Certain Voting Systems are not “Morally Superior”

They are just different.

I cannot believe the statement issued yesterday by ten bishops on the AV vote in May (or at least, the proposed AV vote, because it’s still not 100% certain it’s going to happen given the filibustering going on in the Lords) which has been spun by Ekklesia to ridiculous levels. The ten bishops, many of whom I know and respect, have come out in favour of AV, and that is all fair given that we live in a democracy and people are entitled to their views. But what I find astonishing is the argument put forward that this is “a change on the grounds of justice and accountability”.

Let’s just break this down. Accountability. Are we seriously suggesting that switching to AV will make MPs more accountable? At the moment MPs are subject to a public election each time Parliament is dissolved. Switching to AV will not change that. MPs will stil be accountable to their constituents, they will still have to win an election to remain in Parliament. Just because the form of that election changes, it doesn’t make MPs more or less acountable. AV will not make it more or less possible to charge with fraud MPs who fiddle expenses. AV will not make it more or less possible to go and see your MP in his surgery. An MP is already accountable to ALL his constituents and AV will not change that in the slightest.

Indeed, sometimes more proportional systems of holding elections lead to less accountability. When you have multi-member constituencies (i.e. like Ireland which uses STV), you have several MPs elected for each area. Who do constiuents go to? Who do they relate to as they representative? Can they undermine one MP by going to another. Or let’s look at Austria which elects MPs on a national basis by d’Hondt PR, but also has local counts first so that some constituencies end up with local MPs (because the candidates get a sufficient number of votes locally) and some don’t. Like many pure PR systems, the link that we have in Britain between a constituency and their MP simply doesn’t exist often in Austria. Or how about the Additional Member system used in Germany and here in the UK in Soctland and Wales. Some MPs are local MPs and some are national. Yes, there is a link for some MPs to a constituency but for others there isn’t. Different MPs are accountable in different ways. Is that just? Or how about totally pure list PR on a national basis (similar to Israel). In these kind of systems MPs are “allocated” to different constituencies so that the local electors have no say on who their representative in Parliament is. Where is the accountability in that?

Let’s turn to justice. How is AV more just than FPTP? Yes, it elects an MP by a majority rather than a plurality, but the decision that majority voting is superior to plurality voting  is a value judgement that is not linked to an objective morality. Majority voting relies on transfers and in doing so means that some electors’ votes are used in multiple rounds. Some of the No to AV folk argue coherently that this is inherently unfair, that AV allows some electors to get “multiple says” in a count whereas some get only one say. Of course, the idea that it is good that a majority should vote for an MP is rooted partly in the desire of many in the Yes to AV camp to move to a system of pure PR. But if we did this, we would lose the current connection of the single MP to a single constituency.

I simply do not understand how majority voting, or STV or PR is more “just” then FPTP. Yes, if you believe that pure PR is the way to go then you will think that AV is “a step in the right direction”. But more just? It’s only more just if you believe that in some objective manner PR is morally superior to single member constituencies. None of the Yes to AV crowd have spelt out what that objective basis is for saying AV is more just then FPTP. Really, what is it? What is the underlying criteria for defining moral superiority, for saying that one system is more just than another? It seems to me that actually a subjective judgement that proportionality is better is being used to support a weak moral argument for AV.

Look for example what Bishop Alan Wilson is quoted as saying,

One basic moral question is about truth. Most arguments adduced in favour of current arrangements are simply, demonstrably false. We are told it always yields simple majorities, lightweight government, and a high degree of accountability. It is currently doing none of those things.

As the power of party whips and managers has grown, it has become plainer that they are really the only people First Past the Post really serves. It enables them to switch off in most constituencies and concentrate all their efforts on a minority. As boundaries are drawn and redrawn, all kinds of inter party horse-trading places the lines. The system provides a nicely contoured career path for professional politicians.

AV marks considerable progress from where we are now, as an evolutionary step that is entirely consistent with our traditions, and workable. Now is the time to move on.

With all respect to the bishop, this argument has no objective moral basis whatsoever, it is simply political opinion. Alan rightly critiques the No to AV campaign where some have argued that FPTP leads to more stable government, but this is not an argument for change. FPTP leads sometimes to hung parliaments – majority voting systems (AV and STV for example) lead far more often to hung parliaments. All well and true, but what has the likelihood of a hung parliament got to do with the morality of the voting system that led to that electoral outcome? As it is, it doesn’t really matter whether the last election was fought using FPTP, AV or STV, we would still have ended up with a coalition. We would still have party whips controlling party votes. Parties would still concentrate their resources in seats that were more marginal. If you doubt this to be true, watch carefully the upcoming election in Ireland run on STV – some seats will get more attention then others, even under a majority/quota voting system.

There are enough problems with majority voting using votes multiple times to lead us to the conclusion that it is not as a system any more just than FPTP. Of course, you might argue that AV leads to a slightly more proportional result than FPTP does, but is proportionality in any objective way more just than plurality voting? Pure List PR might produce a system where the single votes of electors are adquately represented across the whole country, but with it you exchange local accountability (single member constituencies) with national accountability. Is that more just?

