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Elections: Understanding the Invisible Structures – an Interview with Peter Emerson

Peter Emerson is the director of the de Borda Institute in Belfast, Northern Ireland. He is a leading authority on voting systems for use in both decision-making and elections. See a previous interview with Peter here.

Marcin Gerwin: This autumn we will have local elections in Poland and instead of the proportional representation a new electoral system will be used in most places — first-past-the-post. Some politicians say that it is a great solution, because this method is very simple and easy to understand — whoever gets most votes in his or her constituency wins. They say it will beneficial for local communities. Would you agree with that?

Peter Emerson

Peter Emerson: No. I would say this system is Orwellian. First-past-the-post suggests that the voter has to say ‘yes’ to something, so implying that he/she says ‘no’ to all the other candidates. Just like in Animal Farm — this pig is good, that one is bad. It is far too simplistic. When you have ten candidates it is probably true to say that if I’m the voter then I like this candidate quite a lot, and I like that one so-so, I don’t like policies of that one at all, or whatever. But to say that I just have to choose only one and say ‘no’ to all the others, means that I cannot express my point of view accurately. And if the individual voter cannot express his or her point of view accurately then the collective analysis will be almost certainly inaccurate.

Secondly, if by chance you have a 51 percent majority of one party in all the constituencies, then that party will win 100 percent of the seats, not just 51 percent. Take the ‘multi-party democracy’ of Lesotho, for example, where one party got 75% of the vote and yet 100% of the seats! So it is highly unproportional. Also in Papua New Guinea, where they used to have first-past-the-post; in one election there were lots of candidates, and the winner got elected with less than 5 percent of the vote. It was a world record. So maybe, we don’t know, maybe 95 percent of the electorate thought that this candidate was the worst, and yet, whoever it was, he or she still got in.

MG: How is it possible?

PE: It’s because all the others, 20 or more, got less than 4%. Eventually in Papua New Guinea they changed the electoral system, and now they have a much better one. New Zealand also used to have first-past-the-post and it produced some horrible results that were unproportional and unfair, so they also changed it. Most countries like to go forward and get a better system, and if you’re going from PR-list to first-past-the-post then you are going backwards — from a bad system to a worse one.

MG: But you know, some people in Poland say that in England and United States they’ve had first-past-the-post for dozens of years, and these are wonderful countries. So it must mean that their electoral system is wonderful as well.

PE: The American system is dysfunctional and the English system is just about to become dysfunctional, if it’s not already like that. It’s partially because it is hopelessly unfair. The English system has been a two-party system for a long long time. And when the English decided to have first-past-the-post, it was in the latter part of the 19th century, it was actually done by a secret agreement between the two big parties. It was designed to keep the other parties out. Big parties don’t like little parties, which like to share power. OK, you win this time and I win next time, and that will be fine.

We all know that political power corrupts and absolute power corrupts absolutely. When political parties argue for first-past-the-post it is a sign they are already corrupt — they are thinking of their own vested interests rather the interests of the electorate. We, individuals, we’re all reasonably intelligent people and we can make choices. We do have preferences, so why can’t we be allowed to cast them? Also when you look at fraught situations, like in Ukraine, to use a recent example, but also in Northern Ireland, Bosnia or Iraq, people realize that to use first-past-the-post in these situations would actually be dangerous.

MG: Why?

PE: Because it is so divisive, and it’s all win-or-lose. Protestants vote for Protestants, and against Catholics; and vice versa. The same can/could be said for Orthodox/Catholic (Yugoslavia), Russian-speaking/Ukrainian speaking (Ukraine), Sunni/Shia (Iraq), Hutu/Tutsi (Rwanda), and so on. With first-past-the-post, the democratic process becomes part of the problem of sectarian division (except in Lebanon where they use a very different type of first-past-the-post: in a constituency of 33 percent Maronite and 66 percent Druze, there will be three simultaneous elections, one for a Maronite and two for Druze candidates, and every party in the election has to have three candidates — one Maronite and two Druze; brilliant).

Any straight first-past-the-post election, however, would be horrible. In an undivided society, it will create divisions; and in a divided society, it will exacerbate them. So, if it’s dangerous in conflict zones, then we shouldn’t be doing it at all. Full stop. Democracy was never meant to be a game of winners and losers — an adversarial system, when you win 50 percent plus one vote then you win everything and for every other person that’s just tough, bye bye, you’re in opposition for the next four or five years. No. Democracy is for everybody. It’s for men and women, for rich and poor, for Catholics and Protestants, for Hutu and Tutsi. Democracy was never meant to be majority rule.

MG: How should we elect our representatives then? Which system would be more fair and more accurate?

PE: As a minimum you must allow the voters to express their preferences. And then in the count all preferences cast should be taken into account. These two criteria would suggest there is only one electoral system so far invented which qualifies; it is called the Quota Borda System. The Irish have a pretty good system, North and South: PR-Single Transferable Vote; it means that up here in Belfast you can express your preferences and you can vote across party, across gender, and even across the sectarian divide. You can get an accurate picture of how the voter actually thinks.

In Papua New-Guinea they found that under first-past-the-post people were tending to vote for a candidate on a tribal basis. They have now introduced a version of an alternative vote (which is the same as the single transferable vote), but on the basis that everybody has to cast at least three preferences. So in effect the voters are crossing the tribal divide(s). And you’re also getting candidates who are trying to pat each other on the back, saying: “I’ll give you my second preferences if you give me yours”. It helps to create a much more cohesive atmosphere as opposed to the divisive atmosphere that you get under first past the post. Ideally, I would argue for the Quota Borda System.

