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Why we need a better voting system

The UK's present voting system only works properly when there are only two credible candidates. There is something much better which could easily replace it.


Posted 18 November 2019

With a general election underway now, and a London mayoral election next year, I am particularly focused on the problems with our country’s voting systems.

As the subject sounds abstract, I will try to be as concrete as possible.

The general election

Although we talk about the national general election, in reality there are 650 separate elections since we vote constituency by constituency.

In passing, that is quite different from, say, Israel where citizens vote in a single national ballot.

Our voting system for deciding who becomes the MP for a constituency is very simple:

  1. The ballot paper lists all the candidates.
  2. You vote for one candidate.
  3. The candidate who receives the most votes wins the election and becomes the MP.

This system is perfectly designed for when there are two candidates. Whoever gets the most votes should obviously win.

In practice, there are often many more candidates. However, historically, in most constituencies those other candidates have been “no hopers” running just for fun or to make some other kind of point.

When there are three credible candidates

Deciding how to vote becomes much more problematical if there are more than two candidates who might win.

To keep it concrete, consider a Jewish voter in the constituency of Finchley & Golders Green who supports remaining in the European Union and who is concerned about antisemitism. The Conservative, Labour and Liberal Democrat parties are the key choices he faces. Assume his preferences are as follows.

How should he vote?

If he votes Liberal Democrat, he will be very happy if they win, but devastated if the Labour Party candidate gets elected.

He will be particularly devastated if, by voting Conservative, he could have stopped that happening, even at the price of electing the Conservative candidate and letting Brexit happen. (We assume that he cares more about antisemitism than Brexit.)

This type of conundrum happens all the time when there are more than two credible candidates who might get elected.

Do you give up the chance to vote for your preferred candidate in order to vote for your second-best choice, to stop an even worse candidate winning?

That is the fundamental problem with our present voting system. It is a system that only makes sense when there are only two credible candidates.

Our present system could produce some very peculiar results with many credible candidates. For example, with 100 voters and 10 candidates, somebody could be elected while receiving only 11 votes, if the other 89 votes were evenly distributed amongst the other nine candidates!

What should replace our present voting system?

The above problems are eliminated if, instead of indicating only one choice on the ballot paper, you are able to express the order of your preferences.

In other words, instead of putting a cross against one name on the ballot paper, you would number the candidates.

Our hypothetical Jewish voter in Finchley & Golders Green above would fill out his ballot paper as follows:

  1. Liberal Democrat - Luciana Berger
  2. Conservative Party - Mike Freer
  3. Labour Party - Ross Semple Houston

If there were more than three candidates, he just keeps numbering for as long as he cares but does not need to put a number down against every candidate. For simplicity, I discuss only three candidates because “no hope” candidates can be ignored in practice.

With three candidates, if one of them gets more than 50% first preferences (in other words gets an absolute majority) they are elected as the MP.

Otherwise, you eliminate the candidate with the lowest number of first preferences, and reallocate the votes that the eliminated candidate received based on the second preferences on those ballot papers. At this stage, (because we are only considering three candidates) the candidate who has the most votes will have an absolute majority of ballot papers and will be the new MP.

With this system, our hypothetical voter is able to vote for his true first preference, Liberal Democrat, without worrying that by doing so they will be helping the Labour Party to win. If the Liberal Democrat is eliminated, our voter's ballot paper gets reallocated to the Conservative Party candidate.

This voting system is called the “Alternative Vote” system. It was the subject of a national referendum in 2011 when it was rejected. See my article "The Alternative Vote Referendum: why I will vote YES."

My personal view is that most people who voted in that referendum were not making a considered choice about voting systems. Instead, the Conservative Party which opposed the change managed to frame the referendum as a vote on the popularity or otherwise of Nick Clegg, who at that time had become very unpopular.

This alternative vote system is used quite widely in the private sector because it makes sense. For example, it was the way that partners in PricewaterhouseCoopers elected their senior partner when I was a partner. (I assume the PwC system has not changed but have not checked while writing this article.)

How will I vote in this election?

Although we have a bad voting system, that is the system that I will have to vote under on 12 December.

In my constituency, I will have to assess the relative likelihood of the Conservative, Liberal Democrat, and Labour candidates winning.

Provided that there is no risk of the Conservative candidate winning, I will vote Liberal Democrat which is the party that I belong to. It is also the most pro-EU party, which matters to me.

If I think that in my constituency voting Liberal Democrat might lead to the Conservative candidate winning, then I will vote for the Labour candidate.

My overall goal is to prevent a Conservative majority in Parliament as that would lead to Brexit.

I also want to avoid a majority Labour government as I consider their economic policies to be catastrophic. However, the state of the national polls is such that there is no realistic risk of a majority Labour government. That is the clear view of polling expert Sir John Curtice.

Here's why poll guru John Curtice says Jeremy Corbyn has 'close to zero' chance of winning

— The Scotsman (@TheScotsman) November 14, 2019

The London Mayoral Election

London does not elect the Mayor using the system for electing Members of Parliament.

Instead, each voter is asked to indicate a first preference and a second preference.

If your first preference candidate is not one of the top two when the votes are counted, your candidate is eliminated, and your vote transferred to your second preference.

When there are a maximum of three credible candidates, the system for London Mayor works perfectly. It is then has exactly the same outcomes as the system described above.

As a voter, I can give my first preference vote to my preferred candidate, knowing that if that candidate does not win, my vote will go to my second choice.

Unfortunately, the London Mayoral system is inadequate once there are more than three candidates that you care about.

In 2020, there are at least four candidates that I am interested in. I have listed them below in the order in which I most prefer them:

I have a serious problem about how to vote.

If I give my first preference to Siobhan Benita and my second preference to Rory Stewart, I have to bear in mind that it quite likely that both of them will still be eliminated.

That means that, since my first and my second preferences have been eliminated, I have no voice in the final decision of whether Sadiq Khan or Shaun Bailey is elected. Instead, my vote will have been completely wasted.

The London voting system forces me to ignore Rory Stewart and, with the above preferences, give my first preference to Siobhan Benita and my second preference to Sadiq Khan.

It would be much better for London to go over to the full alternative vote system whereby I could number the candidates 1, 2, 3, 4 etc.

Proportional representation

The alternative vote system mentioned above is not a proportional system. It does not produce a House of Commons where the number of MPs from each party is approximately equivalent to the proportion of voters in the country who regard that party as their preferred choice.

The reason is that we have a strong principle in Britain that every constituency has one MP, and every MP represents one constituency.

To produce a proportional House of Commons, we would have to move away from the above principle. That is a much bigger question for another day.

The wonderful thing about the alternative vote system mentioned above is that it keeps the “one constituency, one MP” principle while allowing voters to vote for the candidates they really want to vote for rather than having to plump for their second best choice because they are concerned that otherwise somebody worse might win.


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