If Welsh Labour wants a two-member-constituency voting system, this is the one they should adopt

In the recent row over possible changes to the voting system used for elections to the Welsh Assembly, one of the alternatives proposed by the Labour Party was a system of two-member-constituency First Past the Post (see the Devolution Matters blog for an overview of the row). In other words, to expand the number of Assembly Members (AMs) to 80 from the present total of 60 (made up of 40 constituency AMs and 20 top-up regional AMs under the proportional AMS voting system), Labour was proposing having two AMs per constituency and using FPTP to elect them.

Presumably, the model of FPTP they had in mind was that voters would get two votes each, thereby ensuring that where Labour was the most popular party, it would be guaranteed to win both seats even if it were not the choice of a majority of voters. Labour is not known for its enthusiastic backing for fair voting systems, after all. FPTP wouldn’t be so bad if people had only one vote, so that the Labour vote would be split between both candidates, giving other parties more of a chance, especially if they fielded only a single candidate in constituencies where they knew they had no hope of winning both seats.

However, a fairer, more rational and more proportional electoral system for two-member constituencies would be the following, which I’m calling ‘TMPR2’: Two-Member Proportional Represenation (version two). This is a simpler and more practical version of the TMPR system I have previously discussed. TMPR2 works as follows:

  • There are two representatives (AMs, MPs, etc.) per constituency
  • Each voter has two votes. Voters are not obliged to use both votes: they can vote for just one candidate if they wish
  • The individual candidate obtaining the most votes automatically wins one of the seats
  • The individual winner may be either the representative of a party or an independent
  • In addition, if any independent candidate wins the second-highest total of individual votes, that independent candidate is elected
  • However, assuming the second-highest total of votes is not won by an independent, the winner of the second seat is decided on the basis of the share of the vote won by each party:
    • If any party wins over 50% of all votes (that is, the number of actual votes cast, which is higher than the number of voters, as people can vote for two candidates), then both of their candidates are elected (unless one of the candidates obtaining the highest or second-highest total of votes is an independent, in which case the party obtaining over 50% of the vote wins only one seat)
    • In the instance where one of the seats is in fact won by an independent, the party candidate elected is the one that has obtained more votes than the running mate from their own party
    • If, however, no party wins more than 50% of the vote, then the two parties obtaining the highest shares of the vote win one seat each (except in the case where one or more independent candidate are elected, whereby only the top-ranked party or no party respectively wins a seat)
    • In the case that two parties win one seat each, the successful candidates are those who obtained more individual votes than the running mates from their own parties

Advantages of TMPR

  • This is a reasonably proportional system
  • It encourages trans-party voting: voters could and would vote for candidates from different parties. This would equalise the parties’ share of the vote, with the established parties’ share coming down and the smaller parties’ share rising. For instance, quite a lot of right-of-centre voters, if the system were applied in England, would vote for one Conservative and one UKIP candidate; whereas many left-of-centre voters would vote for a Green candidate alongside a Labour or Lib Dem candidate. This means that the vote share parties need to win in order to be elected could be considerably lower than under FPTP. In fact, there is no lower percentage limit on eligibility for a seat. And TMPR2 encourages this pluralism by allowing voters to divide their loyalty between more than one party
  • It incorporates some of the best features of established, familiar voting systems:
    • Like FPTP, the candidate obtaining the largest number of individual votes automatically wins a seat
    • Like AV, if any party wins over 50% of the vote, it takes the whole constituency (i.e. both seats), unless an independent candidate has won either the highest or second-highest individual vote
    • It’s a crude form of PR, similar to STV in the sense that a party, as opposed to an individual candidate, needs to win more than a ‘quota’ of 50% of the vote to win both seats
  • It encourages voting for individuals – and hence, for independents – alongside parties: as voters have two votes each, they will be freer to choose candidates on their individual merits alongside their membership of a particular political party. There would be more of an incentive for independent candidates to run, such as high-profile, respected local figures taking a stand on important issues for the local community
  • It’s easy to understand and operate: there are no complicated voting or counting mechanisms involved, and the result is a clear and direct expression of voters’ preferences. There are no unexpected consequences and fewer tactical-voting constraints for voters. Voters would know that the way they voted would have a direct impact on the result: each of their two votes increases the chances of that individual candidate or party; and if voters are torn between the party / candidate they genuinely prefer and the party they feel they need to vote for in order to ensure that another party does not win (tactical voting), they can hedge their bets and vote both ways.