MG: How does it work?

PE: If you live in a constituency which is going to have five elected councilors, then you would ask each voter to cast up to five preferences in their order of preference. This system actually encourages people to fill in the full ballot. If you have ten or more candidates you’re still asking people not to vote for just one, but to vote for five. You are encouraging them to cross various divides that are in every society. Then the parties will be cooperating with each other; they will be seeking allies. It brings people together. They can still have their differences and they will, but it does mean that people will recognize the validity of other candidatures and their aspirations. And that’s what democracy should be all about. It shouldn’t be win or lose, and should be win-win.

MG: What is the difference then between PR-STV which you have in Ireland and Quota Borda System?

PE: PR-STV allows the voter to cross the party or other divides in society, but what tends to happen is that the two extreme parties – Sinn Féin and DUP – tell their voters to just vote for their particular candidates and not to vote for anybody else. And unfortunately many people do what they are told. Whereas voters of the other parties that are in the middle tend to express their preferences. I certainly do and many people in the middle ground also do so. But PR-STV only allows the voters so to do, whereas Quota Borda System would actually encourage people to vote across the divides. In such a Borda count, if someone votes for only one candidate, he gives his favourite 1 point; if another casts two preferences, she gives her favourite 2 points (and her second preference 1 point); so best of all to cast five preferences, for then you give your favourite 5 points, your second choice 4, etc.

MG: What are your thoughts about deliberative democracy like a citizens’ panel for example? You don’t have the elections there at all, but members of the panel are chosen by lottery.

PE: It’s not a bad idea at all, actually. The Greeks decided to devise a system like this. There were no political parties in ancient Greece. They did find that candidates were a little bit egocentric, however, so they then used a lottery and that seemed to work a little better. We have lotteries here in UK for juries in the courts of law. It seems to work quite well, too, and no one is complaining about that.

There is something not so good about the current democratic system, that is for sure. You have people who regard themselves as professional politicians. They go to university, they take political science and then join a political party, but they don’t know anything else. I would argue that there should be time limits on people being elected – a maximum of two terms might be the best guide, as is the case with US presidents, of course; people who are too long in power then make some pretty horrible decisions: not just Mugabe, but so too Blair, and now (in regard to Ukraine) Putin. Also people should stand as candidates where they live. If I live in North Belfast, then I should be standing here as a candidate and not choosing a constituency where I have a slightly better chance.

The idea of deliberative democracy is quite good. Currently it’s only advisory. You get a deliberative poll, for example, which looks at a problem, and then they come out with an answer. And this answer goes to the parliament, which can accept or dismiss it as it so wishes. At the moment, there are opinion surveys, deliberative polls, focus groups and referendums, but only most (but not all) referendums have any binding authority. I would argue that if a sample of people chosen to the deliberative process is big enough, representative enough, and then if the consensus coefficient of their decisions is high enough, then that should be a binding decision.


This interview first appeared in Dziennik Opinii in Poland.

One Comment

  1. Good article. It’s great to see that articles like this, which are superficially unrelated to permaculture but nonetheless fundamental to achieving change in the real world, are given space here.

    Even if Permaculture and (more broadly) the environmental movement achieves a widespread change in public thinking on ecological issues, which I think has to a certain extent happened in the last 20 years, it will do no good if this thinking is blocked from reaching the sphere of public policy.

    That is exactly what has happened in both the US and the UK, where Green parties — which, arguably, best reflect the thinking of the ecology movement — have been completely shut out of power, thanks an electoral system based on the collusion of the main 2 parties.

    But unfortunately, it’s not enough to argue that this situation is unfair and must be changed. It’s like the old Aesop fable of the Mice in Council — “Who Bells the Cat?” Anyone with half a brain realises the “first past the post” system is stupid and unfair — but nobody can get into power to change it!

    It’s a tough nut to crack. But I do have an idea for a possible solution. I don’t know whether this would work, but it’s surely worth a try. It’s called a Null Candidate. (I admit this is a dull name. Maybe someone else can think of a better one.)

    A Null Candidate is someone well known (at least in the local community) and of unimpeachable honesty, who has no political ambitions, and who is willing to put their name forward as a candidate, with the sole campaign promise of resigning if elected, forcing a new election.

    This is like a form of bottom-up election legislation. It would basically make it impossible for any candidate that doesn’t actually command the respect of the voters to be elected, because people will no longer vote for the “lesser evil”. A good Null Candidate should, ideally, command all the “protest votes” (because it’s the only protest vote that can actually be effective, by preventing any of the existing candidates from getting in) as well as a large proportion of abstentions (because now people can actually use their vote to get rid of the candidates they don’t like.)

    I don’t know whether this has actually been tried anywhere in the UK or US — or anywhere else — but I would really like to see it happen. Actually there is no reason why it could not also be used in non-FPTP systems, because it certainly couldn’t do any harm and might actually do some good.

    Most of the people I have mentioned this idea to have said “it would never work,” but I haven’t been able to understand the reasons why. It seems to me that it’s one of those things that people say “it’ll never work” because they haven’t seen it work — and then when it DOES work, suddenly it spreads like wildfire.

    But, if you don’t like this idea, come up with a better one!

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