[EM] UK electoral systems "post mortem" discussion on radio

Juho Laatu juho.laatu at gmail.com
Sun Jun 21 03:17:40 PDT 2015

> On 18 Jun 2015, at 21:26, Kristofer Munsterhjelm <km_elmet at t-online.de> wrote:
> On 06/12/2015 11:30 PM, Juho Laatu wrote:
>>> On 09 Jun 2015, at 23:47, Gervase Lam <gervase at madasafish.com>
>>> wrote:
>>> A few weeks back, I heard on the radio a reasonable discussion
>>> about the chances of electoral reform in the UK.  It sounded like
>>> one of the panellists in the discussion knew of the various
>>> ("complicated") PR systems more than the average person.
>>> In any case, only glancing mentions were made about other
>>> electoral systems.  The panellist knew the target audience.  I
>>> think this is understandable given that the target audience really
>>> want good results, not a "technical" system.
>> The Scottish system was used as an example. It is a natural candidate
>> since people often do not want any "foreign" systems but something
>> more familiar and something they can trust. In addition to this kind
>> of ranked / STV style systems there are also other kind of PR
>> systems, like party list based systems. Although most systems are
>> more complicated than the FPTP, I think they are simple enough since
>> they seem to work in many countries. A proportional system can work
>> well even if regular voters do not know the details of the counting
>> process well enough to explain how the system works. For them it is
>> enough to understand how to vote, and to have some general trust in
>> the fairness on the system.
>> In the broadcast they discussed whether a reform is possible or not.
>> If people want a reform, the reform might come because of good
>> experiences in some parts of the country (Scotland), in some other
>> elections (local, EU), or if voters are active enough and form a
>> movement with wide support. Although the incumbent parties are likely
>> to oppose any changes to the system, there is a tipping point
>> somewhere. The voters can change things if there is strong and wide
>> enough interest.
> Systems of government seem in general to be very stable in the sense that they don't often change. If the voting method is biased in the sense that some group gets elected more often than in an ideal method, then naturally this group will prefer the status quo, and they will also have the power to keep the status quo in place.

Yes. I think elected representatives have good reason not to change the system, since they were elected with the current system, and the new system would probably not elect exactly the same representatives. Even small changes could kick many of the current representatives out.

On the other hand sometimes changes happen. The latest that comes into my mind in Fiji that changed to a classical proportional representation system very recently.

> To what extent the voters can vote themselves another system depends, then, on the fidelity of the method itself. If the method is grossly unresponsive, then it will take a lot of push to do so. (If the system is too unresponsive, then there will eventually be a revolution, but not even Plurality systems are that unresponsive.)

Also plurality seems to work. Many leading democracies have that system. Plurality is simple and straight forward, but implements the will of voters in a somewhat less straight forward manner than for example proportional representation.

In these electoral reform matters society can be said to work as a whole rather than just through the elections. For example possible consensus in the media that something is wrong in the system and should be fixed is important. Also some strong individuals play a major role (e.g. if you have a prime minister that has some opinions on the electoral system).

> So you could have systems that are unfair or unresponsive enough that they're not very democratic, yet are responsive enough that the discontent never builds up enough that there's a call to change the system. In that case, election reform will be very hard, even if it's what the voters want; the systems won't allow them to express the desire. At any given time, other issues might be more important, even though fixing the system itself could make it much easier to handle all of the direct issues later.

Dictatorships can be seen as countries with problems in democratic representation. That's one end of the scale. Also well working democracies have similar problems of not being able to fix the problems of the system, as already noted. I think the most practical way forward is to build consensus on the direction to take also outside the electoral process, i.e. also in media, by scientists, by individual politicians and by the very basic voters. That's because of the expected reluctancy of the elected representatives to change the system to their disadvantage.

> From a selection point of view, a system only has to be a combination of good enough and resilient enough to ward off changes. The better it is, the less inherent resilience it needs because the voters would sincerely prefer the system to remain in place; and the more inherently resilient it is, the less good it needs to be (because it can withstand greater pressure to change).

Yes. A well working society/democracy may rely on the good intentions of the voters and politicians. Educated and civilized citizens are a key asset of a well working democracy. They are the ones that are supposed to make the key decisions (usually indirectly though). It takes time to build this valuable asset. I mean that in order to improve the system as a whole, one needs both good politicians and good voters. Otherwise changes in the mechanics might just not work because the politicians and voters are not ready for them, and can not use them in a constructive enough way.

> To some extent, one could say that democratic systems in general require that the people accept the order. Where people are not used to the representative system or where it starts to break down, sometimes the people decide to vote themselves out of democracy and into more authoritarian rule.

Yes, and people accept the order if they believe it is good. In some countries people feel "system = us" and in some societies "system = them". In some societies people even seem to want and support strong, almost dictator level leaders in the hope that they would be strong enough to put the rest of the (no good) politicians, civil servants, businessmen etc. into order.

> It would be interesting to have a meta-system where one can in theory reach every system (or every system can be tried at least once), and where every system can do anything it likes as long as it doesn't alter those rules. Bu doing that in practice would be very hard. Representative systems do somewhat attempt to emulate it: you may run on any program, and if elected with a majority, you can do anything as long as you don't fiddle with the rules themselves (something which often requires supermajority or referenda). Yet it isn't perfect: the voting system may be inaccurate and the voters usually have to choose between policy bundles rather than policies in themselves.

It could be practical to test different kind of democratic processes at lower levels like in different towns. Those trials can be then compared to the other areas that still play with the old rules, or with some alternative new rules. There is no major risk of not being able to reverse the process since the individual trials are small. If some approaches seem to work well, then one could make trials also at national level.

I'd like to see continuous trials like this. That would make it easier to discuss the benefits and problems of possible national level changes.


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