In order to deal with the increasing complexity of governing our society, people are continually looking for new and innovative ways to reform the election process. By far the most popular approach in the last few decades is to use our improved technology to focus on the ways that votes are counted. The number of ideas both in use and proposed is staggering.[i][ii] To get a handle on the new frontier in democratic thought and electoral reforms, let’s examine just a few of the different ways of counting votes.
In legislative elections, the single member plurality (winner-take-all) system currently operating in the US, Canada, Britain and New Zealand allots one vote per citizen. This system, especially when there are more than two parties running for election, tends to produce governing parties elected by a minority of voters and gives little chance for smaller parties to elect representatives. Realizing how outmoded and unfair this system is,[iii] most other western countries and many ‘less developed’ countries use some type of full representation or proportional voting.[iv]
According to the US Center for Voting and Democracy, “Whereas the winner-take-all principle awards 100 per cent of the representation to a 50.1 per cent majority, full representation allows voters in a minority to win their fair share of representation alongside voters in the majority.” The full representation system most familiar to Americans is choice voting. Instead of a city or county being carved up into several legislative districts with each voter allowed to vote for only one candidate, the whole area is allotted several legislative seats. Each citizen votes for several candidates, ranking them in order of preference. Any candidate who meets the threshold to get elected is elected automatically, and surplus ballots with the winning candidate as first choice are transferred to the voter’s second-choice candidate. The candidate furthest from the threshold is eliminated, and the second choices are distributed to the remaining candidates until the seats are filled.
Instant runoff voting makes a winner-take-all election fairer. Instant runoff asks voters to rank their preferences. In the event no candidate wins a majority, which often happens, the second choices are used to bring a candidate above 50 per cent so there is one clear winner. This procedure mostly saves money that would be spent on a runoff but can also change the outcome of a close race, because the candidate with the fewest votes is eliminated and those ballots’ second choices are counted. If instant runoff had been used in the Florida 2000 presidential election, the Nader first-choice ballots would have counted for the voters’ second choice; ostensibly, more were for Gore than for Bush.[v]
In cumulative voting, each citizen is given as many votes as there are candidates. They can choose to cast all their votes for the same candidate, vote once for each candidate, or use any variation in between. Because a group of voters can decide to pool all their votes for a single candidate, cumulative voting also allows for disenfranchised individuals to throw their full weight behind a candidate they believe in.[vi]
Another variation simply allows voters to mark every candidate they approve of. The candidate with the most votes wins. This system, called approval voting, is effective at weeding out candidates whom a significant minority thinks sucks.[vii]
A remarkable bit of irony has many countries instituting compulsory voting—forcing people to determine who will ensure their freedom. In repressive countries like Singapore and Argentina and in open ones like Australia, Switzerland and Greece (now you must vote in the birthplace of democracy!), citizens can be fined or imprisoned for having a laissez-faire attitude to voting. Some countries, like Bolivia, Belgium, Iran and Italy, make paychecks, jobs or daycare harder to come by for non-voters. Generally speaking, however, most countries with mandatory voting ignore citizens who don’t vote, as it’s just too expensive to navigate all the red tape.[viii] Problems with the system include random voting, where laid-back folks just walk in and push the button that appears to offer the least resistance in order to say they voted. Argentines and Ecuadorians are said to abstain or spoil their ballots in protest against mandatory voting.[ix] For these reasons, several countries, including The Netherlands and Venezuela, have tried mandatory voting and decided it wasn’t such a great idea.
There are other variations of these methods, each more original and inspiring than the last. So you can see that, thanks to the incredible computer technology we have at our disposal, there’s an underground renaissance brewing and many visionaries are working on how we might run elections in a fairer and more appropriate manner. However, believe it or not, there are substantial reasons to doubt that vote counting schemes alone can make enough of a difference or are simple enough for a critical mass of people to understand, champion, and spread. Moreover, these two flaws can feed off each other and the scheme never gain the inertia needed to make a difference. In fact, as we’ll see in the following chapters, what makes some reform movements successful and others not is often largely how capable they are of making people feel personally empowered, not beholden to an electoral process that they can’t seem to ever understand. In addition, perhaps the most important factor is that any successful social change requires the participation of the people most affected by corruption – the poorer and middle classes. Some of us who share these doubts – about how all the complexities and similarities inherent in the various vote counting methods stand in the way of their gathering momentum and being implemented – feel the need to push the technology envelope even farther. And the next step in this direction is not to devise new ways to count votes but to actually size them instead.
[i] See Appendix II – Voting Glossary
[ii] The Center for Voting and Democracy, “Glossary.” http://www.fairvote.org/glossary.htm#List%20Proportional
[iii] Hacer, “Latinos Take Over Washington.” http://www.hacer.org/current/U.S.078.php
AFT, Election 2002: By the Numbers.” http://www.aft.org/retirement/publications/enewsletter/RetNews_111502.pdf
U.S.A Today, “Congress has new faces, old problems.” http://www.usatoday.com/news/washington/2003-01-05-congress-usat_x.htm
Womens Human Rights.net, “Women and Political Participation.”
[viii] Institute for Democracy and Electoral Assistance, “Compulsory Voting.” http://www.idea.int/matrix/analysis/Compulsory_Voting.cfm
[ix] CNN, “Former Ecuadorean colonel wins vote.” http://www.cnn.com/2002/WORLD/americas/11/24/ecuador.election
Argentina Investor’s Information Service, “Guillermo Nielsen, Secretary of Finance of Argentina Speech at EMTA’s Annual Meeting.” http://www.infoarg.org/pubdebt/GN-SpeechEMTA%20Dic03%20es.htm
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