Tag Archives: voting reform

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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Why stand as an independent?

As I mentioned in my last blog post, I intend to stand in the 2015 general election. I may stand as an independent, or I may form my own party to stand under. But either way, I will effectively be standing as an independent.

Independents rarely get elected and you may think that standing is a waste of my time, and indeed money, since there is a £500 deposit, which I will only see again if I get 5% of the vote.

However, while I may be a somewhat outside bet, I am not solely standing to get elected, although obviously that is the ultimate goal. I want to encourage more people to stand as independents, and we need a culture shift to achieve this. This will only happen if people go out there and stand, and don’t wait for others to do it. This could even mean you. There was no independent candidate standing in the Braintree constituency (where I live) in the 2010 general election.

At the moment we have a system that is dominated by the major parties, and it is very hard for anyone else to get a look in, even though people you speak to often seem to hate all the main parties. Essentially, the parties are arbitrary brands that just happened to be the organisations that got there first, and now have too much power and influence to oust. They are no different from shop chains in that respect.

We need a system that encourages independents to stand and that gives parties – as entities above and beyond the elected members of the parties – less influence. But with hardly any independents in Parliament, what are the chances of this ever happening?

If more people start to stand as independent candidates, and more people start to vote for who they really want to be elected, rather than whichever of the two or three candidates they think might have a chance of getting in, then it would at least be a start, and politicians might start to take notice.

But is this not just encouraging people to waste their votes? No. By voting for who you really want to get in rather than your preferred option of the two most realistic candidates, you help increase their profile for future elections. They may not get in this time but you increase their future chances. By only ever voting for one of two candidates (or possibly three in some areas if you’re really lucky), the main parties will always remain entrenched, regardless of what anyone actually thinks of them. By refusing to vote tactically, you would be voting for the future, not just the present. Admittedly, achieving success on this level would be very difficult with the voting system we have. But I would argue that we shouldn’t be defeated by any of this, and that if you are, you could equally argue that you might as well not bother to vote at all. I’m not arguing that you shouldn’t vote, but this is the road you could end up going down if you say that your vote will have no influence, regardless of how likely the candidate you vote for is to get elected.

Isn’t standing as an independent self-defeating? If I manage to achieve any level of success, it will take votes away from the party or parties that have policies most similar to mine, and therefore increase the chances of someone I disagree with most getting in.

This is clearly a problem. But primarily, as with wasted votes, it is a problem with our voting system. A voting system that actively encourages people to simply vote for their favourite of the top two candidates in the polls, ignoring their real favourite, is clearly a flawed system. In 2011, we had the opportunity to oust the First Past the Post (FPTP) system in favour of the Alternative Vote (AV) system. Unfortunately FPTP won the referendum and remains as the system that we use. I intend to post at length in the future about voting systems, but I will briefly discuss it here too.

The AV system would have meant that if your favourite candidate was an outsider, you could still rank them first on your ballot paper and not waste your vote. If they are eliminated early, then your vote is transferred to your next preference, so you can still participate effectively in the election.

There have been suggestions that UKIP candidates could form a pact with Conservative candidates in some constituencies, where they would agree not to stand against them, as the two parties have similar policies in some areas, and our voting system works against similar candidates.

AV solves this particular problem. If several voters rank the same two candidates first and second but are split between which they put first and second, then when one of these candidates is eliminated in a round of voting, all these voters would now be voting together for the same candidate in the next round. Not that it would bother me too much if UKIP managed to cause the Conservatives to lose an election.

The AV system is not perfect, however, and there are other systems that I think are better. But we had a straight choice between AV and FPTP and, to me, AV is far superior. A couple of good videos on the subject are this and this.

We may have lost the AV referendum, but that doesn’t mean we have to give up on voting reform altogether. Currently, we have a system that seems to pull in different directions, where people simultaneously vote for an individual and also for a party. Are you supposed to vote for the candidate who you think is the best in your constituency, or the one that represents the party machine that you prefer at a national level? There’s no clear answer to this, and people are left to their own devices to make their way through a confusing and bizarre system.

I don’t think we should be electing brands into Parliament, but should be electing individuals. Obviously many candidates are going to have similar policy ideas, and that’s where the idea of parties comes from. However, while I have no objection to the formation of parties for people with similar ideas to come together, I think that party brands have far too much influence, and in a future blog post I will argue the case for parties having no official status within Parliament.

But for now, the bottom line is that for me democracy means democratically elected individuals, not brands, and that independent candidates should stand a chance under any reasonable system. We need to start somewhere, and from my standpoint, I intend to start by standing in the 2015 UK general election.