Disadvantage of TMPR2

TMPR is probably not as proportional as the existing system – AMS – used for elections to the Welsh Assembly and Scottish Parliament. In fact, in an Electoral Reform Society analysis of the 2011 Welsh Assembly election had it been conducted using AMS with 30 constituency seats and 30 regional top-up seats (instead of the present 40/20 ratio) compared with an 80-seat Assembly elected using STV, AMS emerges as the more proportional system. It would be interesting to see the outcome if they ran the same analysis on TMPR2.

However, pure proportionality is not everything; and TMPR does preserve the close links between individual AMs / MPs and relatively small constituencies. By comparison, AMS gives more power to the parties, as top-up AMs / MPs are predominantly elected because of their party affiliation rather than their individual merit or on the basis of local issues. In addition, TMPR is much simpler to understand and operate than either STV or AMS.

Real-world prospects for TMPR2

In reality, TMPR2 has very little chance of ever being implemented, at least not for the Welsh Assembly. As the ‘inventor’ of TMPR2, I don’t exactly have a lot of influence. But as the possibility of two-seat constituencies was being mooted, it seemed timely to bring forward TMPR2 as another alternative: as a possible compromise between FPTP and proportionality. The Labour Party wouldn’t like it, because it’s too fair and proportional. The experts at the Electoral Reform Society probably wouldn’t like it because it’s not proportional enough. But maybe the people would like it if they were offered the choice, precisely because it is fairer than FPTP but less complex and fussy than STV and AMS, with a more transparent link between how people vote in each constituency and the winners.

Anyway, I’m just throwing it out there to see if there are any takers.

English parliament

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DPEV: absolutely the best single-member voting system for the UK and England – honest

OK, I admit it: I’m a voting-system geek, if not obsessive. I really dislike AV, for a number of reasons, not the least of which is that it leaves England short-changed: nothing done to address the West Lothian Question or the broader English Question, to say nothing about the unaccountable nature of executive power in the UK, which relies on a disproportional voting system and a subservient parliament to run the country virtually as an elective dictatorship.

During the course of the last few months, in this blog, I’ve discussed a number of alternative single member-constituency voting systems that are better than the Alternative Vote, in my view, despite the fact that AV is the only alternative on offer. It seems to me I’ve been fishing around for a ‘killer’ system: one that is simple, fair and transparent but which also addresses the two main failings of First Past the Post and AV – that they 1) produce disproportional results and 2) bring about governments with no real mandate that can basically get away with whatever they want (a simplification, I know, but it sometimes feels that way). In addition, if a voting system passes the ‘English parliament test’ – or at least a fairness-to-England test – then all the better. Basically, if I’d be happy if the system in question were used to elect an English parliament, then it must be OK.

I now think I’ve come up with such a ‘killer voting-system app’, so to speak. It’s called DPEV: ‘Dual Parliamentary and Executive Voting’. How it works is as follows:

  1. DPEV is a single-member system. There are two parts to the voting process: a First Past the Post ballot of individual candidates and a separate ballot listing the parties standing in that constituency. Voters must select the individual candidate they’d like to be their MP by marking a cross next to their name – exactly as under the present FPTP system. Again, just as with the present system, the winner is the candidate obtaining the most votes. Voters must also mark a cross next to the name of the party or parties they’d like to form the next UK government. Here, they can vote for more than one party, thereby expressing a preference for a coalition government of the parties in question.

