What Is The Best Electoral System?

In the aftermath of the UK general election, a lot of focus has shifted to the electoral system and questions have been raised over how fair and democratic it is. In particular, is it democratic for the Conservative party to win a majority of seats with only a third of the votes? Is it democratic for the 7.5 million people who voted for the Liberal Democrats, UKIP and Greens to have only 10 seats? Surely the fact that 25% of voters got only 1% of the seats is a sign of a serious problem with the electoral system? How can we make the electoral system better?

There are three main electoral systems. The first and most straight forward is the first-past-the-post system (FPTP) used in the UK and USA. The country is divided into constituencies with each constituency having one seat. Voting simply mark which candidate they prefer and whoever has the most votes (even if it is not a majority) is elected. The main advantage of this system is that it is simple, each area has their own MP and it usually leads to one party winning a majority, therefore avoiding the need for coalition. The main disadvantage is that it is highly disproportionate; it prevents the emergence of new parties and limits voter’s ability to hold their politicians in check.

A problem with FPTP can be seen in America, where politics is effectively confined to only two parties. Neither the Democrats nor the Republicans are particularly popular, yet voters are more or less forced to vote for them as voting for anyone else is seen as wasting your vote. For example, as an American citizen, I am registered to vote in New York’s 16th congressional district where the incumbent was elected with 75% of the vote in 2012 and was unopposed in 2014. A Democrat has been elected in every election since 1946. What is the point of me voting? Likewise, no matter whom I vote for in Senate elections, the Democrats are going to win, so if I don’t support them, I’ll never be represented by a politician of my choosing. FPTP leads to the creation of safe seats where no matter how much or how little the incumbent does, they will be re-elected. This makes the politicians lazy and take their voters for granted. In every election only a handful of seats are competitive, for the vast majority, the chances of your vote affecting anything are pretty slim.

The problem with a two party system is that voters don’t really have a choice. If a Democrat doesn’t live up to their promises, their supporters have no effective way of punishing them as no matter how incompetent they are, they are still better than the Republicans. Likewise, when Bill Clinton declared that the era of big government was over, Democrats simply had to take it as there was no one else they could vote for. When New Labour abandoned its traditional values and went to war in Iraq, there was nothing Labour voters could do about this as the Conservatives were worse and voting for another party was “wasting your vote”.

The two party system also leads to a them-versus-us mentality. You are either with us or against us, either Democrat or Republican, either saints or devils. American politics is unbelievably vitriolic with the aim is not merely winning more votes than your opponents, but also crushing them into the ground. The 2012 election campaigns spent more time attacking their opponent than actually giving reasons why they deserved to be elected. While multiparty democracies can be unstable, they do require parties to work with each and form alliances. Treating your opponents as the enemy doesn’t work in a system where you need to form coalitions with your opponents or even appeal to their voters (as under PR).

Unlike America, the UK has more than two political parties, but this means the electoral system is highly disproportionate. The story of the Liberal Democrats is one receiving undemocratically few seats compared with the number of votes they received. In 2010 they received 23% of the vote but only 9% of the seats. In 1983 it was even worse; they received 23% of the vote but only 3.5% of the seats. In 1974, they received 19% of the vote but only 2% of the seats. The reverse of this is that major parties receive majorities of seats even when they don’t receive a majority of votes. In 2015, the Conservatives only received 37% of the vote but 51% of the seats. It’s not well known that Margaret Thatcher never won a majority of the vote (the highest she ever polled was 44%) and if the UK electoral system was representative, a Labour-Liberal coalition could have thrown the Tories out after any of the elections between 1979-1992. Tony Blair and New Labour also never won a majority of the vote; even in their “landslide” victory of 1997 they only won 44% of the vote.

The major difference between how many votes a party got and how many seats it got. In a democracy this difference should be as close to zero as possible.
The major difference between how many votes a party got and how many seats it got. In a democracy this difference should be as close to zero as possible.

The core principle of democracy is that everyone’s vote is worth the same no matter who you are. Yet the following table shows that some votes are worth far much more. A Conservative vote is worth almost ten times what a Lib Dem vote is worth in terms of seats and therefore power).

Party Votes Per Seat
Conservative 34,244
Labour 40,290
Lib Dems 301,986
UKIP 3,881,129
Greens 1,157,613
SNP 25,972
Plaid Cymru 60,564
DUP 23,032
UUP 57,467
SDLP 33,269
Sinn Fein 44,058

An argument in favour of FPTP is that it keeps extremist parties excluded. For example, it has been noted that if the 2015 election was representative, UKIP would have won 82 seats and possibly formed a collation with the Conservatives. Now the idea of UKIP in government horrifies me, but I can’t just support democracy when it suits me. It is hypocrisy to only support democracy if the party you want wins and then turn away if your opponents win. We should choose the fairest and most democratic electoral system, not the one that best benefits our party while harming the parties we don’t like.

The second system is the party list system. Instead of voting for a candidate, voters select a party on the ballot paper and each party receives a number of seats equal to the number of votes they received. The main advantage is that the election is more about party policy than candidate personality, politicians focus on the whole country rather than just select constituencies, the system is highly representative and regardless of where you live, your vote still counts and you will still get to elect a politician you like. The main disadvantages are that people do not have a politician representing their local area and politicians have little power to oppose their party.

Now personally, I don’t have a problem with political parties and elections fought on party lines would be a huge improvement on fighting them on personalities and local issues. Making politicians focus on policies for the whole country would also be an enormous step forward. Crucially, every vote would count. However, I can see the problem in having parties instead of voters choose their politicians as this could lead to cronyism and party lackeys being promoted over better public representatives. It could also lead to talented individuals who lack charisma or don’t live in the right constituencies being elected.

