Posted tagged ‘voting’

An educated vote?

August 14, 2017

Research on the outcome of the 2016 EU referendum in the United Kingdom has apparently revealed that ‘university-educated British people tend to vote consistently across the U.K. for remain’ – as areas with higher proportions of graduates voted more heavily against Brexit. The researchers have claimed that if there had been just 3 per cent more graduates, the referendum outcome would have been different.

I am, as readers of this blog know, increasingly dismayed at what the Brexit vote has done to Britain (and may yet do), but that is not the point of this post. Rather, it is the more general question about the status, if there is a particular one, of education in the political process. University constituencies – in which graduates are the voters – existed in the United Kingdom until 1950, and still exist in Ireland in Seanad Eireann (the ‘Senate’). The latter constituencies in Ireland have elected Senators of some note, including the last three Presidents of Ireland at some points in their careers.

We may believe that education equips its students with judgement and insight, and so it may seem right to give graduates some special opportunities to exercise that judgement politically. But we also believe in democracy, which requires us to value the judgement of all people equally when it comes to electoral decision-making. We have also not adopted the view – not yet, at any rate – that all citizens should receive a university education, so we should not welcome a system that implies second class status for those who are not graduates.

I guess that if a higher participation rate in higher education would have produced a different Brexit referendum outcome, then I might have wanted a higher participation rate. But I am uneasy with my own conclusion. I am reluctant to argue that those who have not enjoyed my privileges are less worthy of having their voices heard. And as we try to decide how far into the population higher education should expand, these are questions we must also address. There is no easy answer.

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Do votes matter?

May 11, 2010

Right now in the UK the political parties are having to face serious questions – you could almost say for the first time ever – about how people’s votes in an election should count. It is clear that the Liberal Democrats are going to enter into an arrangement for government only with a party committed to some voting reform, and this won’t be an easy sell when the other parties have managed to get lots and lots of seats on a minority of the vote. As has been seen in news reports, the backwoodsmen (and they seem to be all men) in both the Conservative Party and in Labour are lining up to tell the people that the present system is not only fine but the best there is, and why should it matter if people’s votes don’t count when, after all, the system delivers such nice majorities in parliament. This is the argument that strong government trumps democracy, which seems more appropriate for 1930s dictatorships than a modern liberal state. It will be interesting to see if the Lib Dems can achieve change.

So how should we view all this from Ireland? Are we really much better? Well, we do have proportional representation (ironically first introduced here under British rule), and it takes the form of the single transferable vote. This allows us to have multi-seat constituencies with real fun and games on election night. It gives us the ‘tallymen’ at the count, and hours and hours of counting with unpredictable results. In the end it provides us with a distribution of seats which more closely resembles the distribution of voting preferences, but it doesn’t reflect those preferences precisely. It is possible, and not wholly unusual, for a party to get more seats but less first preference votes than another party. In addition, the STV system has a curious effect on candidates: at an election your main enemy is not a candidate from another party – in fact on the whole you couldn’t care less about them – it’s any other candidate from your own party. If there is a reasonably clearly defined vote for your party, then you must fight your own colleagues to ensure it goes to you rather than to them. And this leads to all kinds of dirty dealing behind the scenes which occasionally comes into full view.

It seems to me that in Ireland too the issue of what is a good voting system should be addressed, and I don’t think we have one right now. Perhaps the best system is the German one, whereby parliament is filled from a combination of directly elected MPs and party representatives on a list, so that each constituency has its political representative but the distribution within parliament as a whole reflects popular preferences.

It is time we all became more politically mature.

How to count the votes

April 24, 2010

If you live in the United Kingdom, and you ate just getting interested in the general election campaign – maybe you’re infected by Cleggmania, or you think it’s time for an old Etonian to run things, or as far as you’re concerned a dose of Presbyterianism is just the thing – then don’t get too excited about your vote. Unless you live in one of the small number of constituencies considered to be ‘marginal’, your vote doesn’t really count and won’t make the slightest bit of difference. This is one of the vagaries of the ‘first-past-the-post’ electoral system.

A good way of illustrating the unusual democracy that is the British voting system is to look at this BBC website where you can play with possible voting results and see how they would translate into seats in the House of Commons. Start with something really really simple: assume that the three main parties get exactly 30 per cent each, with the remaining 10 per cent going to the various Ulster parties and the Scots and Welsh Nationalists. This isn’t an unlikely scenario, as we know from recent polls after the TV debates. So what would you get – roughly equal numbers of seats for the three parties? Whoa there, absolutely not. In this scenario Labour would very nearly get an overall majority with 314 seats. The Conservatives would manage only 207, while the resurgent Lib Dems would, well, definitely not resurge, and would come away with exactly 100 seats.

Now let’s play with something more exciting. Let’s assume the Cleggmania lifts off the roof and the Lib Dems achieve a triumphant 35 per cent, and then let’s say that the Conservatives get 28 per cent and Labour 27. Now what happens? Well, yes, that would give the Lib Dems a more respectable number of seats. The biggest number? Nah! Maybe at least the second most seats? Not at all! They would get 176 seats. And guess what, lowest placed Labour (in terms of votes) would get the largest number of seats – 259 to be precise – while the Tories would have to make do with 186. So who would have the fewest? Why, the Lib Dems, the party with the highest vote, of course! That’s the topsy turvy world of ‘first-past-the-post’. Mind you, if the Lib Dems managed to get an overall majority – presumably by scoring 186 per cent of the vote or so – then by the next election it would all have turned upside down, and any challenger would now need to get the dead to vote 3 times to be in with a chance.

I am always amazed to find British people who will defend this, usually with some reference to stable government. It does not seem to occur to anyone with that view that stable government that is not supported by the popular will as expressed at the ballot box is not particularly democratic. And if you think that our own Irish politicians are above that kind of thing, remember that attempts were made in the past to introduce ‘first-past-the-post’ here, and it only failed because the people would not support it in a referendum.

British elections are fascinating, and I guess there’s just a little bit of me that would miss all the stuff with swingometers and the like. But in the end citizens don’t vote in order to be entertained on election night, they vote in order to settle the distribution of political power in parliament. It’s time for Britain to make political entertainment subservient to the democratic will of the people. Sooner or later, it will have to be done.