On Elections

How people elect parliaments

Elections should serve voters, not parties

Two sorts of voting system dominate the modern democratic world. The most populous method – used in India, the United States, Britain, France, Canada and many Commonwealth nations – is voting for a single member of parliament by the plurality method.

This simple system produces major inequalities in the voting influence of each voter, and leaves at least half the population unrepresented in parliament.

The next most common system – widely used in Europe, Africa, Asia and South America – is voting not for members of parliament but rather for political parties, and letting the parties control who sits in parliament in their name. Public votes are used only to determine the relative seat allocation numbers between the parties. These systems break the relationship between voters and parliamentarians altogether.

A more representative option

A different type of system, invented in the mid 19th-century, is used by only a few countries, but produces much more representative results. These are the quota-based direct election methods known to British readers as STV (for ‘single transferable vote’), but which Australians usually call the ‘Hare-Clark’ system; some American commentators have taken to calling the system ‘choice voting’.

The STV/Hare-Clark systems are often described as one of the ‘proportional representation’ methods, and they do indeed result in enhanced proportional representation of political parties, compared to more basic voting systems. But the broad category of ‘proportional’ systems also includes the systems – mentioned above – which involve proportional allocation of seats straight to political parties, which therefore lose the link between politicians and voters.

Not everyone supports proportional representation (whatever the voting method used). In nations with British political origins many (usually politically conservative) commentators argue that proportional methods for electing parliaments result in governments which are less accountable, less able to make effective decisions or to manage economic development. These claims are disputed by statistical economic evidence analysed by political scientists, notably Arend Ljiphardt.

Commentary on electoral systems often suffers from the fallacy of confusing two different quite institutions of democracy: governments and parliaments. They are not the same institution at all, and the optimal methods by which we can elect or install these two different institutions, and make them function day-to-day, are different in important respects.

Parliaments are meant to sum up, speak for, and ‘represent’ the whole of the electorate.

To achieve this the means of electing them need to be based on a range of criteria. The following is one possible list:

  • that the whole electorate is actually and equally enfranchised
  • that voters can elect the politicians directly and not through some intermediary (including political parties)
  • that there are a variety of competitivechoices available to voters (ie: the parties and candidates), and that the system does not present voters with unfair advantages or disadvantages in choosing between those choices
  • that all voters have equal influence on who gets elected
  • that as many voters as possible achieve actual representation in the parliament – that is, that someone they voted for is elected

The voting systems in use around the world come in various designs, which achieve those criteria to quite different degrees.

Sadly, many voting systems perform quite poorly at electing representative parliaments according to these democratic criteria.

Governments are quite different institutions from parliaments, and have a different task, namely that of conducting the day-to-day administration.

Governments should also be installed in a way which is regarded as legitimate by the public. There are some options in how that can be done. The two main ways of installing governments are direct election by voters, and selection by a parliament.

Once installed, governments should also be made accountable to the electorate, in an effective way, for all their decisions.

The Australian system of government sits within a long tradition of system evolution flowing from Britain. One of the key features of this system is that the government is selected by the parliament, not elected by the people.

The parliament is also supposed to exercise some other crucial tasks, including:

  • holding the government accountable (if necessary by threat of replacement) on a regular basis
  • controlling the collecting of taxes and spending of public money, and
  • exercising the formal power of creating laws.

These arrangements are central to the much-cited ‘Westminster model’. Around the world, this model has ceased to be a uniform one, with many innovations in place across the variety of nations where it currently applies.

Political analysis of the kind which condemns proportional representation confuses the characteristics of these two institutions. Under this misunderstanding – which might be called the ‘fusion fallacy’ – arguments about proposed ways of selecting a government confuse and overwhealm arguments about the optimal ways of electing a representive parliament. The result is often an unfortunate set of arrangements in which neither institution is actually elected well, or able to work optimally.

The typical fusion fallacy voting system package is based on two devices: single-member electoral divisions, and a voting system known as plurality voting.

Single member divisions were an innovation adopted during the 19th century – although not by all nations. Many which did use it have sinced abandoned this unhelpful device.

Plurality voting is a crude system. Better approaches were developed from the late 18th century onward and have been adopted in many nations.

Australia, unique among ‘westminster’ nations, improved upon the plurality voting system by moving to preferential voting. However wherever single-member divisions are retained this change is one of only modest impact. Preferencing is an improvement, but on its own is not the crucial reform.

The fusion fallacy electoral system is not simply a benign hold-over from the past. It badly damages the legitimacy of parliaments by producing a number of very unwelcome outcomes, including:

  • warping the competitive choice available to voters by making some candidates much more worth supporting than others, leading to perverse behaviour both by voters and by those who might nominate for election
  • dramatically diversifiying the effective degree of voting power which voters have (giving small minorities great power, and denying any real influence to a large majority of voters)
  • causing only a minority of voters to actually have directly accountable representatives in parliament, while a majority go unrepresented, and
  • generating numbers of politicians in parliament which are non-proportional – often dramatically so – to the share of political viewpoints present in the community.

