A proposal for electoral reform

As you might have gathered, I’m a little bit in favour of electoral reform. I hide it well, but you might have got an inkling of it.

I was very keen on the yes to AV vote, not because I think AV is great – I’m not even 100% sure it would have been an improvement – but because I think the current system is deeply broken and that a vote no can be, would be and indeed was spun into a vote saying that the status quo was A-OK and we shouldn’t change anything.

I don’t think there’s a hope in hell of my preferred choice of voting system ever getting enough popular support. It’s so unlikely I would never even try to be honest – no one is going to be willing to burn political capital over the idea.

But there’s an idea that’s been knocking around in the back of my head for a while which I think could actually work. It’s in some ways a little drastic, but I think with the right spin it could be actually appealing to people.

Here it is, at its simplest:

Each constituency gets to choose its own electoral system.

That’s kinda it. The regions who want to use AV (there weren’t very many of them) get to use AV. The regions who want to use random ballot get to use random ballot (you might get one of them, but I doubt it). If you want to sell range voting to a region, go for it.

Why is this a good idea?

It’s partly because will to change is often very localized. It’s comparatively much easier to get momentum behind a local campaign. As we demonstrated in 2011 it’s very hard to persuade a nation of 63 million people to change its ways. A region of about 70,000 people in comparison is much more localized and experiences a much more coherent set of shared problems. A campaign can target specific issues (This MP gets voted in every year and has for the last 20. Isn’t it time for a change?) and appeal to a more common shared set of experiences.

I also think it just might be a good idea independently of the will to change. It gives you more capability to experiment. Whenever you change the voting system wholesale there’s the possibility of a whole general election going catastrophically wrong. When you change it for a couple regions the worst case scenario is that you have a couple rubbish MPs. Insert your own political commentary here. If the changed electoral system appears to work well then its popularity can spread. If it doesn’t appear to work well then it probably die out.

Here’s how I imagine it might work in practice. This is just a sketch and obviously might have some serious flaws in it.

There is a central registry of acceptable voting systems. This starts out with a single entry: The existing FPTP system.

There is a small (initially) committee whose job it is to vet voting systems. They’re probably appointed. They should consist of a mix of people from different backgrounds – I’d want at least one academic who studies the subject of voting systems and one person with practical experience of being involved in elections. Ideally more. Their job is to assess proposals for electoral systems according to three criteria: Anonymity, unbiasedness and practicality of implementation. Unbiasedness here being both “No single voter has more power than any other voter” (in the sense of “if you swapped who cast these two votes would the election result change”, not in the sense where FPTP gives more power to majority parters) and “No single party has an advantage over any other” (Again in the sense of vote swapping). Practicality of implementation includes things like “Is this completely incomprehensible to people?” (this should be solved by consulting actual people and seeing if it’s comprehensible to them rather than stupid rhetoric). Whether the voting system would be a good idea or not is explicitly outside of their remit.

Voting systems are privately proposed rather than via the committee. An initial proposal for a voting system consists of:

  • A description of the implementation of the system, including how people would vote and how the votes would be counted to produce a result. This is not required to completely specify all implementation details but should be unambiguous
  • A list of not more than 5 people who would be responsible for seeing the proposal through to completion
  • A list of at least 10,000 signatures of people who are prepared to endorse the proposal

The committee then makes a decision on whether it is worth progressing with this initial proposal or whether it is fatally flawed (fatal flaws include “You have proposed a dictatorship” or “Your proposal requires the use of a super computer to implement if there are more than 5 candidates for election”. It does not include “You’re kidding, right?”). If they think it is worthwhile, they will provide a small grant for turning the proposal into a final result. This grant should be enough to pay one or two people a modest salary, fund any research that is needed, etc. I have no idea what is practical here.

A finished proposal for the system should include:

  • A guide on how the voting system works for normal citizens who have to cast a vote. This should be purely practical in nature and without spin
  • A detailed account of how the ballots are to be counted

This should be produced through a process of iteration: A draft form is submitted to the committee and they will either accept it or reject it with comments. This process may continue indefinitely until the committee decided to put their foot down and say they will not accept any form of this proposal, however the grant will dry up at some point. Hopefully rather than either of these things happening the committee will at some point vote to accept the proposal. At that point the proposal enters the list of accepted voting systems.

(There needs to be some process for amendments, etc. I don’t really care what it is. Do something sensible here)

At this point we now have a list of voting systems that are approved for use. Individual constituencies may now choose to switch voting systems. They do this as follows:

At any point a proposal may be put forward by a constituency to switch voting systems. Again, this is privately arranged. The proposal consists of one of the voting systems from the approved list, some suitable deposit (about £10k probably) and signatures from at least 5% of the constituency saying they would like this voting system to be implemented. Upon the successful submission of a proposal, a vote is triggered within that constituency that is a simple yes/no vote for switching to that system. There should be about a six month window between the proposal being accepted and the vote to allow people to properly respond to it. If the yes votes meet some threshold (probably somewhere in the 10-20% region) then the deposit is returned. If more than 50% of the voters vote yes then the constituency has now adopted that system and the next election for an MP there will use it (regardless of whether it’s due to general election, death or disqualification of an MP, etc). If the system changes, it may not be changed again until the new system has been used at least once. If the system is voted out there is now a cool-off period of a year where no one who put their name to this proposal may sign for a new one, and where the rejected system may not be proposed again. Other people are free to propose different systems. This is to stop people basically proposing systems to lock out other people.

Would this work in practice? I don’t know. I think it might. Initially at least you will get very few new systems – It seems likely that it would be a year or more before a new system even made it through the committee, and that you’d be unlikely to see more than a dozen non-FPTP constituencies for a decade or more to come – but I think it would open the door to change, and would avoid some of the visceral reactions to specific voting systems that many people have.

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3 thoughts on “A proposal for electoral reform

  1. Veky

    This is posted on April 1st on purpose, right?
    (Note that I didn’t say “This is April Fools post, right?”.;)

    1. david Post author

      Nope. I just happened to have some free time to write it up then. I’m a conscientious objector to international make the internet even worse day and wasn’t really considering the date

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