At the end of the day the choice of election systems comes down to two things. Firstly there is a choice of how proportional you want the final parliament to be. Some people prefer proportionality, but it is ultimately a subjective opinion as to whether that is desirable. If you want to argue that there is some objective morality that means that a representative democracy needs to be highly proportional, by all means have a go. I can’t see it in the Bible anywhere. You might think PR is more “just” – I just don’t see it.

Secondly, there is a choice to be made as to how accountable MPs are. Single member constituencies lead to direct local accountability. Start moving to STV and you water down that direct connection. If you have straight national PR then you lose that local accountability altogether.

Ironically it seems that using the arguments of those behind the Yes to AV campaign who, on the whole, see AV as a first step towards something more proportional, to be more “just” (which for them seems to mean proportional) you would have to be less accountable, or at least you would need to tear up the current way in which MPs are accountable on a local level. Either way, the idea that majority voting is morally superior to plurality voting is based in a highly subjective decision as to how the people of a country should be represented.

Finally, let me spell out my position clearly. I am in favour of dictatorships.

Whilst I live in the UK I will happily vote for electoral reform, first for AV this May and then in the future towards some form of PR. Personally I would like to see us adopt something similar to the German Additional Member system with local MPs elected by majority voting and a regional/national top up to produce a more proportional national result. However, I do not hold this view because I believe that PR is somehow morally superior to other systems and I find it absurd that some argue that there is a moral imperative to have one system of representative democracy over another. By all means we can argue that different systems achieve different aims better or worse, but that is not the same as suggesting one is less evil than the others.

But as I said before, I am actually in favour of dictatorships and in particular one specific dictatorship. My ultimate political loyalty lies in another land where the ruling principle is 3 persons, one vote. In principle I have no problem with a benevolent dictator who created me, sustains me and saves me having complete say over my life. And frankly, I think that benevolent dictator doesn’t give two hoots what form of representative democracy we have, especially when others in the world he created have died in only the last few days just so then can have any form of representative democracy. He certainly has never indicated his preference and to suggest otherwise is bordering on arrogance.

And that, I think (if you’re reading this you Ekklesia peeps) is the real issue.

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  • Bishopbucks

    One or two questions, Peter.

    (1) I have found the vast majority of MP's I have met do take amazing trouble and hard work to help their constituents. I don't think that would change just because a majority of their constituents had actually voted for them – quite the reverse, if the two things are related at all.
    (2) What is the morality of disenfranchising huge swathes of the population? On one level you may say it doesn't matter, but that's really saying people don't matter. I don't find that attitude morally acceptable. I wouldn't see this as a first order moral critical issue, but it's one we're being asked about and I think there is Christian experience, moral and otherwise that bears on it. The Benedictine principles of community, for example, offer a positive model of mutuality in a society. Equity is, actually, something we are told God loves (Psalm 11, Psalm 33, actually the principle is there behind huge swathes of the Hebrew Scriptures) – or doesn't he bother about that stuff when in (rather like the Queen being Church of Scotland in Scotland and England in England)
    (3) I quite accept there may well be a moral argument to be advanced for our present arrangements. I'd like to hear it, but all I get is deafening silence.

    • http://www.peter-ould.net Peter Ould

      (1) I don't think AV will make MPs work more or less for their constituents. It's just not an issue.

      (2) FPTP does not disenfranchise anybody. It doesn't. It simply is a system where a plurality wins. If you want to argue that it disenfranchises voters whose preferred candidates don't win, then exactly the same thing can be said about AV. AV disenfranchises the 40%+ of voters whose candidate didn't win. Why is it any different? Just because your candidate didn't win doesn't mean you didn't have a vote, all it means is that more people voted for someone else.
      This argument you have made is a classic example of how some in the Yes to AV camp have assumed a moral superiority to proportional outcomes in elections. They are only morally superior if you de facto assume that everybody's vote has to elect exactly the same proportion of MPs that hi/'her neighbour's did. That might be a good argument, but then if you REALLY believed that why did you ever put your support to a system (AV) which is no improvement over FPTP in this regard and still "disenfrachises" in your analysis a large proportion of the electorate? And such a system (pure proportionality) would lose utterly the concept of locally accountable MPs.

      (3) So would I, but I'm not the one to do it. I was far more concerned with arguing against the idea that one method of representative democracy is objectively morally superior to another.

      Peter (who will vote "Yes" to AV)

  • Thethirstygargoyle

    On accountability:
    "When you have multi-member constituencies (i.e. like Ireland which uses STV), you have several MPs elected for each area. Who do constituents go to? Who do they relate to as their representative? Can they undermine one MP by going to another?"
    In Ireland, constituents go to any and all TDs, as appropriate. They relate to all of them in principle, though in practice they'll usually favour one. They can indeed undermine one TD by going to another, even if that other TD is from the same party, or to another candidate, even if that candidate is from the same party. If anything, in Ireland anyway, the constituency link is strengthened to an unhealthy degree by PR-STV. (I think it's a system that would work better in England than at home.) And PR-STV is particularly effective when you want to make sure candidates or parties aren't elected; the trick in that regard to give your vote primarily to whoever you really want, but to allow for it to transfer – should that be necessary – all the way down the system, stopping just short of the person you want least. Or, putting it another way, if you really have an issue with someone you can tactically vote by transferring your vote to all their opponents.