The low level of public trust in parliaments in the modern era can in part be attributed to the fact that these basic criterion for a fair and proper parliament are not maintained in such electoral systems.

Given the unsatisfactory nature of the parliaments which are elected by the traditional fusion fallacy voting system, this system often installs governments with low public legitimacy, and indeed often installs governments where an alternative with greater legitimacy is clearly available (for example Britain in 1950 and Australia in 1954 and 1998, where opposing parties won more votes than the government which was installed; the Canadian election of 2011 is also a particularly striking example).

In cases where the voters choose (as they are entitled to do) to divide their support between three, rather than two, large political parties – such as in Britain in 2010 – the system proves to be incapable of giving a coherent answer to the question of which (if any) potential government has the legitimate support of the electorate.

The governments in fusion fallacy systems also operate in circumstances where the expected level of accountability does not function properly, because in almost all cases the system artificially constructs a parliament which is controlled by the government, even though the voters did not vote for this to happen.

The fusion fallacy line of reasoning rests much of the weight of its case on the premise that governments which act in unpopular ways can – perhaps – be ‘voted out’ at the next election.

History shows that this prospect does little to shape systemic bad practices by governments, and will at best solve some – but not all – of the political questions on which a government’s policies prove to be unpopular.

In any case, three massive assumptions are made in the ‘next-election-accountability’ proposition:

  • That the voting system by which this ‘voting out’ will be done is a democratically fair one. In terms of the criteria discussed above, the fusion fallacy model clearly is not.
  • That the electorate can have credible confidence that the alternative government (and there is typically only really one alternative on offer) will not be guilty of the same behaviours, or will not end up following similar policies. This is – in regard to many political behaviours and policies – unreliable to say the least.
  • That the task of holding a misbehaving government to account can be seperated from all the many other issues to which voters must attend in selecting a parliamentarian. This is self-evidently impossible.

Protected behind these barriers, it is all too easy for professional political outfits to game this system, as indeed we observe them doing continually. As with the decline in the public legitimacy of parliaments, the shamefully low state of public trust in governments is in no small part due to our life-long experience of administrations which have been installed without strong original legitimacy, and which have been able to operate in a climate of weak ongoing accountability.

If we are interested in seeing parliaments elected well, and governments selected with legitimacy, according to the fair and democratic criteria mentioned above, than the crude electoral system associated with the fusion fallacy is not what we need.

Happily, much better systems are available. Many alternative techniques were invented as early as the 1850s, and in some cases the credit for their invention belongs with Australians.

The best of them (measured against the democracy criteria listed above) is the single-transferable-vote system. A common version of this system is generally known to Australians as the ‘Hare-Clark’ system. This system is superior not because it is a party-proportional system – proportionality is only one of the democratic criteria – but because it achieves several other goals.

While there must be a note of caution that even this system can be – and sadly has been – bastardised by design additions grafted onto them to assist governing parties (for example ‘above-the-line voting’ in Australia, and the manipulation of electorate sizes in several places), in its simpler and purer form it is strongly pro-voter in its results.

Why then do some political commentators (almost always conservatives) promote a system which is clearly inferior in democratic terms?

In fact, attacks on proportional representation are usually political polemics. They typically adopt language and flawed propositions drawn from (in particular) British conservative political debates on these issues.

For the political actors and interests of this tradition the defence of the fusion fallacy electoral model, and the criticism of more democratic models, is based on the empirical fact that from around 1920 until the present day the political party landscape in Britain, as in the similar party systems in Australia and Canada, has been one in which conservative parties have scored better results in parliaments (and therefore in selecting governments) under the fusion fallacy system than they would have under more democratic voting systems.

Indeed, historical data reveals a number of cases of conservative governments in these nations have held office without legitimacy, in the sense that a more legitimate alternative was clearly indicated by the votes cast.

The association of this electoral system with the parties and interests of political conservativism is, however, neither hardwired nor permanent. If the party landscape were different – in particular if there existed small parties of the political right that were winning support away from the large conservative parties, by the iron law of self-interest conservative politicians would quickly shift their support to different electoral systems.

This is demonstrated by the history of electoral inventions itself, for it is a curious irony that several of the proportionality-oriented voting systems proposed in Britain between the 1860s and around 1920 were actually generated by conservative thinkers, hoping to preserve their influence in parliament as the voting franchise was expanded to more and more low-income people.

The lesson in this is that if we are interested in seeing parliaments elected well, and governments governing well, we should first clarify what voter-oriented goals we believe make up ‘democracy’, and give active support to voting systems and other institutional arrangements which support those goals.

Malcolm Baalman
(revised) May 2016

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