     

  2. The individual-candidate vote is used to determine the composition of Parliament, whereas the party vote is used separately to determine which parties have a mandate to form the next government. Basically, if one party wins an outright majority of the party vote, they are deemed to have a mandate to form the government. Otherwise, the strongest multi-party combination is considered to have a mandate to form a coalition government so long as the overall total of votes for both or all of the parties involved adds up to more than 50%.

    For example, let’s say that 30% of voters want the Tories only to be in government; 25% want just Labour; 10% want only the Lib Dems; 16% want a Lab-Lib coalition; and 11% want a Tory-Lib Dem coalition. Here, the system decides there is a mandate for a Lab-Lib Dem coalition because this was the most popular party-combination vote (i.e. 16% vs. 11% for a Con-Lib combo) and the total number of voters wanting either a Labour or Lib Dem government (single-party or coalition) adds up to a majority (51%). However, if the percentage of voters wanting a Lab-Lib Dem coalition had been only 14%, those parties’ combined vote would add up to only 49%. In that case, despite having the largest coalition vote, there would be no implied mandate for a Lab-Lib Dem coalition, and it would be down to the Conservatives and Lib Dems to try to reach a coalition deal, as the combined total of individual and joint votes for those parties would be 51%.

One other point of detail here: to form a government, a party or combination of parties must garner over 50% of the party vote in England as well as across the UK as a whole. This is because, without devolution for England, the UK government is also an acting English government and so must have a democratic mandate in England separately. Obviously, the best solution would be a completely separate English parliament and executive. But in the absence of that, this does address the West Lothian Question, if not the English Question: it wouldn’t matter, on one level, if English laws were passed by parliamentary majorities that included non-English MPs if the government enacting those laws had a legitimate democratic mandate from English voters. This is what this ‘England lock’ on the government is designed to ensure.

So basically: in the absence of an outright majority for any party in the party-vote bit of DPEV, parties must try to form majority coalitions, beginning with the multi-party combination vote (i.e. where people vote for two or more parties together) that obtained the largest share of the votes across the UK, so long as those coalitions command an overall majority of the votes across the UK and England.

What would happen if neither a Lab-Lib Dem nor a Con-Lib Dem coalition could muster a block of votes of over 50% across the UK or in England only? In this instance, the parties would have to bring in a third coalition partner that had won a sufficient percentage of the party vote across the UK and England, as applicable, to constitute a majority mandate, so long as that third party had won some MPs. However, even so, it is possible that a majority coalition could still not be formed, either because there was insufficient political will among the parties involved or because there would be parties for which people had voted that were without MPs, such as – for example – UKIP, the Greens, the BNP or the English Democrats. In this instance, the parties would have to try to form a coalition or single-party government based on the majority of available party votes. E.g. if only 80% of the UK-wide party vote had been for parties that succeeded in winning MPs, then the government (single-party or coalition) would have to command over 40% of the party vote across the UK, and whatever the corresponding majority percentage would be in England: probably higher than 40% given the lower share of the votes won by nationalist or sectarian parties in England compared with the UK’s other nations.

To prevent this rule becoming a get-out clause allowing the Conservatives or Labour to form governments that were without a true majority mandate, one of the major constitutional innovations of DPEV would be that any government commanding the support of only a minority of voters (as determined by the party vote) would have to be ratified by the electorate in a snap referendum following the conclusion of coalition negotiations. And that means a UK-wide referendum if the government in question was based on minority support across the UK as well as England, or a referendum in England only if the proposed government enjoyed a majority across the UK but was backed by only a minority in England.

