What are electoral systems for?

It never ceases to amaze me how apparently intelligent and enlightened people can justify and support totally undemocratic electoral systems. As I have mentioned before in this blog, the United Kingdom has a system for general elections (‘first past the post’) that produces election results that have almost no relationship with the will of the people expressed at the ballot box. The Irish system (‘single transferable vote’) is entertaining but equally not necessarily efficient in expressing the will of the people, while its multi-seat constituencies positively encourage candidates to fight dirty against the running mates from their own party.

It seems to me that a voting system should have only one purpose: to allow the people to speak and to have their democratic wishes expressed accurately. That’s it. Nothing else is relevant. The system that does this most efficiently is the German one, which distributes parliamentary seats in line with the electorate’s party preferences while also ensuring that each constituency has a member of parliament.

I can think of no valid reason for retaining either the British or the Irish existing electoral systems. And what is proposed for Britain – the alternative vote system – is hardly better. If the countries on these islands want to be able to say they are democracies, they need to do better.

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10 Comments on “What are electoral systems for?”

  1. Vincent Says:

    The system was set-up by the decedents of the Normans. So it’s hardly surprising that there is a democratic deficit. Given we still have a legal system designed by them to keep the slaves in order and believe it’s the fairest system in the world.

  2. Al Says:

    We claim to be a Republic
    The other crowd something like a constitutional monarchy.
    But your point is right, the political parties have warped the political systems to suit their own ends like a inbred aristocracy..

    But the solution is in our hands, probably part of the problem

  3. Andy Says:

    STV works if the parties know what they are doing, and work the system. It fails when the candidates fight.

    I remember the story of a party in NI putting up three candidates. They promoted them in a particular order, and lo and behold the second and third ones were eliminated straight away due to lack of first preferences. The next election, different posters in different areas had them in different orders, and more got elected.

    There is a considerable dislike of “list” systems, as STV, for all its faults, does return individuals chosen by the people. AV is less than perfect, but at least will only return a member who attracts the grudging “better than so-and-so” support of the majority of the electorate.

  4. Keith Says:

    Democracy allows the voters to remove the government in power. It does not need to offer anything more. Thinking it is the systems that are the problem is probably optimistic. I would like to see an aptitude and psych as part of the nomination process😉


    • “Democracy allows the voters to remove the government in power. It does not need to offer anything more.”

      Sure, but it’s not offering that in these islands. Governments can stay in power without securing a majority of those voting.

      • Keith Says:

        ‘Coalition’ governments can stay in government, or not, as we have just seen from the greens resigning from government in Ireland and in the UK the loss of the LD’s would end that government. Every country in Europe has got a slightly different flavour of electoral systems based on their history and experience, but there is none that is perfect. Electoral systems do what they are designed to do, produce governments. States like Belgium and Italy need to start asking what their electoral system is for! Our system is in need to reform (see http://politicalreform.ie/ for some great discussions) but it will be tweaks to what we have, not replacement.

        Personally, if there is any one model I endorse it is the Swiss federal model with frequent, well informed referendums. But it works for them, nothing to suggest it could work that well anywhere else.

        Do we really want a system that is just rule of the majority? The proportional systems are meant to be more inclusive models, and mostly are. Though, like everything, there is nothing to suggest the electoral system should sit there unchanging and stagnant, maybe the best electoral reform is a promise of review & subsequent referendum each decade? We should want the best electoral system for Ireland.

        • anna notaro Says:

          believe me Keith, as a native Italian I’m asking myself, especially these days, what our electoral system is for😦 No matter the system though it’s the quality of the people we elect that matters most, and that’s exactly what we’ve been lacking..

      • aagnes Says:

        “Governments can stay in power without securing a majority of those voting.”

        The possibility will always be there if there are (candidates of) more than 2 parties competing, regardless of the voting system.
        Even in the best system, currently governing A might lose the election to B, but if B doesn’t get majority and C decides against a coalition with B, but is willing to form coalition with A, A stays to govern. This scenario doesn’t depend on the system, but merely on the results. Whether the system is fair is another question.

        I always envied the UK for their political culture. But of course, if I look at their election system closer, I surely wouldn’t want to adopt that. At the moment, that would mean an almost entirely 1-party parliament in my home country (Hungary), which is rather shocking (3 MPs would be outside the winning party, out of 176 single-seat constituencies). So it is still better to have that complicated mixture of first-past-the-post single-seats and preferential voting for party lists and transfer of wasted votes — which is still not a fair system, though not easy to spot first. Last year the winning side got 68% of the seats in parliament, by receiving only 53% of the total votes.
        The local issue currently is this “two thirds”, there are namely law types, most importantly the constitution, that requires at least 2/3 of MP’s votes to be passed in parliament. (This threshold is so important, our current PM often likes to refer to it as “2/3 of people are supporting them”, which is clearly not true). So government can do whatever they want theoretically, and the problem is that they are really doing whatever they just want (and they can have crazy ideas you wouldn’t even believe).

        So I somehow still envy the political culture in the UK, but I agree the electoral system is not fair there. But don’t even consider the Hungarian system as a nice, quite recently developed system.

        The German seems best, you are right.


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