated in a proportional manner (it is not simply a case of adding up the votes for each candidate). There are several proportional systems that can use an approval voting ballot. Indeed, Single Transferable Vote (STV) can easily be modified to take approval ballots by assuming that all voted-for candidates are voted equally at the top rank.

So what’s going on here? There is one national election, and all 650 seats are decided in a proportional manner, rather than one per constituency. And yet candidates still have to nominate a constituency, and they only appear on the standard ballot paper for that constituency. Isn’t this a contradiction? No. This is to help voters who have not prepared in advance to give them a reasonable number of options. It also means that every candidate would get at least this amount of publicity – by appearing on the ballot papers for one constituency – and it is to ensure that there is likely to be a reasonable geographical spread of MPs. Any voter can still vote for any candidates they like, but I think that this ballot paper is a good compromise for those not wanting to prepare their vote in advance, and there is candidate equality with each candidate appearing on one constituency’s ballot paper.

I have also said that there should be no systematic bias against independent candidates and yet there is the option of voting for all of the candidates for the main parties on the ballot paper. Those standing for a main party get to be on the ballot paper for every constituency! However, as this is a proportional system, this would not actually significantly help party candidates. It is not simply the 650 candidates with the most votes that get elected. A party would be likely to get a similar number of candidates elected nationally whether voters all just vote for the local candidate for that party, or vote for all party candidates nationally. It would, however, help supporters of a party that is not particularly popular in their own constituency – meaning that their local candidate is unlikely to be elected – by saving their vote from being wasted, and it is a convenient shortcut for voters. It would be there to help voters, not parties.

Being able to cast a vote (no rankings or scores) for as many candidates as you want is a simple solution to what could otherwise be a complex process. Whoever you want to be elected, you can vote for. Theoretically you can vote anywhere from none of the candidates to all of the candidates. Although by voting for all of the candidates, you would effectively be voting for none of the candidates.

This might to some extent appear to be a two-tier system for voters, with only those willing to prepare in advance having all the voting options open to them. However, this isn’t strictly the case. There would be a list of all national candidates in every polling station, so all voting options would still be open to all voters. There could also be computers in the polling stations to help with the voting process, if this is feasible. But the simple fact of the matter is that if you want to vote for a complex selection of candidates from those standing nationally, this is going to take a certain amount of time, and it would be easier to do this in advance of voting. The only way to avoid this would be to not have the full list of candidates available to every voter, and this would be a bigger loss to democracy.

Inevitably people who do more research would be able to better participate in the democratic process, but this is the case to an extent anyway, and democratic power is a responsibility, not just a right. It is your responsibility to find out about the candidates you might want to vote for. The ballot paper can only go so far. The importance of democratic choice easily outweighs any negatives here. It is also better this than the current situation where voters in some areas of the country have more democratic power than others, with nothing anyone can do about it short of moving. The democratic process is not just about voting once every five years anyway; there are numerous democratic outlets, such as attending speeches and marches among many other things. These are all things that someone has to go out and do. As should be clear from this, the way to ensure democracy for all is not to limit the democratic rights of those who are willing to work for it so that those who are least willing to make an effort are on an equal footing with everyone else.

With things hopefully a bit clearer, I am now going to discuss a few variations on the method. There is an alternative method, which is the same except that if you vote for just one candidate, you can “delegate” your vote to them. This is essentially Jameson Quinn’s PAL system described here and here. Each candidate has a pre-declared public ranking of the other candidates. It would work like an STV election, except that if your top candidate is eliminated, your vote is transferred to your candidate’s second favourite and so on rather than your own second favourite candidate. Candidates voted for by voters who have chosen not to delegate would all still be treated as equally top-ranked, so it could still proceed as an STV election.

In Quinn’s system, candidates are only permitted two tiers of ranking within their own party (or three including the candidate themselves), and one for each other party. This means that within their own party, a candidate would have themselves top, and then they can split the remaining candidates into two groups. Candidates within a single party that isn’t their own would all be of equal rank. Independent candidates can be ranked anywhere. This simplifies the process somewhat relative to individually ranking every candidate in the country. See Quinn’s diagram, reproduced on both pages I linked to above.

It might seem strange for voters to pass their voting power to candidates in this way, but this would be entirely optional, and would vastly increase the voting power of those who want to simply turn up on the day to vote. And being able to view your favourite candidate’s rankings in advance means that you could make an informed decision about whether you want to delegate your vote or stick to your own approval votes. Being able to delegate votes like this adds very little complexity for the voter, and it gives the voter more power, as they can simply cast a single vote for their favourite candidate without it being wasted if they are not elected. According to Quinn, the “normal” way of voting would still be to cast a single vote for a local candidate, which could then be transferred. This means that there would likely be a reasonable geographical spread of MPs.

When I devised my original system, it was before I had encountered PAL, and I decided that the simplest way for voters would be for them to cast votes for candidates rather than providing rankings. But by upgrading to PAL, it gives delegated votes the power of ranking, and so it would be asymmetrical and arguably unfair to voters who want to retain control of their votes, as they would have no power to rank candidates. So while PAL does not add much complexity for voters by itself, to keep it fair, we would need to add the complexity of allowing voters to rank candidates, which is something I initially wanted to avoid. However, if we were to allow voters the ability to rank candidates, it could still be kept fairly simple by limiting the number of ranking tiers within each party as with candidates’ rankings. Having said that, perhaps it should be up to voters how complex they want to make the process for themselves.

