Tag Archives: STV

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.

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.