The third system is proportional representation, which comes in many forms, but I want to focus on the system we have in Ireland. It’s the most complex system of the three for an outsider to understand, but it operates quite simply and works the best. Essentially the country is divided into constituencies as with FPTP, but the main difference is that there is more than one seat per constituency. At the moment, Irish constituencies have either 3, 4 or 5 seats but historically some have had as many as 9. This means that even if you support a small party, there is still a good chance you will be represented. It also means that politicians from the same party are in competition with each other. This means that there is no such thing as a safe seat or a constituency where you can be elected without campaigning or you can take the voters for granted.

Instead of voting for only candidate as in FPTP, in Ireland, your vote can “transfer”. That is to say when you see the ballot paper you mark a number 1 beside the candidate you most want to win. However, in case, they don’t get elected you can mark a number 2 beside another candidate. If your first preference isn’t elected, your vote is transferred to your second preference, your third, fourth etc until a candidate you want is elected. This means that there is no such thing as tactical voting, even if your candidate is a long shot; your vote is not wasted as it can be transferred to a more viable candidate.

The main advantage is that it is far more proportional than FPTP while still giving people a local politician and individual politicians more leeway than a party list (Ireland has the most independent politicians in Europe and one of the few countries where they are viable candidates). However, it is not a perfect system and can be disproportionate too, as in 2011 when Fine Gael won 47% of the seats with only 36% of the vote (however, disproportionality like this are the exception not the norm as in FPTP). While it is far easier to set up a new party than under FPTP, doesn’t mean this option will be taken. The main Irish political parties are between 80-110 years old and up until 2011, Irish politics was dominated by two main parties. The only other party with the Irish electoral system is Malta which has only 2 parties, going to show that the electoral system is only part of the issue, how people use it is just as important.

The key idea behind the electoral system is that everyone should have a politician representing them and every vote should count. So although I live in a relatively conservative constituency, Galway West (its conservative compared to Dublin and liberal compared to the rest of Connaught) I am still represented by the Labour TD I voted for (Labour turned out to be a disappointment, but that’s a separate issue). By having multiple seats per constituency, there is no such thing as a safe seat so politicians cannot become complacent or ignore their voters. Every vote counts and even if someone is going to vote for another party, they may still give you a transfer.

There is also a check against extreme parties that prevents them from getting full representation. For example, Sinn Féin (the political wing of the IRA) has always been underrepresented in the Irish parliament because voters don’t transfer to them. Essentially, the other parties (who opposed the IRA’s campaign of violence during the Troubles) combine their votes together to keep Sinn Féin out. It is probable that voters would transfer between parties to keep extremists like UKIP or Front National etc out if the UK or France had proportional representation.

So that concludes my summary of the three main electoral systems. Hopefully, I have shown you the serious problems that exist with first past the post and explained how proportional representation solves them. Elections are complicated issues and I had to simplify them here (many countries have a mix of these three systems, for example Germany using FPTP for half its seats and a party list for the other half). If you have any questions or want me to elaborate on any point, feel free to leave a comment.

3 thoughts on “What Is The Best Electoral System?”

  1. From the perspective of the U.S., proportional voting would present a very difficult transition. Constitutional amendments have proven very difficult to achieve, but adopting proportional voting would seem to require a total re-write of the Constitution.

    But proportional voting is not the only possible alternative to FTPT. A number of other voting systems have been proposed, including Approval Voting and IRV (Instant Runoff Voting) which eliminate the “spoiler effect” problem of FTPT that works to penalize a voter for casting a vote for some third-party candidate; the penalty being that such a vote tends to help put in office the very major-party candidate that the voter likes the least.

    But another problem with FTPT, one that is shared by IRV and AV, is that a minor party candidate has a huge hurdle to overcome to win a plurality. But there happen to be a number of other voting systems that also overcome this second issue. The common feature of these other systems is that whenever a voter has the chance on a ballot to indicate that a candidate for office is favored, the voter has exactly the same opportunity to indicate that candidate is dis-favored. And of course a vote disfavoring exactly cancels a vote favoring that candidate.

    I have written a series of short articles ( at http://www.opednews.com/Series/Balanced-Voting-by-Paul-Cohen-140521-562.html ) describing a number of such systems.

  2. Despite the current uproar most of the older folks are against a speedy change. That means one of the parts of conservatism comes automaticaly with age. Some of the younger folks will say will say we are just getting in the way but years of change make you cautious. If the economy is going back to booming Capitalism leaves more money free to invest in growth. If the economy is going to stay slow, maybe a more controlled system is in order. When the industrial revolution hit the USA our Electoral system was needed to balance government to handle the speedy growth of new industry with the slow but steady need of agriculture. Those disparate needs are as true today as the were in the early 1900’s. it may seem extra cautious to doubt the glowing reports of economic growth we hear today but Climate change, Political change and the current lack of civility and truth in the world and in the USA say be slow. e

  3. Murray White
    I have lived in 4 countries & voted in 3 of them. Presently in Costa Rica as a resident & unable to cast a vote.
    The system in Ireland seems similar to the one in Australia; but he neglected to say if it is the same. No politician ever gets elected with less than 50% of the votes! If no one has 50% of the vote , they eliminate the bottom person & redistribute the ballots, & continue eliminateing till someone has over 50%. Also there is only 1 politician in each constituency!

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