An election about elections

On Thursday we’re having an election. You may have noticed. It’ll be held under our ‘First Past the Post System, the worst electoral system ever invented. If we get the voting right this time we should be able to change that system and make this the last election to be held in this fundamentally stupid way. Below I outline why it’s so bad and how we can ensure it gets changed. If you’re already convinced of the need for electoral reform skip to the bottom for some suggestions on how we might change it.

The Broken System

The BBC’s website has a great tool. Its allows you to input projected shares of the vote each party might get and see roughly how many seats they would receive from this. The results are rather startling. Lets, taking recent opinion polls, assume that the Tories get 34%, the Liberal Democrats 29% and Labour 28%. You’d assume that the Conservatives would get the most seats, and the Liberals would have slightly more than Labour, right? Wrong. The Conservatives would get 255, Labour 283 and the Liberal Democrats 83. Labour could easily have the most seats whilst coming third in vote share, and the Liberal Democrats will almost certainly get no more than half the seats that their vote share suggest they should. The most extreme example of this came in the 1983 election, in which the SDP (predecessor to the Liberal Democrats) got 26% of the vote but just 2.6% of the seats in parliament. The majorities of voters voted against Margaret Thatcher, the system delivered a whopping majority for the Conservative. So how the hell do these distortions happen?

Despite the fact that our government is national, making central decisions that apply over the entire country, our electoral system prevents us from voting nationally. We vote 646 local contests, the outcome of each being entirely independent of the others, as if we were a collection of islands seeing ourselves as fundamentally separate but occasionally agreeing to pool sovereignty. This uber-localism makes some sense when citizens feel strongly attached to a local unit for historical reasons, such as the American states. UK constituency boundaries however have no meaningful status, they frequently change from election to election, and most of us have no idea where one ends and another begins. So how does the constituency system so monumentally distort the national vote?

Imagine 3 constituencies, each with 10 voters, and each with the same 3 parties competing for their votes.

Seat 1 : Party A 5 Votes, Party B 4 Votes, Party C 1 Vote

Winner: Party A

Seat 2: Party A 0 votes, Party B 4 votes, Party C 6 Votes

Winner: Party C

Seat 3: Party A 5 Votes, Party B 4 Votes, Party C 1 Vote

Winner: Party A

So Party A wins 2 seats and Party C wins 1. Within each seat that seems totally fair.
If, however we add together the total votes from the 3 seats, a very different picture emerges.

Party A    10 Votes
Party B    12 Votes
Party C 8 Votes

Part B thus gains the most votes but gets no seats because its voters are spread out across the 3 seats rather than concentrated in 1. This model demonstrates what can happen across the whole country. That’s the basic distortion of the system, but here’s some particular problems it throws up.

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