Voting inequities

As people may have realised, I've been thinking about electoral systems for a little while, and I wanted to demonstrate the fundamental problems with the current electoral system in the UK, and how this can lead to voter 'apathy' (or voter pragmatism) (Robin Cook writes about labour voter 'apathy' in the Guardian). I would like you to imagine a three constituency system. In each constituency there are 160 voters. Each voter has a probability of voting a certain way (though will sometimes make a mistake).

I set up an excel spreadsheet to simulate this voting system, and which would allow me to adjust the probabilities of various votes.

In this example, we have only two parties which are being voted for, blue and yellow. In each constituency, yellow is slightly more likely to be voted for than blue. Yellow wins in each constituency and thus gets THREE seats. Due to the randomness I built in, I sometimes had blue winning three seats! In the example shown, the blue vote comprises of 45.6% of the vote, but gets NO representation. If a single person was being elected, that is unavoidable, but when many people are being elected it has the effect of disenfranchising the voters.

What is a real world example of this? There are many, this is just one example in the UK and here is another from Canada:

The first past the post electoral system has been a source of controversy in the last two elections. In 1996, the Liberal Party won the popular vote by more than 40,000 ballots, 41.8 per cent compared to the NDP's 39.5 per cent, but only claimed 33 of 79 seats. The NDP claimed the majority with 39 seats.

In 2001, the Liberal Party won 58 per cent of the popular vote but claimed 77 out of 79 seats. Meanwhile the NDP earned 22 per cent, or almost a quarter of the popular vote, but wound up with just two seats until they won a third seat in a recent byelection.

In this example I've demonstrated a perverse outcome, real world examples of this have been linked to already.

In this example, Red gets two seats, despite yellow having the popular vote.

Boris Johnson (Conservative) has recently pointed out issues associated with this in the UK. In particular, the average population in labour supporting seats is lower than in conservative supporting seats. This means that the average conservative voter has less 'clout' than the average labour voter. To extend this, the Lib Dems are more disadvantaged still.

The current system encourages people to not vote for their favoured candidate, suppose in the example above, in Area 1 (the left box), a blue voter ranks his preferences blue>yellow>red, i.e. they'd like blue to win, would settle for yellow and would despise it if red wone, then they may well vote for yellow. Blue stops even caring about this area. This is seen in the real world too, in my area it is a race between conservatives and liberal democrats, I haven't seen a labour candidate in years. Where I used to live I never saw a conservative for a similar reason. Surely it can't be healthy for a government (of whatever persuasion) to be elected when they can effectively ignore the bulk of the country?

Before moving on, have another look at the picture. Yellow got over 40% of the vote, but no representation at all.... that could never happen, could it?

Yes, it could.

It happened in Canada in 1926 when the Conservatives got none of the 17 available seats in Manitoba with over 40% of the vote.

In 2001, Labour got some 60% of the seats on 40% of the vote.

In 1931 in the UK , with 55% of the vote, the Conservatives got 473 seats to Labour's 52 (on 38%). With only 6.5% of the vote the liberals got almost as many seats, 33.

As things stand today, if each of the three major parties poll equally at 33% each, then labour would get the most seats, 318 to the Conservatives 208 with the lib dems on 102. This is primarily due to the distribution of voters.

In this example we can see the vote evenly split. Yellow and Red both bot 34.8% of the vote, blue got 30.4%. However Blue got one seat, red two and yellow none.

In this example, the 'yellow' voters were evenly spread, but there was one area with a larger than average blue population, and two areas with a larger than average red population.

This is reflected in the UK, with some areas 'true blue', and some labour heartlands, areas of the south west and scotland are liberal democrat areas (obviously there will be some intermingling).

Geographical anomalies provide scope for Gerrymandering, this is where election outcomes are affected by border changes to take advantage of a geographical distribution of votes.

People defend the current system saying things like What other system is there? The answer is many! They say things like Proportional Representation doesn't have a direct link between elector and electee. Whilst this is true in some systems, one can design better systems where this link remains. They say things like A PR based system would lead to weak governance. Whilst this is true, that is of benefit, it could mean less dogmatic and poor legislation (from the Poll Tax to the Removal of Habeus Corpus).

In the British Isles we already use other systems. The Republic of Ireland elects it's representatives using a Transferable Vote system. Wales has a mixture of proportional representation and First past the post, as does Scotland. The European elections use a list based PR system.

In 1997, the Labour manifesto said that they were committed to electoral reform. A commission was set up and recommended that we move to a system called AV+.

Essentially this allows voters to express a preference, in the 'perverse' example above, a 'blue' voter in area 1 could say 'I'd like blue, but wouldn't mind yellow'. This would remove the incentive for tactical voting, and the true preferences of the voters would emerge.

It would also reduce the effect of extremist parties, as many people would, once familiar with the system, tend to rank any of the mainstream parties above the extremists.

Protest votes would not be wasted either. Someone could vote Number-1: Protest, Number-2: Mainstream.

Despite the recommendation in 1998 to move to a new system, nothing has happened. The cynical might say that the sitting MPs have no interest in change as, by definition, they are the beneficiaries of the existing system.

On the 'Make My Vote Count' site, there is a petition which can be signed to promote change to the electoral system in the UK elections.

A system such as 'first past the post' leads to voter 'apathy' (this is a misuse of the term to my mind, voter 'pragmatism' may be more reasonable. If one is, say, a yellow supporter in a seat where blue has a massive majority with red hot on their heels, is it worth turning out to vote? If one is a blue supporter with your party sure to win, then surely your vote isn't going to make them win more? Next time politicians talk of voter apathy, you may like to ask them about the causes of this, including the nature of the electoral system.

(Edit: 16:10pm Note there was a bug in the original spreadsheet which meant that a selection of 'yellow' votes were not randomised (see the line in area 1 and area 3 along the bottom, the tallies of what the votes were in each area included this, and so the final counts are correct, I have updated the spreadsheet so that if I ever need it again there will not be this bug).