Tobold's Blog
Tuesday, July 09, 2024
What is Democracy anyway?

Imagine an electoral system without parties, where by clever internet technology every person could find the representative that most closely resembles his own political convictions and vote for that person. We would end up with the most representative parliament possible, consisting of a several hundred individuals, each of them representing a maximum number possible of people as closely as possible. That parliament would also be completely unable to agree on anything, and no governing of any kind would ever be done.

2024 internationally is a year full of important elections. We consider many of these elections, in countries like the UK, France, or the USA, as free and fair. However, each of these countries has very different methods on how to translate the "will of the people" as expressed by votes in an election into an actually working government. And each of these systems has its own flaws.

In the US presidential elections, an estimated 99.5% of votes aren't important, because due to the choice being binary we already know how most states will vote, and we also know how most people in the few swing states will vote. That leaves just a rather small number of undecided voters in a small number of swing states that will actually determine the outcome of the election. It is the exact opposite of the hypothetical case from my first paragraph, with voters having the least possible choice of candidates. It is very likely to end up with a country in which about half the population is unhappy that their candidate lost, and the other half is only slightly less unhappy with their candidate who won.

In the UK general election this year, there were a lot more parties, of which 5 got more than 5% of the vote. But the UK electoral system isn't designed to be representative, but is a "first past the post" system, in which the strongest party receives far more seats in parliament than their popular vote share. Labour got 63% of the seats with 34% of the votes. The system can also result in extremely different outcomes for smaller sized parties, so for example the LibDems got 11% of the seats with 12% of the votes, while Reform got 0.8% of the seats with 14% of the votes. But while the lack of representation has been widely criticized, the clear advantage is that the one party who got the most votes also has a parliamentary majority and could at least potentially achieve the will of the people who voted for them.

The elections in France are more complicated, with a two-round system, in which there was a rather large difference between the results of the first and second round. That of course made the party who came first in the first round, but only third in the final results after the second round, rather unhappy. Which of the two rounds *is* the will of the people? Nevertheless, the French result is probably more representative than the US and UK examples. But if you compare the cases, a very clear trend becomes obvious: The more representative the system is, the less likely it becomes to result in a workable majority. None of the parties got more than a third of the vote, and it isn't obvious yet how a government will form.

That isn't unusual for electoral systems that try to achieve good representation. If you have lots of different parties, you end up with no party getting more than half of the votes. The current German government consists of 3 parties more busy fighting each other than governing, while the recently formed Dutch government has 4 parties, with the prime minister being an independant. Belgium from December 2018 to October 2020 had no government at all, because it took them a record 589 days of forming one, after an election in which no party emerged as a clear winner.

I do believe that Democracy is the best system, and a Republic governed by elected representatives is the best form of government. But it would be hard for me to point at any one country of the ones discussed here and declare that their electoral system is superior to the others. What is more important, an effective government or an election being as representative as possible? It seems impossible to have both. And a growing concern in all of these systems is that more and more people think that Democracy is only a good thing when their side wins, and start acting in seriously undemocratic ways when their side is losing, preferring an Autocracy of their side to being the losing side in a Democracy.

As a Dutch person, I really like the fact that our votes actually aren’t manipulated into skewed representation like in the UK and the USA. I like the fact that coalitions need to happen as absolute majorities (even if it is “your” party) leads to divisiveness in the long run. However, I would advocate for a minimum amount of possible seats (3 or 5%) to avoid the political process and debates taking hours and hours as every small minority now gets to delay the process. That would mean a slight move away from proper representation as votes under the 5% are lost - but it will also entice people to not vote for splinter movements anymore. The German system is therefore actually the best that I can think of.
In the US there has been a push in recent years for Ranked Choice voting. While this won't solve the binary winner take all system we use it would provide more of a voice to secondary candidates and make people feel like they aren't throwing their vote away by voting for a third party candidate over one of the two dominant parties.
The single transferable vote system in smallish constituencies (as used in Ireland) is one way to have representation that is mostly proportional but does give moderate benefits to larger parties / groups. Makes for good election drama too!

I do think that people get used to a particular system, and changing it would probably cause a decade or two of chaos regardless of whether a new system is objectively better or worse! Still, a few of them are looking increasingly dysfunctional today.
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