If such a referendum failed to win the endorsement of either the British or English people, then the parties would have to go back to the drawing board and try to find a majority coalition or alternative minority government. If the latter were the outcome, this too would need to be ratified in a referendum. Then, if this in turn failed, a new election would have to be held – but not a whole general election with all the new constituency MPs needing to seek re-election, merely a new party election, in which all of the parties that had won MPs would be standing. This would determine a new clear majority mandate, as now the choice of parties would be greatly cut down. In practice, in the absence of an outright majority for any single party in this second party vote-only election, it would be pretty obvious which combination of parties (e.g. a coalition between the Lib Dems and one of the other major parties) had a clear mandate, and the parties concerned could have a constitutional obligation to work together.

These provisions for majority coalitions or – in the absence of majorities – ratifying referendums and follow-up elections, as required, would ensure that any UK government had a clear majority mandate from the people across the UK and England, irrespective of whether the party or parties in government commanded a majority of MPs in Parliament. This relates to another original feature of DPEV: MPs are elected using a disproportional system (FPTP), but the executive is elected using a perfectly proportional system – so the government takes its democratic mandate directly from the people, not from parliament. This does mean that the parliamentary majority could be at odds with the executive majority, and governments could well find they commanded only a minority in Parliament. However, this could be a good thing, in that Parliament would be able to hold governments to account more effectively. Equally, the system for electing MPs could be changed separately, without altering the perfectly proportional method for electing the executive. E.g. you could introduce AV, STV or some other system for electing Parliament that would make it more proportional and representative, and make the majority in Parliament less likely to clash with that of the government.

Not only the executive but also MPs would be more directly accountable to their voters, in two main ways:

  1. Separating out the vote for an individual MP from the vote for a government, as DPEV does, restores the direct accountability of an MP to his or her constituents. Voters can now choose an MP on the basis of their individual suitability for the role – their experience, character and values as well as political opinions – without prejudice to the party they want to be in government, which they vote for separately. By contrast, under the present FPTP system, and the proposed AV system, if you vote for the man or woman, you are also voting for the party and are presumed to be endorsing that whole party’s programme for government as set out in their manifesto. This is rolling up two distinct choices in one, and it’s what helps make MPs subservient to their party apparatus in Parliament, because they are presumed to have been sent to Parliament to fulfil that party’s programme. Under DPEV, each individual MP has been personally chosen by the plurality of their voters: having been elected independently, they are empowered to act independently.
     
  2. This independence from party, and accountability to voters, would be reinforced by another constitutional innovation that would be associated with DPEV. Let’s say a Conservative MP has been elected into Parliament, but a majority of constituents had voted either Labour or Lib Dem (or for both Labour and Lib Dem) in the party vote, and a Lab-Lib Dem coalition was in fact formed. Then, if that Tory MP persistently votes against government bills at their third and final reading (e.g. in 50% or more of cases), constituents should have the right to demand a by-election to hold that MP to account. If the MP is re-elected, they could be said to have received a mandate to continue opposing government bills. The smart thing for the government parties to do in this instance would be to field only one candidate to ensure a government majority in the by-election – but whether they’d have the wit to do that or not is moot.

    I would envisage that voters would be able to call a by-election on this basis one year after the general election, and then again after another year, by means of, say, more than 10% of the electorate turning up at polling stations on a designated day to sign a petition for such a by-election. Once more than two years have elapsed after the general election, there should be no further by-elections of this sort, in that – ideally – there would be four-year fixed-term governments, so that holding a large number of by-elections at the close of the third year of the parliament would be somewhat excessive. (Incidentally, if a coalition collapsed before the fixed term had expired, it could be made mandatory for the parties to try to form a new coalition – but this would also have to be ratified by referendum. If it was rejected in the referendum, then a general election would have to be held.)

    This method of holding MPs to account could be applied to any MP that persistently voted against the party majority in their constituency. For instance, if a candidate from one of the government parties had been elected as MP but a majority of constituents had not voted for the party or parties of government in the party vote, those MPs could also be held to account and forced to fight a by-election if they persistently voted with the government. This means that MPs would truly have to respect the opinions of their voters and take them into consideration in their work in Parliament, alongside party loyalty.