    On justice:
    "How is AV more just than FPTP? Yes, it elects an MP by a majority rather than a plurality, but the decision that majority voting is superior to plurality voting is a value judgement that is not linked to an objective morality. Majority voting relies on transfers and in doing so means that some electors’ votes are used in multiple rounds. Some of the No to AV folk argue coherently that this is inherently unfair, that AV allows some electors to get “multiple says” in a count whereas some get only one say… I simply do not understand how majority voting, or STV or PR is more “just” then FPTP… None of the Yes to AV crowd have spelt out what that objective basis is for saying AV is more just then FPTP. Really, what is it? What is the underlying criteria for defining moral superiority, for saying that one system is more just than another? It seems to me that actually a subjective judgement that proportionality is better is being used to support a weak moral argument for AV."
    I think it is more just in the sense that it is more representative. The vast majority of current UK MPs — two thirds — were elected despite having most electors expressing a preference for somebody else. In this sense, even the name 'First Past The Post' is a misnomer. What post? Save in formal two-horse races, the post is a subjective thing, marking the spot where the second-most popular candidate collapsed. Obviously, that varies. In Brighton Pavilion, for instance, it's at the 28.9 per cent mark. The key to understanding how PR-STV works, and AV is really just a single-seater version of it, is that it doesn't waste votes. It enables voters to vote for who they actually want, in the knowledge that if their ideal candidate can't be elected their vote shall be taken and shifted to their second-favourite candidate, and so on, rather than having one shot, with a lot of second-guessing.

    On indecisiveness:
    "FPTP leads sometimes to hung parliaments – majority voting systems (AV and STV for example) lead far more often to hung parliaments."
    We've had six elections in Ireland since 1987. Each time Fianna Fail was wound up governing, albeit with the aid or the support of another party. But still, one thing that's clear is that the system doesn't lead to instability.

    I became a big proponent of voting reform here in 2005, when I voted Labour but was upset when they won, as I felt there was no moral basis for a government ruling when it had only got 35% of the vote. Basically, I didn't want to win in a rigged game. And that's what First Past The Post is. It's not surprising that lots of MPs are opposed to getting rid of it, as many must feel that asking them to change the system by which so many of them were elected is indeed like asking Turkeys to vote for Christmas. But to take the Tories, for example: they use a run-off system just like a slower version of AV when selecting their candidates and electing their leader. And if they think it's a good system for them, why don't they think it's a good system for the country?

    On balance, I think AV+ would probably be the best system, as recommended by the 1998 Independent Commission on the voting system. And I think that's pretty much what you're saying when you say you'd like something like the German system.

    Hello, by the way. Very long time reader, but first time commenter.

    • http://www.peter-ould.net Peter Ould

      Thanks for unlurking and commenting!

  • Thethirstygargoyle

    I've just got out of the habit, really. I used to blog properly – under my actual name – and comment and interact normally, but unfortunately I had various issues with work where my blog was used against me, and though everything went my way in the end, it took years, and rather soured me against much of blogging. I've tried again, obviously, under a pseudonym, but never really got back into the habit of properly engaging with other ones. And when I do, it's invariably about one of my bugbears, and I blurt loads instead of commenting succinctly.

  • Andrew

    The main advantage of "Preferential voting" over FPTP is that each vote is both positive and negative.

    A common issue in FPTP voting is "split vote". A popular position with multiple candidates can lose to a less popular position with a single candidate because the votes for the popular position are split between the candidates.

    In a PV system, this can't happen. A PV system is actually a multi-round poll on a single ballot paper: you elminate the least popular candidate, and everyone re-votes on the remaining candidate. Those whose preferred candidates weren't eliminated vote the same way, and the others get their next preference.

    Is this "voting more than once"? Well, yes and no. Effectively, *everyone* votes more than once; but only those who "lost" in previous rounds change their vote (because their original candidate is gone).

    How does this solve the split vote issue? The key is that you're not only voting for who you want, but for who you don't want. Putting someone last on the ballot paper says "anyone but them". A PV system for a single seat allows each voter to enumerate their entire preferences, not distill it to a single "pro" vote. Thus, if your vote gets "split", you might not get your preferred candidate, but you can at least help ensure that your "not wanted" candidate doesn't win.

    This has two interesting consequences:

    (1) smaller parties aren't disuaded from running. In a FPTP system, there's a strong disincentive for smaller parties to field candidates, because they might pull enough votes away from a preferred major candidate that the opposition gets in.

    (2) smaller parties require broad-based support. Because the votes of "losing" candidates still count, it's not sufficient to have a local spike of first preferences; you also have to convince enough people that you're a good "2nd" or "3rd" option.

    Here in Australia, it's quite common for voters to put their preferred minor candidate in position one (to make a statement), but then put their "real" (major party) vote in position 2 or 3 (above all the other major candidates). If 5% of the voters put a particular minor candidate first, it makes a statement, even though that candidate has no chance of getting over the line.

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