21 August 2008

The Ultimate Electoral Reform

I really enjoy coming across an idea which looks completely stupid at first, but makes more sense the more you think about it. I recently came across a suggestion for an electoral system which falls into that bracket - The Random Ballot.

A Random Ballot would operate in much the same way as First Past the Post; there would be single member constituencies and each voter would mark their preference with a cross. The difference would be at the count. In fact, the result wouldn't be decided by a count at all. Instead, one of the ballot papers would be chosen at random and the candidate on that paper would be declared the winner.

At first, the idea of only looking at one of the votes sounds absurd, but when looked at as a lottery, with each ballot paper being a ticket bought for the candidate by a voter, it begins to make a bit more sense. Every time somebody votes, they give their candidate another chance of winning. When the winner is chosen, each candidate's chance of winning is in direct proportion to the percentage of the votes they have received.

It would retain the advantages promoted by supporters of FPTP (a simple voting system and single member constituencies) but would do away with its three major flaws, tactical voting, a lack of proportionality and voter disengagement.

Tactical voting would be pointless, as there would be no reason to vote for anybody other than your preferred candidate. Even if they were lagging way behind the most popular candidate, your vote would still give them a chance of winning. As a side effect, a party could field more than one candidate in a seat without worrying about splitting the vote; 1000 votes for one candidate or 500 votes each for two candidates would give the party the same chance of getting a candidate elected.

With enough seats, the overall result would tend towards proportionality. For example, if, in every seat, Party A gets two-thirds of the vote and Party B gets one-third, under FPTP, Party A would win all the seats. With a Random Ballot, Party A would only expect to win two-thirds of the vote draws.

Perhaps the biggest benefit would be increased engagement of the electorate. A safe seat would be a thing of the past; the only way to guarantee victory would be to get 100% of the vote. Every seat would be a genuine contest and every vote would be valuable to a candidate. Even with 90% support, there would still be an incentive for a candidate to go out and get more votes to increase their chance of winning.

A system of deposits could be maintained to discourage an excessive number of candidates standing and a few top up seats could be awarded, in proportion to the national vote, to ensure that a major party wouldn't end up leaderless.

It wouldn’t suit a lot of politicians, who would see their seats suddenly becoming vulnerable, but for the electorate, it has a lot to recommend it.

It's one of the most bizarre suggestions for an electoral system I've ever encountered, but also possibly one of the best.

Copyright © 2008 Paul Lockett (paul-lockett.co.uk). Verbatim copying and distribution of this entire article are permitted worldwide, without royalty, in any medium, provided this copyright notice is preserved.


Adrian Wrigley said...

I would suggest a couple of interesting variations:

1) A voter may name any person, not just from a fixed list of candidates. If the person is already elected or unwilling, it may be passed on. This way independent citizens could join parliament without the high cost of campaigning.

2) People could be given a lottery ticket at the polling station which would pay a cash prize. This would give a real financial incentive to vote without being cumbersome and costly to administer. Turnout rates might rocket of there's a visible incentive for each voter. Even a payout of as much as £100,000 would only add £2 per elector to the election (a transfer, not a cost, economically). Better than making voting compulsory, as in Australia, IMHO.

Election by ballot would discourage the media from saying the result is a foregone conclusion, and election night would interest not just the nerdy and political classes but also the ordinary people as the winners unfold.

Paul Lockett said...

I tend to agree with point 1. On point 2, I agree that it's better than compulsory voting, but I've some reservations. If a significant proportion of those not voting are not voting because of apathy, I'd have concerns about them voting just to collect the lottery ticket and placing thei vote without any underlying reasoning. I see some potential for politics being further dumbed down in order to grab those cheap votes. That said, I'd don't think it's a massive risk and I wouldn't object to giving it a go just to see how it panned out.