Archive for the 'Voting systems and the electoral process' Category


New adventures in electoral systems. Approval voting

Sunday, November 11th, 2018

Settle down at the back, I can tell you’re getting overexcited. The midterm elections in the US have been endlessly pored over. One result, however, may have more far-reaching effects than most. Or not.

Politics does not want for different voting systems. We have first past the post, the method used to elect MPs. We have the single transferable vote, the method used to elect TDs in Ireland. Around the world you find a variety of systems of proportional representation for selecting legislatures, such as the D’Hondt method, the Webster method and the Imperiali method. The Labour party selects its leader by the alternative vote. London selects its mayor by the supplementary vote. The Conservative party selects its leader by an exhaustive ballot (with a different electorate in the final round).

A new contender has emerged from Fargo, North Dakota. Previously most associated with a series of cinematic and televisual grisly murders (unfairly, since none of these murders actually took place in Fargo), that town has just voted to adopt Approval Voting in future elections.

What is Approval Voting? The successful campaigners explained it here. Simply, you vote for all the candidates that you approve of. The candidate who receives the most votes wins.

You can hear the game theorists sharpening their pencils from here. The permutations are much more complex than with most systems. For any given number of candidates n, you can cast your vote in (2n-1) different ways (casting your votes for all candidates and no candidates is substantively identical). So if there are seven candidates, there are 127 different ways of voting. Let no one complain about voter choice.

Candidates will do best who are acceptable to the widest number of voters. That should favour pragmatists over purists in most circumstances. It also blows up the party system. The party machine can’t impose an apparatchik on a constituency because a popular local candidate can simply stand anyway as an independent. Parties are going to have to pay attention to what the electorate wants as opposed to what the party wants them to have. More likely, parties are probably in due course going to put more than one candidate before the electorate and let them choose their preference, or anyone with an agenda that has a substantial body of support is going to chance their arm anyway.

Different groups of voters will have different challenges. Hardliners are going to need to consider how far they compromise their principles. If they decide to vote only for the ideologically pure, they could well see their vote rendered irrelevant by more flexible citizens. So they might need to hold their noses and give the nod to other candidates in order to try to exclude the really unacceptable choices.

Voters near the centre of the political pendulum, on the other hand can afford to be picky in the knowledge that many voters will be having to make greater compromises. They can encourage candidates with similar positions to stand and then choose on nuances.

There looks to be a danger that alternative voices will tend to be shut out even more firmly than under first past the post.  This is unhealthy if the consensus needs challenging. One of the key features of any effective electoral system is that it is able to move with changing political opinions. If approval voting takes too long to adapt to changed circumstances, we can expect in due course to see it fed through the wood chipper.

Alastair Meeks


Tuesday may see the biggest change to the electoral process in Florida since the Voting Rights Act of 1965

Sunday, November 4th, 2018

Video above: The WSJ’s take on Florida allowing felons to vote.

On Tuesday Floridians will vote on whether to allow one and a half millions felons the right to vote, the polling shows that it is likely the voters will back restoration of voting rights for felons. Several respected observers have said felons being allowed to vote might have no impact in the results in the sunshine state, although some say it will benefit the Democrats, some say it may well benefit Trump and his party.

But look at the table below about the winning majorities in the last five Presidential elections in Florida, an extra one and half million voters has the potential to be a game changer.

The fact that pollsters might have to factor in such a substantial change to the demographics of the voters in Florida means we might have to be even more cautious about state polling. It might also lead to a different campaign strategies by the Presidential candidates in 2020 and beyond.


PS – It might be a very difficult time for pollsters in Maine on Tuesday as voters there will be using the finest voting system known to man, the Alternative Vote. Note the Americans call AV either the instant run-off method or ranked choice voting. The era of first past the post in America might be ending if others follow Maine’s lead. Voters in Maine voted for this change


A big question today is how many voters can’t cast their ballots because they don’t have the required ID

Thursday, May 3rd, 2018

In none of the test areas has there been a case of personation in past decade

Today sees the start of what is being seen by critics as a move by the Tories, the party that lost its majority last June, to impede people’s ability to take part in elections.

There’s a trial taking place in five areas where those who cannot produce a valid ID will be barred from voting. The is taking place at all polling stations in Bromley, Watford, Woking, Swindon and Gosport.

The weird thing is that there hasn’t been a case of personation in any of these areas of England in more than a decade. Critics are describing the trial ‘a solution in search of a problem’.

    A huge problem is that quite a significant proportion of the population do not have any form of identity because, of course, unlike many other countries there is no national identity card system.

Of course those with a driving licence or a passport have something that is instantly available and in at least one of the test areas a bank card will suffice. But not everyone will be able to comply.

The real problem is that this could be seen as a sledgehammer to crack a nut. Some critics have asserted that this is the Tories seeking to impede non-Tories from voting the assumption being that blue team voters are more likely to find it easy to meet the ID requirement.

Whether that is right or not I do not know. No doubt there will be a huge amount of scrutiny of election patterns in the 5 areas with comparisons in similar authorities where normal voting is going on.

