How people elect parliaments
A massive impact on voter choice exists, hidden in plain sight, in many of the world’s electoral systems. This is the electoral device of the single member electoral division (“SMD”).
Division is the standard term for the SMD in Australia, but they are also known as the constituency (UK), district (US), riding (Canada), conscription (France) and by other names in various languages.
While the SMD option is not used in every nation, the majority of people voting in democratic countries – over 3.5 billion people – live with national voting systems where the national parliament uses SMDs only. Millions more live in systems where it is used as part of various composite methods of electing parliaments.
Universally described in positive terms as somehow assuring voters of ‘local representation’, the use of SMDs dramatically curbs the scope of choice by voters to select as their parliamentary representatives the candidates who they believe could best represent their views in parliaments.
SMDs impose a severe reduction in choice for both the voters – who cannot vote for any candidate other than one who is resident within the electoral division – and also to the candidates – who are unable to seek electoral support other than from residents of a defined area.
SMD systems deny voters choice of alternatives within a political party which they might favour, and in many cases it will also deny them the option to vote for any candidate of a specific party or independent candidate that they might desire to be represented by.
Even if attractive candidates are available, the reality of SMD voting – whether in its plurality form, or with preferential voting (also known as alternative or ranked voting) – denies effective choice to anyone who does not favour one of the top two candidates in the electoral division.
Finally, if the SMD happens to be a ‘safe seat’ – a very common occurrence – even that degree of choice becomes illusory.
Why is this ‘local’ claim of virtue so widely accepted? Understood correctly, it is no more than a rule that residency is to be used as a strict criterion governing voter choice.
In a modern, diverse and mobile society, association between people through the grounds of their residency is clearly not the sole form of community, and for many people it might not count as even one of the more important forms of community.
The defined areas of residency are almost all defined by entirely arbitrary boundaries. The boundaries are often unrelated to any strong distinctions between ‘local’ communities of interests.
In the better-administered jurisdictions, to keep the electoral divisions equal in population size their boundaries need to be revised regularly, and all too frequently the voters (and the candidates) find themselves reallocated to different residency-based groups for no reason that is at all related to the exercise of their choice of representative.
In the larger nations in which SMDs are used, the focus on the notion of ‘localness’ also ignores the very deliberate division of responsibilities to the multiple levels of government. This is particularly noticeable in the multi-level federations such as Canada and Australia, which have specific constitutional allocations of powers to the federal legislature and government.
There are virtually no specific constitutional or nation-management responsibilities of these top-level Parliaments or governments that require a residence-based electoral foundation.
Subdivision also severely limits the freedom of activity of parties and candidates in relation to where they can seek support for policy platforms that are concerned with national issues or have a national character – which is to say, almost all the policies and duties of national legislators and governments – but have little relevance to local issues.
SMDs also severely impact on other key objectives of a representative electoral system, including the equality of voter influence and the proportion of electors who achieve representation in parliament by the party or candidate which they prefer.
There are also endemic problems with the integrity of the management of SMD systems.
The drawing of the boundaries of these SMDs is in many countries are manipulated deliberately to bring about partisan outcomes. Even a modern democracy such as the United States accepts such partisan behaviour as a matter of course. No judicial intervention into the intrusion of partisanship in the drawing of district boundaries has yet been established in the US.
Happily, several nations including Australia, Canada and more recently the UK have established independent boundary-drawing system blessed with non-partisan integrity.
But even innocently drawn boundaries unavoidably show real partisan impacts, creating across multiple divisions concentration distortion effects which favour political parties which are spread in a manner leading to several narrow winning majorities, and disadvantaging those parties where demographics concentrates their voters heavily in fewer divisions.
Even a fair process for independent drawing of boundaries cannot possibly exclude these demography-driven effects.
Finally, it can be noted that choosing not to impose a local focus in representational politics does not prevent voters or candidates from utilising such a focus if they wish to.
A wider approach to electoral choice need in no way prohibit voters from using residency as a factor in their choice of representation. Residence-based issues as a factor in voter choice can easily be allowed to voters, even while a electoral system throws open the scope of choice to allow voters to balance any number of factors in deciding how to vote.
It is exactly through such openness to the endless variety of public opinions – and their change over time in – where lies the genuine foundation of political representation.