All these aspects of DPEV would bring about much greater popular sovereignty and political accountability: the government taking its mandate direct from the people; MPs directly accountable to their voters and expected to act independently of party dictates. And, as I said above, it provides a solution to the West Lothian Question, if not an answer to the English Question – but I would say that it’s still an excellent voting and constitutional system for any English parliament and so passes my English parliament test.

How does DPEV perform in relation to the six criteria I’ve been using to assess the merits of different single-member voting systems? My first criterion is: Does every vote count, and is every vote counted? Here, I’d give DPEV four out of five. Every party vote, under DPEV, counts in the sense that the right to form a government depends on every single vote cast. However, as many parties for which people vote would still not win MPs, those parties could not participate in government. Similarly, the constituency vote counts for more than it does presently under FPTP, in that MPs are elected independently of their party affiliation and are expected to act accordingly. However, as the system used to elect MPs – at least in my initial version of DPEV – is the disproportional FPTP, many constituency votes will count for little.

In terms of the second criterion – Is the system proportional? – I’d again award DPEV four out of five: it’s perfectly proportional in terms of the party vote that is used to determine the shape of the government,but disproportional with respect to the constituency vote. However, the fact that the government derives its mandate direct from the people, and the fact that accountability of MPs to constituents is built into DPEV, makes it less critical to achieve a perfectly proportional parliament.

The third criterion is: Does the system foster accountability? Here, I’d modestly give DPEV five out of five: it embodies a very high degree of accountability of MPs to their constituents, and it also makes the government directly answerable to the whole electorate, a majority of whom have to give it their backing, either in general elections and referendums to ratify minority governments or coalitions.

Fourthly: Does the voting system allow voters to express the full range of their political and personal preferences, and send a message to politicians? Here, DPEV scores four out of five. It enables voters to support individual candidates that can be of an altogether different political persuasion to themselves, on the basis that whichever candidate you vote for (based on their personal qualities), you can vote for different parties to form the government. In addition, you can vote for as many parties as are on the ballot paper in the party vote. Not all of those votes will be effective, however, in the sense of resulting in representation – and in fact, it would be silly to vote, say, for four parties, as it is unlikely that such a vote will be rewarded with a coalition of all four parties. But all party votes are nonetheless recorded, so that voters can send a message to politicians. In addition, the more people voted for parties such as UKIP and the Greens, the more people would feel emboldened to vote for UKIP and Green candidates, too – with the added incentive that even if only one or two MPs from those parties were elected, they might go straight into government as part of a coalition.

The fifth criterion is: Does the system mitigate / obviate tactical voting? Here, I’d give DPEV four out of five. Under DPEV, there is virtually no incentive for tactical voting, other than to try to defeat the candidate of a particular party in the constituency vote. But the reward for doing so is considerably less than under FPTP or AV, in that MPs of any hue are supposed to act independently and can be held to account if they put party interest above that of constituents by opposing legislation that the constituents have by implication supported (by voting in a majority for the parties that are in government).

Finally, How easy is the system for voters to understand, trust and use effectively? Well, DPEV should be easy for voters to understand and use to their best advantage. You just vote for an MP in the same way as now; and you can vote separately for the party or parties you want to form the next government. However, some voters might find the separation of the candidate and party vote confusing, and also might not use the option to combine votes for multiple parties very effectively (i.e. they might select several parties or not understand that selecting multiple parties means you’re expressing a preference for a coalition of them all). So I’d give DPEV four out of five here.

So here’s how I rate DPEV in comparison with the other single-member systems I’ve discussed, including several I’ve ‘invented’ myself, as I have with DPEV. For the sake of comprehensiveness, I’m also rating the variants of AV I’ve discussed recently (FMT (First Past the Post Majority Top-UP) and AV 2.0); and the method I evoked in my post yesterday, whereby you just have two preferences, and if there is no majority of first preferences, the second preferences of all voters are added to all candidates’ totals, and the winner is the candidate obtaining the most votes (let’s call that ‘TPP’: Two-Preference Plurality!):

Criterion FPTP AV AppV ARV TMPR AV+ NetV 3CV Bucklin
Does every vote count?

