Saturday, May 8, 2010

End of plurality voting method?

Could the election in Britain finally signal the end of the plurality voting method (what they call “first past the post”) - the 18th century voting method used by England, the US and a few other former British colonies lets winners win with a plurality rather than a majority. Under plurality rules, 25% or 35% of the vote is good enough to "win". No run off or ranking of voter preferences to determine what the actual large majority of voters in a district want. Its flawed math ignores the wishes of the broader electorate and creates a two-party monopoly where even the most viable and popular third parties, like England’s Liberal Democrats, get squeezed out.

The Lib-Dems have made reform a “non-negotiable” demand. The change they want is not “proportional voting” as reported in the New York Times. It’s a more modern and majoritarian voting method – that lets voters to rank their preferences, 1,2, 3.

Known as the single transferable vote or ranked choice voting, it does not guarantee a purer proportionality favored by some democracies. But it does mean the winner is a majority one with the broadest support in the district. It does allow more parties and candidates to compete without being “spoilers” or fracturing the vote. In the end, voters get to hear a more robust debate on issues and have more choices where the winner and overall result will be more a consensus choice.

It’s long time to bid cheerio to plurality “first-past-the-post” voting in England. Fine for 18th century. Not at all appropriate for democracy today in England or inhere the US and other former British colonies that still have it. (Not Australia or New Zealand, they graduated to more competitive and represented voting methods years ago).

The fate of voting in Britain is worth following. Change there could finally move the debate higher on the agenda of the US, mired like our English cousin in the zero sum dynamic of winner-take-all plurality rules.


Voter said...

IRV often fails to provide a majority win, and in San Francisco, the largest US jurisdiction to use IRV it almost always provides a plurality win. It did one time help elect Ed Jew, but he didn't get to serve his term as he was soon charged with some felonies including bribery, and he also did not reside in the district he was elected to serve over. Jew was convicted of the felonies.

Some people who initially like the idea of IRV do change their minds when they see how IRV works in real elections.

IRV is not additive, so you can't tally the votes at the polling places where cast. It requires more complex software if you are using voting machines to tally it.

IRV doesn't help third parties, San Francisco does not have any elected officials from third parties.

The problem with the UK election sounds like really bad planning plus bad voter enfranchisement laws.

For sure, if the UK can't handle simple elections, they certainly can't handle more complex voting methods like IRV. Just look at Scotland's 2007 election, first time using voting machines and STV. What a mess.

Luacs said...

Great blogpost. Now the Conservatives have agreed to put instant runoff voting on the national ballot for a referendum, and talk of proportional votng.

As to the comment from Voter/Joyce McCloy, her scattershot critique can be answered by reviewing sites like: ttp://

Among other things, note:

1) Instant runoff voting elects the majority choice once the field is narrowed to two - just as traditional runoffs do.

2) Scots overwhelmingly support proportional voting, according to recent polls, so Joyce's take on 2007 elections doesn't fit with how they experienced it directly.

3) San Francisco has nonpartisan elections. Candidates registered as non-major party candidates have won seats, but more broadly, the Board is very diverse by other measures of diversity. Still, IRV is a majoritarian system, not a proportional voting one. It accommodates choice in elections, not necessarily providing fair representation to those in the minority.

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