Saturday, May 16, 2015

Post-Racing and Vote-Wasting

The United Kingdom held its national elections last week, and the bad guys won. By that, I mean victory went to the pro-Tory newspapers and their multimillionaire owners. The Conservatives picked up enough seats to form a majority government, while the Labour Party lost Scotland to the Scottish National Party (SNP), and the Liberal Democrats lost nearly 90 percent of their seats in Parliament and their place in the country's governing coalition. One may attribute the Tories' victory to Britain's gradual economic recovery, a poorly-run Labour campaign, or any number of other causes. But asking why Labour lost and the Conservatives won is the less interesting question. In this election, millions of Britons voted for third parties, not just the LibDems and the Scottish Nationals but the Greens and the fast-growing UKIP (U.K. Independence Party). Yet outside of Scotland, only a handful of seats in Parliament went to third-party candidates. Why?

The explanation lies in the mechanics of British elections, which use the same “First Past the Post” (FPTP) system as elections in India, the United States, and forty other countries. In FPTP, whichever candidate gets a plurality of votes in a given constituency wins the election. The political scientist Maurice Duverger has observed that FPTP almost always produces a two-party duopoly. Voters in a First-Past-the Post system, recognizing that whichever candidate gets a plurality of votes wins 100 percent of the election, prefer not to back politicians whom they think will only place or show, as this will “waste” their vote. (Second- and third-place winners get zero percent of the stakes.) Collectively they align themselves behind two parties whom they believe equally likely to win. Sometimes they pick fewer than that, when one party has overwhelming local popularity or an apparent lock on the machinery of voting – for example, in the American South during the era of Democratic-Party rule (1877-1964).

When voters do back third-party candidates, the geographic structure of FPTP elections works against them. Many third parties are insurgent movements with diffused national support, while established duopoly parties have built up limited but reliable pluralities in specific regions. In Britain, Labour and the Tories, with their reliable urban and suburban constituencies, only had to “pay” 30-40,000 votes for each Parliamentary seat they won, because they had decades to assemble pluralities in several hundred voting districts. The more diffused Greens “paid” over one million votes for each MP they elected, and UKIP paid 4,000,000 votes for its one Member of Parliament. Parties with a national, rather than a localized, focus pay a huge penalty when voting is regional and regional plurality-winners take everything. That the recent UK election represented a triumph for local over national politics becomes clear when one considers the big third-party winners: the Scottish Nationals, a regional party by definition. Ideologically, I am more on the side of the SNP than UKIP, but I recognize the basic iniquity behind the two parties' lopsided election performance: all 56 of the winning SNP candidates collectively received only half as many votes as UKIP did.

There are certainly alternatives to First-Past-the-Post. The most widespread of these, globally speaking, is proportional voting, in which each party receives a share of legislators apportioned to their share of the national vote. This would have produced a Tory plurality in the current British Parliament, but also would have given UKIP enough seats to leverage a coalition with the Conservatives. Alternative Voting, in which voters rank-order candidates, is another possibility. It is used in Australia and some American cities, and is a more practical alternate voting system for countries like Britain or the U.S. which vote by geographical districts. Britain held a referendum on AV in 2011, a Tory concession to their LibDem coalition partner, but the Conservatives gave it little support and it flopped with voters. It is unlikely that the new British government, which wants to reduce the size of Parliament – and, I suspect, redraw the constituency map in its own favor – will repeat that concession. An independent Scotland could do so in the future, however, and so too could American cities and states. AV voting won't significantly challenge party duopolies in countries that have them, but it will oblige all successful candidates for office to have majority support (even if it's composed of a mixture of first- and second-choice votes), and will make fewer voters feel that they wasted their ballots. There are few things more demoralizing to the citizens of a democratic republic than hearing, in election after election, "You wasted your vote." And surely major political parties and the wealthy interest groups who back them don't want voters demoralized and unwilling to come to the polls, do they?

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