3

2

3

4

4

3

4

3

3

Is the system proportional?

1

2

2

3

3

3

3

3

3

Does the system foster accountability?

3

3

4

4

4

4

4

4

3

Does the system let voters express their views?

1

2

3

4

4

3

4

3

2

Does the system mitigate tactical voting?

1

2

2

3

4

2

3

3

3

How user-friendly is the system?

3

2

4

3

3

3

3

3

4

Total scored out of a maximum of 30

12

13

18

21

22

18

21

19

18

 

Criterion DPEV FMT AV 2.0 TPP
Does every vote count?

4

3

4

4

Is the system proportional?

4

2

2

2

Does the system foster accountability?

5

3

3

3

Does the system let voters express their views?

4

3

3

2

Does the system mitigate tactical voting?

4

2

2

3

How user-friendly is the system?

4

3

2

4

Total scored out of a maximum of 30

25

16

16

18

 

Clearly, different readers will rate these voting systems differently according to their own perspectives: my ratings are to an extent subjective. My scoring system is, however, based on an attempt to think through the main implications of the systems in terms of the degree to which they provide an accurate and user-friendly means for voters to record their opinions, and how they might influence voter behaviour.

But DPEV is the clear winner: a single-member system that would produce more accountable government and MPs, and would be fairer to England. I know I would say so, but it gets my vote!

Alternative alternative voting systems, part eight: Bucklin voting

So far in this series of articles, I’ve looked at only single member-constituency systems, including AV+, which alleviates the disproportionality of single-member systems by combining AV with a regional-list element (which is what AMS does for FPTP). My discussions have concluded that the Alternative Vote (AV), which is the only voting reform we’re actually being offered, is the least good of all the possible single-member alternatives across a range of criteria.

I would say that, of all the established voting methods I’ve discussed, Approval Voting and score voting (of which my ARV system is an example) are clearly superior to AV in that they give more real choice and power to voters, and the results more accurately reflect the full range of voters’ sympathies. Of the methods I’ve ‘invented’, I would say Two-Member Proportional Voting (TMPR – a compromise between a multi-member-proportional and single-member-preferential system) and Net Voting (a system that resolves the absence of a majority for any candidate on the basis of candidates’ ‘net popularity’, which is the ratio of voters who like them to those who oppose them) stand out as potentially quite exciting alternatives that could really revitalise English and British democracy without going as far as full proportional systems.

In this post and the next, I’ll be discussing two further established single member-constituency systems that rank alongside Approval Voting and score voting as much more satisfactory reforms than AV: Bucklin voting and run-off elections.

For an explanation of how Bucklin voting works, I’ll just quote direct from the summary in Wikipedia: “Voters are allowed rank preference ballots (first, second, third, etc.). In some variants, equal ranking is allowed at some or all ranks. Some variants have a predetermined number of ranks available (usually 2 or 3), while others have unlimited ranks. First choice votes are first counted. If one candidate has a majority, that candidate wins. Otherwise the second choices are added to the first choices. Again, if a candidate with a majority vote is found, the winner is the candidate with the most votes accumulated. Lower rankings are added as needed. A majority is determined based on the number of valid ballots. Since, after the first round, there may be more votes cast than voters, it is possible for more than one candidate to have majority support.”

The version of Bucklin voting I will be discussing is where you’re allowed unlimited rankings (up to the number of actual candidates) but can’t indicate equal rankings.