Another alternative would be to use scores (e.g. out of 10) for candidates rather than rankings. There are systems that can award seats proportionally from scores rather than rankings. Unscored candidates would count as receiving a zero. Voters would still be able to cast simple votes as before, and they would be counted as a maximum score (so 10 if it’s out of 10). Giving scores is arguably simpler than giving ranks, especially to a large number of candidates.

This leaves us with four main options available:

1. Allow voters to cast a single vote for as many candidates as they want.
2. In addition to this, allow voters who cast a single vote for just one candidate to delegate this vote to this candidate. The candidate would have their own rankings of the other candidates, and this would be used as in an STV election.
3. In addition to the above, allow voters to rank candidates rather than simply cast votes.
4. Candidates and voters would give scores to candidates (e.g. out of 10) rather than rank them.

At the moment, I’m not going to advocate just one of these systems, but they are all fairly similar and a massive improvement on what we have now. I am against option 2 (which is basically PAL), however, because it gives votes delegated to candidates more power (i.e. the ability to rank) than undelegated votes cast by individual voters. So if option 1 is not enough, then I think it would be best to jump straight to option 3 or 4, even if it does add a bit of complexity for voters. However, I think more discussion and analysis is needed before committing to an exact system.

Any of these systems would still be simple enough for a voter to just turn up on the day and cast a vote in the general election. Voters would be able to vote for any candidate in the country. It would be a national and proportional single election that would also favour a reasonable geographical spread of MPs. Independent candidates would be able to stand equally with party candidates. So these voting systems fit all five of my initial criteria. These systems would increase voters’ democratic power immensely while keeping the process relatively simple.

Finally, one other thing that I would introduce to put independent candidates and lesser-known parties on a more equal footing with the major parties is an official manifesto website. Every candidate would be able to submit a summary of their policies (with a word or character limit) to the website, and this could be used by voters to have a look at their policies. There would be options to sort candidates by constituency, by party, alphabetically, or by whatever else is convenient. This way, being able to communicate with the public would not just be about which candidates could afford to send out leaflets to all their constituents. Effectively all candidates’ leaflets would be available in one place.

That concludes my series of posts on reforming the system used to elect MPs. In the next post, I’m going to discuss reform within Parliament.

6 thoughts on “Electoral reform 3 – A reasonable way of electing MPs proportionally”

  1. Wow. It’s really nice to see such a thoughtful discussion, and one that largely reflects my own thinking. Also, flattering to be mentioned.

    I certainly understand the desire to give non-delegated voters as much “power” as delegated ones. For instance, when I designed the SODA voting system — a single-winner system similar to PAL — I made sure to leave it that way. But simplicity is key too; probably the most common critique of SODA is that it’s too complex, and several people have suggested simplifying it by making delegation mandatory.

    So, for PAL, is there some way to give voters comparable power to candidates, without making the ballot too complex? I think there is. Just allow non-delegated approval-style voting, as with SODA. This is only one level of preference, so it may seem “less powerful” than a delegated vote which has various preference levels. But on the other hand, at the end of the day, any single ballot only counts once.¹ In other words, among the various preference level distinctions, only one of them matters. Since approval-style voters would have much more freedom to set their individual cutoff level than delegated voters, I’d say that they’d have at least as much power to achieve a result they liked. Moreover, in the STV process, an approval-style ballot, unlike a delegated ballot, would have the power to help keep all the approved candidates from being eliminated. (A delegated ballot could eventually help protect a whole faction, but only after the original candidate who received the delegation was eliminated.)

    ¹OK, I know, in STV a ballot can get used up in several fractions. But it’s total weight is still just 1 ballot. The thinner you slice it, the less decisive power it has, to the point where anything less than half a ballot is negligible, even from the point of view of the individual voter. So I stand by the statement that effectively, each ballot only counts once, at most.

      1. Thank you for your comment. Simplicity is certainly something to think about. But I also think that if a voter wants to cast an approval vote to many candidates outside their own constituency, then a certain amount of simplicity is automatically lost anyway. I don’t think it would be feasible for them to simply write all the names in on the ballot paper. That was why I suggested the idea of advance preparation.

        But once you reach the level where they can do that, I don’t think it’s that much more of a step to allow rankings or ratings. (And I’m not entirely sure which would give better results out of ranking and rating. I’ve always had a slight preference for ratings with a decent system.) Simplicity would still be available to voters – they wouldn’t have to rank/rate. Having said that, I can understand why people don’t want to be put into a position where they would have to do something they might regard as complicated to maximise the power of their vote.

        I understand what you’re saying about the “power” lying in different areas in PAL. Candidates can specify a ranking but have limited freedom, whereas voters can’t rank but have more freedom in who they can approve. I suppose I’m still slightly uncomfortable that while they could be argued to cancel out, they’re still different processes that are available to different people.

        But all of that being said, if we get into a position where any of these options are under serious consideration for use in a national election, then it would clearly be an enormous advancement.

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