Saturday, 1 September 2012

Why Some Votes Count (and Others Don't)

Plenty of discussion about the forthcoming US Presidential election over on politicalbetting and not surprisingly, those of a more Right-wing persuasion have suddenly discovered that Mitt Romney should be the next President not that their opinion on this or most other subjects is of much significance.

I talked about the US electoral system a while back and noted that, as in the UK, it's perfectly possible for the candidate polling most votes to finish second.

For me, there are three fundamental tenets which should underpin the democratic process - first, the right to vote:  second, the freedom to vote for whoever you want and third, that every vote should be counted and should count.

Most democratic systems contain elements of all three - some adhere to only one, others to two but I can't think of any truly democratic system to which all three of the above can safely apply.

The UK and the US pride themselves on their democratic systems - indeed, they are often the first to preach the virtues of democracy to the rest of the world and compared to many other parts of the world, we are hugely fortunate to have the political process that we do. I have the right to vote and I can go along to the polling station and cast my ballot safe in the knowledge that I have been able to vote for the candidate I choose.

The problem in the UK and the US comes with Stodge's third tenet of democracy - every vote should be counted and every vote should count. I'm fairly confident that every vote is counted in both countries though the postal voting process has laid bare the opportunities for corruption. Where I have an issue is making votes "count".

I live in the Parliamentary Constituency of East Ham and my MP is Stephen Timms, a perfectly reasonable constituency MP. 70% of those voting backed him in May 2010 - I didn't. My vote, apart from going into the pile of those voting Liberal Democrat, meant and counted for nothing. Had I not bothered voting at all, it would have made no difference. That is the ultimate debasing of democracy - when a person's vote is rendered meaningless.

In the US, it's a similar story. If you are a Democrat in Oklahoma or a Republican in Oregon, you might as well not bother to vote in November.

In both countries, elections are deemed to be decided by "the will of the people" but it's actually the will of a few people in a few key places that make the final decision. Whether in the states of Ohio or Florida or in a Midlands marginal, your vote counts and you can be sure politicians of all stripes will be interested in it. Indeed, the amount of effort a political party puts into a particular area is directly proportional to its marginality - if you live in an area whee one party is 30% ahead, you will see much less effort than in a place where nthey are 3% behind.

Whether in terms of House of Commons seats or Electoral College votes, it's winning in areas not winning overall that counts. I suspect Mitt Romney would love to be able to move a few thousand of his votes from Montana and Oklahoma to Ohio and Virginia but it doesn't work that way. It's not in any real sense a "general" election but a group of local elections held at the same day.

So, how to make votes count? It's NOT about electoral systems - First Past the Post, the Alternative Vote or Single Transferrable Vote or whatever/. It's much simpler - a party winning 20% of the vote across the country should receive 20% of the seats or Electoral College votes - it's really that simple and I don't know why so many people struggle with the idea.

The main objection I hear is that it is vital to retain "the constituency link". Well, I know who my MP is but I'm in the minority and a pretty small minority it is too. I reckon 5% of the population in any area AT MOST know who their MP is and in my area probably nearer 1%. Knowing who to turn to in times of trouble or problem is useful but whether the MP is the appropriate person is debatable. More often than not, the issue is one for the local Council or Councillor.

That's not to say constituency MPs don't do a good job but is that reason enough to make them a cornerstone of the democratic process?

I suspect not overall - in addition, I believe some people feel uncomfortable approaching an MP for whom they have not elected. I do believe people don't realise an MP, once elected, is there to represent ALL the constituency not just his or her supporters.

Why not then allow the parties to allocate representatives to cover each area - elected members whose mandate is the whole country not just a small part?

Another objection to my "pure democracy" is the presence of very small parties with extreme views - for example, if the BNP got 1% of the vote nationally, they win nothing under the current system but under my system might have five or six MPs. Now, I understand this concern but sweeping extreme views under the carpet or trying to ignore them doesn't work. Bring the extremists into the light where their views might be highlighted and challenged - that is the answer.

A few elected BNP Councillors have shown themselves to be hard-working local representatives but many have not. The BNP have been broken in Barking and Burnley solely by becoming part of the mainstream process and having to justify their policies and ideas.

The fundamental is that every vote should count - whether for mainstream or extremist parties. We should be comfortable enough in our own democratic skin to accept that extreme views will attract some people but that's not a reason for that view not to be represented. It is a part of public opinion and needs to be respected.

Until we change, 40% of the 70% who bother to vote will be on the winning side and perhaps 20,000 votes out of thirty million will matter - that's a travesty of a noble ideal.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

I do like the idea of "pure democracy" yet how will issues be resolved in a constant state of hung parliament.