As a general rule it is far better for moves about changing the way democracy operates to be based on cross party consensus. No doubt we’ll hear the ID issue being cited as a factor tonight where parties don’t meet expectations.

Mike Smithson


If there is a second referendum Remain should demand that all voters show photo ID

Monday, March 5th, 2018

Financial Times

Last time those without passports were most likely to vote leave

At this stage last year the Tories were riding high. The party had just taken Copeland from LAB and all the polls had the Tories in the 40s with LAB in the 20s.

In spite of her quite narrow CON majority Mrs. May was assuring the country that there would be no General Election until 2020 as laid down in the Fixed Term Parliament Act. That did not stop her in April calling what proved to be a disastrous election for the Tories on June 8th losing Cameron’s hard won majority of two years earlier

So the PMs statements that there will be no second referendum have to be treated as not watertight. You can see the circumstances under which this was the best option for the Tories If the Brexit process created something that was going to require some form of mandate then a referendum would be better than a general election that could risk Jeremy Corbyn becoming Prime Minister.

    And if there was a new vote on Europe a smart move from those wishing to stay within the EU would be too demand that all voters be required to show photo ID in order to cast their ballots.

The reason is shown in one of the charts above from the FT analysis of the referendum that was published shortly after the vote in June 2016. As can be seen one of the greatest indicators of a Leave voter was them not having passports.

The data suggests that 3.5m people, or 7.5% of electorate do not have any form of visual ID. Other figures from the Electoral Commission show 11m (24% of the electorate) do not have a passport or photographic driving license.

We also know that there is a sharp cut back in the numbers of the 70+ group who do not renew their driving licences as they are required to do once they reach their 70th birthday.

So I’d argue that the groups least likely to back the EU are the ones who are likely to be more troubled by photo ID requirements for voting – something that the government is testing in five areas in the May local elections.

Mike Smithson


CORRECTED: The Electoral Reform Society attacks the government’s planned voter ID trials as “unnecessary and over-bearing’’

Friday, March 2nd, 2018

Do the figures show that the government has got this wrong?

New figures on electoral fraud from the Electoral Commission show the tiny scale of the problem of personation which the ERS says raises major questions about overbearing ID restrictions to be trialed at elections this May,

The analysis by the Electoral Commission of votes conducted in 2017 revealed there were just 28 allegations of ‘personation’ in polling stations – where someone is accused of assuming another’s identity to cast a vote.

Just one of these allegations resulted in a prosecution – out of nearly 45 million votes cast in total throughout 2017.

Despite the scale of the problem, the government is requiring voters in five areas to have ID with them when they attend a polling station for local elections in May.

The Electoral Reform Society are arguing for the government to reconsider its trials and instead look at other means of improving the electoral process – including better training and funding of Electoral Registration Officers and police on election day.

    A big problem with the government’s plan is the total number of voters who don’t have access to any form of photo ID. The EC puts this at 3.5m or 7.5% of the electorate. A total of 11m voters (24% of the electorate) do not have a passport or photographic driving license.

This is a delicate balance. To make the process of voting significantly more difficult for quite a large segment of the population could be regarded as voter supression.

Note. An earlier version of this post said, wrongly, that it was the Electoral Commission that was attacking the Government’s plan – in fact it was the Electoral Reform Society.

Mike Smithson


If CON, LAB, and the SNP each got 30% of the Scottish vote Sturgeon’s party would be down to just 6 MPs

Wednesday, July 26th, 2017

The Times

Why the SNP could be in trouble

There’s a fascinating analysis in the Times by James Kanagasooriam of Populus of what would happen in Scotland’s 59 seats if the hree main parties there CON, LAB and the SNP each secured 30% of the vote. The projected seat totals are in the chart.

The balance of the 59 Scottish seats would go to the LDs which would once again return to its historical position as the third party st Westminster.

The reason is, of course, the first past the post voting system which favours those with large variations in support in different seats and penalises those parties whose support is more evenly spread.

Kanagasooriam notes:

“..Labour’s “youthquake” delivered surprising levels of support for the party. This was especially true in Glasgow and Edinburgh; particularly when comparing the Labour 2017 general election performance (27 per cent) with the Scottish parliament election the previous year (19 per cent on the constituency vote). It’s clear that younger voters, and those more inclined to want an independent Scotland defected to Labour in large numbers during the general election campaign. The Tory surge was, to a degree, expected. The return of Scottish Labour less so. Both together lead to losses that SNP politicians and advisers could scarcely believe on election night.

… a large number of 2015 SNP supporters simply stayed at home this year. Areas with the highest SNP vote share in 2015’s general election experienced the biggest decline in turnout in 2017…”

Back at GE2015, on 26 months ago the SNP won 56 of the 59 seats north of the border which was reduced to 35 at GE2017. Given the volatility of UK politics big changes can happen in short period as we saw with UKIP between 2015 and June 8th.

With so many rich picking apparently available in Scotland with the SNP’s decline the UK parties, as I was suggesting last week, should select leaders who are Scottish. LAB under Gordon Brown increased its Scottish vote share at GE2010 while falling back sharply elsewhere.