The main advantage I think Bucklin voting has over AV is that it eliminates the ridiculous situation whereby the second and subsequent preferences of most voters (i.e. those who’ve given the leading parties their first preferences) are not counted and cannot influence the final result, whereas the result can be determined by a relatively small number of second preferences (i.e. those whose first preference was for a minor party). This anomaly means that the winning ‘majority’ under AV can actually be smaller than a latent majority for another party comprising first-preference votes for that party plus the non-counted second preferences. For example, if a Lib Dem candidate was in third place behind Labour and the Conservatives once the votes for all the other parties had been transferred, the Lib Dems cannot win, even though they might have the highest total of first and second preferences combined – because the second preferences of Labour and Tory voters (most of which might be for the Lib Dem) are not counted.

Bucklin voting overcomes these imbalances in AV because, if there is no majority of first preferences for any party, the second preferences of all voters are added, and so on with third and fourth preferences, etc., if required. In practice, in many constituencies, just adding the first and second preferences would be enough to generate a majority for one or more candidates, so you don’t need to go any further – which makes Bucklin voting much simpler, more straightforward and easier to count as well as being fairer.

So, for the above reasons, I would award Bucklin voting three points out of five against the criterion Does every vote count, and is every vote counted?, compared with two out of five for AV. There still would be a lot of preferences that wouldn’t count for anything in a Bucklin election: after the second or third preference, there would hardly ever be any point in voters listing further preferences as the result would already have been determined, and this could mean that genuinely ‘popular’ parties who gained a large number of, say, third and fourth preferences could end up being passed over by the system. Plus, as a single-member system, Bucklin is not particularly proportional, so a lot of voters’ preferences would not help to determine the final result.

On proportionality, my second criterion, I would still award Bucklin three out of five, because it’s clearly better than AV, which scores two. It’s better because it provides a more accurate reflection of the range of preferences of all voters. In particular, in England, the Lib Dems would probably have performed much more strongly in 2010 if the election had been held using Bucklin voting compared with AV, which would barely have improved their performance over FPTP. (According to the Electoral Calculus, the Lib Dems would have won 88 seats under AV based on their vote share in 2010, compared with 57 under FPTP. Using Bucklin, I’m sure their seats tally would have been considerably higher.) This under-performance under AV is for the reason I outlined above: the Lib Dems were the leading second preference of most voters in 2010, but under AV, in many seats, the vast majority of those second preferences would not have been counted. In Bucklin, they are. Have the Lib Dems been misled by the advocates of AV (such as those in the Electoral Reform Society or the Labour Party) into thinking AV is the best compromise for them between FPTP and STV, whereas Bucklin voting would be much fairer and more favourable to them, if they’d had but the wit to look into it?

As for my third criterion, Does the system foster accountability?, I would say Bucklin voting performs at least as well as AV, if not better. So I’m awarding it three out of five. Under Bucklin, winning parties definitely need to solicit the support of voters for other parties because they need their second preferences to be sure of winning. This means, though, that Bucklin would encourage a drift to the centre of the political spectrum as the leading parties competed for support from each other’s voter base.

The same advantage or disadvantage, depending on your point of view, has been adduced for AV: parties need to court each other’s voters. But I would say that, in AV, this actually means that parties have to broaden their appeal in both directions: towards the centre and towards the more extreme fringes of the political spectrum. This is because, in the AV process, the first votes to be redistributed to the larger parties are those of supporters of minor parties such as UKIP, the BNP and the Greens. Therefore, Labour and the Lib Dems will have to appeal to Green voters as well each other’s supporters; and the Tories will have to appeal to UKIP supporters as well as Lib Dem voters. Hence, AV could bring about more polarisation between left and right wing while at the same time leading to more voter disappointment, because the parties will alter their policies and messages to appeal to the broadest church but will not be able to deliver in a way that satisfies many who’ve supported them.

Bucklin, by contrast, encourages genuine competition for the centre ground, which could bring about more consensus politics. Another way of viewing that, though, is that broadly held opinions that are not shared by the party-political establishment – such as support for leaving the EU or creating an English parliament – would not get a look in as the parties made cosy coalition deals involving policies that had not been supported by a majority or even offered to the electorate. Hence, while Bucklin would make politicians more accountable to voters from across the three main parties, it could allow them to ignore popular demands that they do not want to hear.

