[EM] Re: Election-methods Digest, Vol 2, Issue 44

James Gilmour jgilmour at globalnet.co.uk
Sun Aug 29 18:22:25 PDT 2004

Alex Small  > Sent: Sunday, August 29, 2004 9:34 PM
> Correct me if I'm wrong, but my understanding is that people 
> have the option of voting either their own preference order, 
> or else a preference order that a party decided upon in 
> advance.

This is correct, but the overwhelming majority of voters take the party option  - for reasons
explained in response to your next comment.

>  I was under the impression that it was a response 
> to the complexity of the system.

Yes, but only because the Australians made it complex.  They made voting compulsory, so even those
who had no preferences had to participate, under legal penalty.  Then they made the voters mark a
preference against every candidate on the paper, else the vote would be declared "informal" (=
invalid) and therefore be rejected.  So the Australian complexity arose from two unnecessary and
fundamentally anti-democratic requirements they imposed on the voting system.  Add to these, the
desire of the political parties to exert more power over their supporters (to make sure they voted
"the right way") and they had the perfect "justification" to introduce block party voting.

> I understand all of the principled objections to party list 
> systems, but in practice I think that the open list methods 
> (especially the Swiss version) are good enough.  Or, put 
> another way, I'd regard an open list system as a huge 
> improvement over what we currently have in the US.  Progress 
> is about improvement, not perfection.

What is "good enough" is a profound value judgement.  I agree that, in many ways, party list PR of
the Swiss type may be an improvement over your present methods of electing the two Houses of the
Congress, your state legislatures and even your city councils.  However, I think you are failing to
appreciate another very important difference between STV-PR and party list PR.  It is very
interesting that most European countries use party list PR of some kind and very few use STV-PR.
But there are major differences of political history and of political philosophy that account for
this difference.  In most European countries political parties were registered by law long before PR
was adopted.  So when PR was introduced (mostly late 1800s or early 1900s) it was natural that the
desired political PR should be of the already registered political parties.  In the UK, in contrast,
political parties did not become legally registered entities for electoral purposes until 1998,
about 150 years after many continental countries.  This reflects a difference of political
philosophy.  Here parties are important in the political process, but our ideas about representation
(at all levels of government) have always put much more emphasis on the representation of a locality
and of the constituents who live within it than on representation of political parties.  UK views
about "our local MP" or "our local councillor" are completely alien to many of our continental

Quite apart from all its voter-centred benefits, STV-PR is the obvious choice of PR system if you
are evolving from FPTP (simple plurality) in single-member districts.  The move to STV maintains a
local link in a way that no party list system does and it does not change the concept of
representation.  In the USA, Canada and many other countries with a British political legacy, the
constituency and electing a local representative have been and remain important.  STV-PR allows the
voters to retain that and at the same time obtain PR of political parties (and PR within parties and
PR of cross-party issues, as they wish).  Looked at from this perspective, as a practical reformer
wanting to win over electors and politicians to the reform cause, I would say that STV-PR was the
natural progression to bring about improvement.  I make no claims about "perfection"  -  all voting
systems involve compromises.


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