The vote

Britain, the so-called United Kingdom, held a national election on May 7. Like almost every election, it exemplified the need for Approval Voting, which I and others have been arguing for since 1977. The outcome was so dispiriting that it’s taken me a week to get around to writing about it.

The British and American electoral systems have great differences, but not in the aspects concerned here: constituencies with roughly equal populations (in the Parliament and the House of Representatives) and voting of the simple One-Person-One-Vote kind.

The constituency where I had to vote was typical of many in having candidates from the parties called Green, Labour, Liberal Democrat, Conservative, and UKIP (United Kingdom Independence Party).

I should have been able to vote for Green, Labour, and Liberal Democrat, deeming that I would find any of them acceptable and the others not. But of course, under OPOV I had to choose only one. So if my vote went to the only one of them with a chance of winning in this constituency, Liberal Democrat, then Green, the one I might like most, would seem to have less support than it really has and would have less chance of growing from the fringes; if I voted for Green, I would in effect be throwing my vote away; either way, by voting for one I had to weaken the others. The “right” side was also split, though not so seriously in this case: a vote could be safely given to the more extreme UKIP because the Conservative was more or less certain of winning again.

This unfairness, occurring in almost all political or other kinds of voting with more than two options, would be solved by the second simplest system, Approval Voting, and since I’ve explained why in The Arithmetic of Voting I’ll just give one example here, to meet the natural question: if I vote for three candidates, am I not exercising three times as much power as someone who votes for only one? No. Suppose, in an extremely simplified case, the candidates are two Angels and a Devil; and the population is exactly split, half favoring the policies of the Angels and half wanting the Devil in power. Then if ten thousand vote for both Angels, and ten thousand for the Devil, then the result is an exact draw, as it should be, given the underlying wishes of the voters. But if only a few voters vote for one Angel and not the other, then the Devil wins.

And there are other ways of putting it; for instance, if you vote for several candidates, it is exactly equivalent to a negative voting system, in which you vote against the other or others (as in the ancient Athenian system of the ostracism), and the voter who votes against one does not exercise more power than the voter who votes for several. Voting against both Angels would be equivalent to voting for the Devil. Or, again, in the local election held at the same time as this national one, we were told to vote for up to two of the candidates running; and there are the actual elections, such as those to fill places on a board, where you may vote for up to, say, six – and it would not matter if this number was larger. Only if you voted for all, or for none, would your vote count for nothing (and those two are equivalent).

As for the national result. There were 650 seats to be voted for. 30,691,680 people voted (a turnout of 66.1%). I’ve studied the figures rather carefully.

The Conservatives got 36.9% of the votes. That percentage of the seats would have been 240. They got 331.
Labour got 30.5% of the votes. That seems to mean 198 seats. They got 232.
UKIP got 12.6% of the votes. That seems to mean 82 seats. They got 1.
The Liberal Democrats got 7.9% of the votes. That seems to mean 51 seats. They got 8.
The Scottish National Party got 4.7% of the votes. That seems to mean 31 seats. They got 56.
The Greens got 3.8% of the votes. That seems to mean 25 seats. They got 1.
The Democratic Unionist Party, of Northern Ireland, got 0.6% of the votes. That seems to mean 4 seats. They got 8.

(The remaining 13 seats were won by some of the more than 50 other parties that competed.)

And parties such as UKIP, Liberal Democrat and Green would undoubtedly get more votes if people were allowed to vote for the option they like most as well as the one with a chance of winning in their constituency.

The other great cause of the non-correspondence between votes cast and seats won is that in such elections the number of seats won is decided only by what happens in the relatively few “marginal” or “swing” constituencies, effecivetly disenfranchizing many of those in the great majority of “safe” constituencies: it doesn’t really matter whether they vote or not (which is a large part of why so many of them don’t); they have no hope of electing a candidate who will represent their views. This is the problem that would be solved by the other great needed reform: proportional representation, as in the European Parliament. In this, a larger region has (say) ten seats, and they are allotted to the parties in proportion to the percentages of votes.


Blue: Conservative. Red: Labour, mostly in large cities. Yellow: Scottish National Party.

The proportional unfairness was most startling in the outcome for UKIP: should have got 82 seats, got 1. So UKIP, the party that hates the European Union, has become a demander of proportional representation – as used by the European Union.

The party that “triumphed” got 36.9% of the 66.1% who voted – that is, 24% of eligible voters. We now have to live for five more years under this party, which (no longer restrained by having to have a coalition partner) intends to repeal the national Human Rights Act (because it obliges compliance with some higher standards set by the European Convention on Human Rights); may pull out of the European Union, the world’s benign superpower; will continue to increase the inequality between the super-rich and the rest; will hand more prisons over to management by for-profit companies, and allow more of the creeping re-privatization of the National Health Service; threatens to punish the BBC, another great British institution; and will do even less about environmental protection and especially the looming disaster of climate change.


2 thoughts on “The vote”

  1. Unfortunately, the political class that controls the major parties in today’s modern western-style democracies will not allow any sensible reform of the kind described here because they are interested only in perpetuating their parties’ grip on power, not in giving true voice to the people. The system here would more fairly represent the true wishes of the voting public, the last thing the establishment wants.

    1. Yes, the two parties kept in (alternating) power by the voting system are unlikely to work for a change to the voting system. Similarly, politicians who get elected because of the financial donations they are able to get will resist a reform of the political-donations laws.

      However, I think reforms of these systems are not quite impossible. There are examples of countries where one-party systems changed to multi-party, or where two-party systems changed their identities (both the US and Britain), or where there are different voting systems (proportional representation, or something like though not as simple as Approval Voting, as in Australia).

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