The voting system that I am advocating for parliamentary elections

I previously discussed a few possible ways of how you could have a fair proportional national election, and in my last post I promised to commit to a single system to advocate. I had five criteria for such a 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.

For it to be possible to vote for any candidate standing in the country – of which there would be thousands – there would have to be some increase in complexity. We just have to make sure that it’s not too great an increase, and that any increase in complexity is offset by an even greater improvement to our democracy.

The system I am advocating is essentially a simplified version of Jameson Quinn’s PAL system, which you can find described here and here. I will describe my simplified version in this post.

The ballot paper would be largely as it is now. All candidates would have a nominated constituency and their name would be printed on the ballot papers for that constituency (with their party name if applicable). People would be able to vote for one of these candidates exactly as they do now, and the process would be just as simple for them. Alternatively they could write in underneath the name of any other candidate standing nationally to cast a vote for them. Each candidate could also have their own code to distinguish between those with the same or similar names. The other option open to voters would be to rank the local candidates listed on the ballot paper.

Writing in candidates’ names on the ballot is not a new phenomenon, and it has been done frequently in American elections. For example, in 1928, Herbert Hoover won the Republican Massachusetts presidential primary election as a write-in candidate on his way to becoming president of America. Similarly in 1940, Franklin D. Roosevelt won the Democratic New Jersey presidential primary election as a write-in candidate on his own way to retaining the presidency.

The election would work as a Single Transferable Vote (STV) proportional election. In STV, voters would normally rank the candidates, and their vote can be transferred from their top preference to their lower preferences if their top preference is eliminated or elected with more votes than needed. But in this system, it would be unrealistic for someone to rank a large number of candidates whose names are not even printed on the ballot paper.

Instead, candidates would all have their own pre-declared public ranking of the other candidates. Then, instead of your vote being transferred to your own second or third choice and so on, your vote would be transferred according to your favourite candidate’s ranking. Voters would have the option of ticking a box to say that they do not want their vote transferred in this way. These voters can still take part in the ranking process, but they would be limited to ranking the local candidates printed on the ballot paper, by writing the rank number next to each name. The entire country would be treated as one super-constituency, and the 650 seats would be allocated according to the STV method.

Instead of candidates individually ranking all other candidates, candidates from the same party would be ranked equally in a given candidate’s list. However, independent candidates can still be ranked anywhere. This simplifies the process somewhat. This also stops parties from effectively having a priority list that all members of the party would be expected to use, with the party leader top and so on. A party candidate’s ranking would always have the other candidates from their own party ranked immediately behind themselves. For example, a party candidate’s ranking might look like this:

1. The ranking candidate (every candidate is automatically top of their own list)
2. The rest of the candidates from the ranking candidate’s party
3. An independent candidate
4. All the candidates from party A
5. All the candidates from party B
6. Another independent candidate

And so on. Candidates would not be expected to rank every other candidate standing nationally. They can stop at any point, and any ranking below an entire party of candidates would be largely irrelevant after the vote is diluted into an entire party. The above list would effectively be:

1. The ranking candidate
2. The rest of the candidates from the ranking candidate’s party

An independent candidate’s ranking could look slightly different as they might rank several independent candidates before the candidates for a particular party. For example:

1. The ranking candidate
2. An independent candidate
3. Another independent candidate
4. Yet another independent candidate
5. All the candidates from party A

And as before, any ranking below the candidates of an entire party would be unlikely to affect the result.

Is it reasonable to allow candidates to rank the other candidates on your behalf? I think it is. If you vote for a candidate, then it would generally be because you like their policies and would trust them to vote for what you would agree with in Parliament. Allowing your vote to be transferred according to their ranking list is simply the first act of representation that you are conferring onto them. If you agree with a candidate’s policies, it is likely that you’ll also agree with the policies of candidates that they also agree with and that they therefore also rank highly. Also, because candidates’ rankings would be published in advance of the election, voters can use this information as part of their decision process in determining who to vote for. And as said, voters can also choose not to allow their vote to be transferred, and rank just the local candidates themselves, or simply vote for one of them.

Who would be my MP? People wouldn’t have one official MP; they would be able to contact any one of them. Supporters of a party may want to write to the geographically closest MP to them from that party, and parties might have their own boundaries defining which of their MPs covers which area. But there would be nothing official within this system that determines who your MP is. This gives people the freedom to write to the MP that they think is best suited to their particular concern. Currently, there is a high chance that your MP is someone that you didn’t vote for and don’t think represents you very well. This is a big downside to having one local MP who officially represents you. The system I am advocating is much more flexible.

If this system is implemented, then in the future, further features could be added. Ideally it would be possible for voters to rank any of the candidates standing nationally, and how to implement this simply could be discussed once the main system is in operation. Perhaps this would be possible if computer voting ever came in. Another alternative would be to give candidates scores rather than ranks. But that is for another day. To summarise the system:

The ballot paper for a constituency lists all candidates who have nominated that constituency. Voters have the following three options:

1. Cast a vote for one of the listed candidates
2. Cast a vote for any other candidate in the country by writing their name at the bottom
3. Rank the listed candidates

Before the election, every candidate will make a publicly available ranking list of the other candidates. Candidates from a particular party would always be ranked equally in a given candidate’s list. Candidates from the ranking candidate’s own party would always be top of the candidate’s ranking.

If a voter chooses option 1 or 2, then they also have the option of ticking a box to say that they do not want to use their preferred candidate’s ranking list. In such cases, their vote will not be transferred if their preferred candidate is eliminated or elected with a surplus of votes. If they do not tick this box, then their preferred candidate’s ranking is used as the voter’s own ranking list. The country is treated as one super-constituency with 650 seats, and the election proceeds as an STV election.

Let’s have a look again at the five criteria that I wanted an electoral system to fit.

1. Voters should be able to vote for any candidate from anywhere in the country. It would be a national election.

Allowing voters to vote for candidates by writing their names on the ballot paper, as I am advocating, is the simplest way to obtain a single national election where every voter is free to vote for whichever candidate they like.

2. The system should be proportional at a national level.

Having the whole country as one super-constituency and using STV with votes transferred according to candidates’ ranking lists or voters’ rankings of the local candidates would allow this to happen.

3. There should be no systematic bias against independent candidates.

Unlike party-list proportional elections, this system allows independent candidates to stand equally alongside party candidates. Because votes can be transferred, your vote is not wasted by voting for someone who is unlikely to be elected. This means that unlike First Past the Post, voters are not forced into voting for one of the main parties if they want their vote to count.

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.

The system would still be very simple for voters. They can vote exactly as they do now. They would also have the added option of writing in any candidate standing nationally, or ranking the local candidates, as they would have done had Alternative Vote been adopted.

5. The system should, as much as possible, favour a reasonable geographical spread of MPs.

Local candidates would still appear on the ballot paper for each constituency, and voters would be able to rank these candidates, meaning that it would still be very easy to vote purely for local candidates if people wanted to vote on local issues.

This system retains enough simplicity and dramatically enhances democratic power, and that is why I am advocating it for use in our Parliamentary elections.

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