Mike Smithson


The winners under First Past The Post should rigidly adhere to election spending laws

Wednesday, December 28th, 2016


The chart above is self-explanatory and illustrates clearly how well the electoral system treated the Tories at the last election and how hard it was on the smaller parties particularly UKIP.

General elections are won in the marginal constituencies where clearly the parties focus their resources both financial and people.

But the law lays down very strict spending limits on how much can be spent by each party within each seat. Parties shouldn’t be able to buy victory simply because they’ve got most money.

After the election each candidate and his/her agent have to sign a declaration of expenses. A false declaration is a criminal offence.

So free resources that don’t cost money such as enthusiastic volunteers for clearical tasks, delivering and canvassing are at a premium. If you start paying for items like this during the official campaign period then it can eat into the maximum that’s allowed.

Earlier in the year Channel 4’s Michael Crick ran a series of reports suggesting that the Tories in some of their key targets and defences might have gone over the limit. This is now being investigated by the Electoral Commission and we await its report.

In these days hidden campaigning such as use of social media and the phone plays a huge part and tracking expenditure can be harder but it is right that limits should be adhered to.

Mike Smithson


For their own good, it can be argued, young people should be compelled to vote

Monday, February 8th, 2016

Donald Brind on cumpulsory voting

Eddie Izzard writes his own jokes. He made that very clear when I offered him what I thought was a good line he could use in pressing young people to get out and vote. “Vote and you get stuff, don’t vote and you get stuffed.”

I was touring North London marginals with the Labour-supporting comedian and Eddie was a bit sniffy about my offering. It cut no ice when I pointed out that the author of the aphorism was the young, supersmart editor of the New Statesman Staggers blog Stephen Bush.

I was reminded of the exchange by Mike’s posting last week on the political implications of the greater propensity of older people to vote – and thereby to be given “stuff” by the Tories – a variety of benefits for pensioners are locked into the system while the you are hit by cuts in housing and , unemployment benefits and maintenance grants.

Getting young people to actually use their vote was a major preoccupation of Labour campaigners – including Eddie Izzard and leader Ed Miliband. Remember his dalliance with another comedian Russell Brand?

In the runup to the election I was reporting for The Week and I posted a piece discussing the idea of compulsory voting, as a way of involving young people. . I noted that in Australia, where registering to vote and going to the polls have been legal duties since 1924, turnout in the 2013 general election was 93%.

What I found particularly striking back in January 2015 was that two influential columnists on the activists website Conservative Home were saying nice things about a private members Bill presented by the veteran Left wing Labour MP David Winnick. It proposed a law on the Australian model.

Tim Montgomerie founder of Conservative Home and a Times columnist was clearly surprised to find himself backing the idea. He told Times readers “I’m not comfortable recommending any kind of compulsion. But I’m much more uncomfortable at the prospect of Britain becoming some sort of gerontocracy where older (and richer) people decide who is in power. This is a much greater social evil.”

Montgomerie argues that “A skewed electorate produces skewed public policy.” Older people are more likely to vote so parties woo them. “That’s one big reason why austerity has fallen so disproportionately on younger people with families.” He cited housing and benefits as examples where older people got a better deal from the Chancellor George Osborne.

Another Con Home writer Peter Hoskin was clearly uncomfortable about supporting Montgomerie.  “There’s something weird and un-British about the idea of compulsory voting, isn’t there?” But he was impressed by arguments in a report by the Left think-tank IPPR Divided Democracy which showed there was is a gap of more than 20 per cent between turnout figures for 18-24 year olds and the national average. “Unsurprisingly, it’s voters over 40, and particularly over 65, who push that average up,” says Hoskin.

Hoskin came down in favour of IPPR’s suggested half way house “that voting be made compulsory, at pain of a fine, for first-time voters only. This makes sense because voting is what they call “habit forming”; once people pop to the ballot box they just can’t stop.”

Labour’s prescription is votes at 16 strongly advocated by the London Mayoral candidate Sadiq Khan. He told the Independent it was part of a package to make voting easier for the young with polling stations should be set up in secondary schools, on-the-day voting registration and perhaps online polling.  “Why do elections take place on a Thursday? Why do you have to go to a cold church hall to cast your vote? Why can’t you vote by the web? Why can’t you have same-day registration? You can get a mortgage in a day – why can’t you do the same with voting registration? If the concern is fraud, we can address that.”

Khan says “If you speak candidly to a campaign manager of any of the mainstream parties they will say that they concentrate their energies disproportionately on those they know are going to vote,” he said.

The arguments are very similar to those of Montgomerie who argues that compulsory voting is really all about forcing politicians to reach beyond their comfort zones. “It’s a 20-minute burden for voters once every four or five years but it would compel our politicians to change in fundamental ways and to build much broader voting coalitions.”

Making the political parties find a way to appeal to the 16 million people who did not vote “could have a profound effect on British politics.” He adds there would need to be strict caps on political donations “so that the rich and organised cannot find back-door ways to reassert their disproportionate influence.”

Is George Osborne listening? Almost certainly not. Montgomerie is a supporter of the social justice movement in the Conservative Party. He thinks Osborne is a flop, as he makes clear in a recent must-read dissection of the Chancellor’s record on Capx.  The disdain is probably mutual.

Donald Brind