How people elect parliaments
For those just finding this site, and especially for those who don’t come with a technical interest in elections, this page gives a general introduction to what this website aims to do, and how every visitor might get something useful out of it.
A little bit of history
Most of us take voting in elections pretty much for granted. But in fact it has only been generally available for around 5 generations.
The majority of people around the world who are entitled to vote in elections today could name a great-grandparent – especially a greatgrand-mother – who didn’t have the right to vote.
In Britain – the major nation with the longest history of elected parliaments – voting was a right based on owning property until changes made in the 1880s.
When it came into existence the new republic of the United States copied much of the British system of government, but they abolished the property qualifications for voting some decades before Britain did. Australia’s colonies were also a few decades ahead of Britain in this reform.
Almost all other European nations (like Britain) had parliaments co-existing with long-established monarchies. It took over a hundred years to complete the transition from a continent of monarchies to one made up of elected governments.
Property-owning or not, women only started getting the vote in provincial locations like Wyoming (1869) and South Australia (1890s), before whole nations finally accepted this basic right in the period from around 1900 to 1920. This time, Britain and the US were among the last to get on board.
(Women could vote for the Wyoming legislature in 1869)
Race was also a test of citizenship in many electoral systems, most famously in the United States – where disadvantages exist to this day despite a constitutional guarantee of equal treatment now being almost 150 years old – and more recently in South Africa prior to 1994. Racial disadvantages to voting and winning political representation are still apparent in many countries, even where equality is legally promised to all.
Most European and north and south American countries, together with Australia, New Zealand, South Africa and to a limited extent China and Japan were democracies by the years after the first world war.
Another wave of democratization took place with the break up of colonialism in Africa and Asia after the second world war.
A final wave of new democratic nations arrived after the dissolution of the communist form of governance after 1989.
Systems that didn’t work for voters
But not all elections really create good representation.
The early British and US elections originally used a voting method now called the ‘block vote’. When this was combined with the arrival of organized political parties during the 1800’s, it generated very unfair results.
The British and Americans first experimented with moving to single-member electoral divisions, but this also produced (and still does) anomalous results and leaves large numbers of people without representatives in parliaments.
The solution of having proportional representation by quotas was widely known by the late 19th century, but by then political parties had come to control parliaments and ever since, electoral laws have been written by parties mostly with their own interests in mind.
In Britain and America, fair representation has been continually resisted by political parties and is still not available to this day.
In Europe, parties came up with the different solution of combining proportional representation with embedding the parties themselves into voting systems. The resulting ‘list systems’ let seats in parliaments be allocated straight to parties, rather than involve direct election of individual MPs.
The European system has been widely exported to Africa, Latin America and developing countries in recent decades.
Only a few small countries are coming close to getting representation in parliaments working well.
The different types of electoral systems are mapped out at this website’s resource pages on elected assemblies around the world.
The variety of world national parliamentary electoral systems
What is voting actually about?
This website aims to promote interest in what voting is meant to achieve.
When picking a single elected officer – such a national president – voting is about matching the qualities of the candidates – including their political views – to a job description. The issues are competence and a unified policy direction. Making a choice of leading individual or party is usually not to difficult for voters to do (unless there are three or more popular candidates, when it gets tricky).
But assembling parliaments is quite a different thing. Elected assemblies are meant to be about representation of all the different viewpoints in society.
All over the world today the mechanics of voting methods are excluding many people from political representation. This is probably one of the key reasons why politics seems to be losing legitimacy, and why people refuse to get engaged with politicians and their behaviour. It doesn’t need to be so.
This site will keep referring to a core set of goals which would make elections work better: high participation rates, direct election of MPs, lots of choice, equal influence for all voters, and seeing the greatest number of people represented in assemblies.
Sadly, most of the world’s electoral systems are failing some or even all of these criteria.
This can be fixed.
Finally, this website will work as a news service. You can ignore the long slabs of text on electoral mechanics, unless it you actually need them.
The front page of this site will make up a regular blog about elections going on around the world.
Such news items will aim to provide more than merely report events, but will keep linking discussion back to what makes a good election, and how people get effectively represented.
There will be some political commentary here, but it won’t aim to be partisan; we’ll keep the tone respectful, and the focus will on how elections are or aren’t working properly.
Use and enjoy