Democracy in Review

Earlier this year, the world bore witness to the 2020 American presidential elections. Despite the headline-grabbing accusations of fraud and potential coup d'état, perhaps the most staggering outcome of the process was that roughly half of the American voting base did not have an approved candidate elected - almost 74 million at the time of writing. Despite the alarming nature of such underrepresentation, this is by no means a novel phenomenon. In 2012, over 63 million voted against Obama and in 2016, 73 million voted against Trump.

The deductive reader may ask, ‘is this not inevitable?’. After all, two polarised political parties hold the majority of political influence and each party can only select one candidate. I hope to demonstrate instead, how moderate reforms to the voting system could bring vast improvements to the strength of their democracy.

In order to decide on a better voting system, we must know what we want from it. This is not an easy question to answer as there is no objective hierarchy, but instead, various axioms on which to align a voting system — the primary values being pluritarian and majoritarian. In their most simple terms,

Pluritarian values having the most votes.

Majoritarian values having the majority of votes.

These values can sometimes clash, despite sounding similar – the majority is a plurality, but a plurality is not necessarily the majority. Pluritarian denotes a system which places value on the winner having the highest number of the votes. Such a system operates on the principle of the most popular candidate being awarded control – even if they do not have a majority of the popular vote. This can be seen in the British House of Commons, where no government has won over 50% of the popular vote since 1935. Conversely, in a majoritarian system the elected candidate must win the majority - over 50% - of the popular vote to assume control, as seen in the American electoral college.

Let us evaluate then, a typical first-past-the-post system, the American presidential elections. Note, here we are dealing with electoral votes rather than individuals’ votes for simplicity - the disconnect between the electoral college system and popular vote is a topic for its own article. In the US elections, there are a total of 538 electoral votes, of which a candidate must receive a minimum of 270 – one more than half – to win the presidency. The winning candidate requires a majority of the votes and not the biggest share of votes and so, this is a majoritarian system. Such a system benefits from simplicity: it is very easy to understand and participate in; the winner takes all; and each 'voter' only votes for a single candidate.

Simplicity is, however, not without cost. One major flaw of first-past-the-post is known as the Spoiler Effect. This is where the addition of a new candidate can change the outcome of the election without winning the election themselves. For example, consider the 2000 US presidential election. The three candidates in question were: the Republican, George W. Bush; the Democrat, Al Gore; and the Green Party candidate, Ralph Nader. From the results provided by the Federal Election Commission, Al Gore lost the electoral vote at a final result of 271 to 266 votes in favour of Bush. Notably, Florida, with 25 electoral votes at the time, was won by Bush with 2,912,790 votes versus Gore's 2,912,253 votes - a measly 537 votes difference. Nader received 97,488 votes in Florida, clearly enough to swing the state and thus, the election, had he not run. In fact, a 2006 study from UCLA and Dartmouth College estimated that of the Nader voters in Florida who would have voted in an election without Nader, 60% would have voted for Al Gore. While no one can claim so with certainty, it is likely that Nader's participation resulted in the Spoiler Effect.

Another flaw of first-past-the-post is tactical voting, where a voter places their vote towards a party who is not their first preference. In America, this is exemplified in the sentiment that voting for a political party other than the Democrats/Republicans is a 'wasted' vote; as demonstrated by the 2020 election this belief is by no means illogical, but intrinsic to the system. The reason tactical voting is undesirable is because the voting results are distorted to not represent what the people believe to be the best candidate. This is especially true of the UK general elections which follow a pluralitarian first-past-the-post system. This has resulted in the common election strategy to vote against the Conservatives by voting for the next most likely to win.

So, what can be done? I propose a voting system for the UK which would require minimal alterations to the current system – instant runoff voting. In this system, each vote is a ranked list of candidates. In the initial count, every vote is put towards their highest preference and if a single candidate has enough votes - say, a majority - then they are elected. Otherwise, the candidate that received the least number of first preference votes is eliminated. Each vote which listed this eliminated candidate as highest preference is transferred to the next highest preference listed and the votes are counted again. This process is then repeated until a candidate has enough votes to win. While a system where multiple candidates can win could be more representative, it could also require major changes to how government is run and so, is just not feasible to implement.

Instant runoff voting is not a purely theoretical system. Australia uses this system for most of its single winner elections. The state of Maine was also the first American state to use instant runoff voting for the presidential election of 2020, with Alaska set to adopt instant runoff for all of its elections starting from 2022. A number of local American elections - including New York City - use instant runoff voting as well. Details of whether you must rank every candidate and the criteria for eliminating a candidate may vary by system, but the advantages remain.

Instant runoff voting also greatly disincentivises tactical voting. This does not mean there is no incentive, in fact it can be proven that no fair system can have no tactical voting (see the Gibbard-Satterthwaite theorem). However, with instant runoff, even if your first choice does not win, your vote is not discounted, but instead still serves your interests by transferring on to your next preference. Another advantage over a first-past-the-post system is that, when everyone votes honestly, a new candidate joining the ballot is less likely to change the outcome of the election unless they win it, thus diminishing the Spoiler Effect.

Instant runoff is certainly not a perfect system. For example, the process of voting is more complicated which may result in more invalid ballots. There may also be additional costs involved in counting the vote. Despite this, instant runoff voting is clearly a superior system to first-past-the-post, offering the optimal balance between minimal reformation and greater representation.