On the fourth criterion, Does the voting system allow voters to express the full range of their political and personal preferences, and send a message to politicians?, I would award Bucklin no more than two out five: the same as AV. This is for the reason set out above that, after two or three rounds, there’s no point listing any further preferences. Sure, on the first preference, voters can indicate what, in my article on the 3CV system, I described as their emotional or conviction vote: the party they feel most sympathy for but often would not vote for under FPTP because they can’t win or for other ‘prudential’ reasons. But then, in the second preference, voters will often feel constrained to vote for whichever of the parties that can actually win that they feel able to support to some degree. After that, listing any further preferences would largely be academic. Indeed, you would not want to indicate a preference for any party that might stand a chance of defeating your top-two in a third round of voting.

My fifth criterion is: Does the system mitigate [or perhaps ‘obviate’ would be better] tactical voting? Here, I think Bucklin does slightly better than AV, which is prone to a legion of pernicious tactical-voting conundrums, as my previous two posts have argued (see here and here). So I’d give it three out of five. Under Bucklin, there’s no need to vote tactically with respect to your first preference, because, however you vote, if a party you don’t like wins over 50% of the votes, you could have done nothing to prevent it. Your second preference, however, could well be a tactical choice: voting for your ‘second-best’ choice to defeat the party you don’t want to win. But then again, as a second-preference vote, this is technically your ‘second-favourite’ anyway. By contrast, in AV, owing to the complicated logic of trying to ensure that the right two candidates get into the final run-off, you could often feel forced to put down your tactical vote as your ‘first preference’; for instance, in one of the scenarios I’ve described where Tory voters might feel obliged to vote Lib Dem first, rather than Conservative, in order to defeat the Labour candidate.

One other tactical ploy under Bucklin voting could be so-called bullet voting: where supporters of one of the parties in contention to win the seat would not offer any subsequent preferences in order not to harm the prospects of their candidate (e.g. Tory voters not listing a second preference for the Lib Dem candidate in case that helped the Lib Dem to win on second preferences). However, I don’t think there’s anything objectionable about this, and it’s not really tactical voting in the ‘pure’ sense: you could just say it’s voters listing only one choice because they want only one party and no other to win. This could, in any case, equally back-fire on such voters in that, by not voting Lib Dem as their second preference, Tory voters could indirectly help the Labour candidate to win. So voters’ behaviour in this respect is more likely to be shaped by the dynamics in each individual seat rather than being a systemic failing of Bucklin voting.

Finally, How easy is the system for voters to understand, trust and use effectively? Well, much easier than AV, for sure! In fact, I’d say it’s pretty simple and easy to understand: if there’s no majority winner on first preferences, then the second preferences are added (and subsequent preferences if need be) until one is found. It’s much more transparent and obviously fair than AV, as all preferences of all voters are treated equally. Plus it’s easier for voters to work with the system to try and get a result they want, as it’s much easier to predict what the impact of different voting strategies will be: ‘if I put party A ahead of party B as my second preference, will I get my desired result?’ So I’ll give Bucklin four out of five here.

So how does Bucklin shape up in comparison with the other systems I’ve discussed in this series? See the table below for comparison:

Criterion FPTP AV AppV ARV TMPR AV+ NetV 3CV Bucklin
Does every vote count?

3

2

3

4

4

3

4

3

3

Is the system proportional?

1

2

2

3

3

3

3

3

3

Does the system foster accountability?

3

3

4

4

4

4

4

4

3

Does the system let voters express their views?

1

2

3

4

4

3

4

3

2

Does the system mitigate tactical voting?

1

2

2

3

4

2

3

3

3

How user-friendly is the system?

3

2

4

3

3

3

3

3

4

Total scored out of a maximum of 30

12

13

18

21

22

18

21

19

18

So Bucklin performs as well as Approval Voting but less strongly than the score-voting ARV system – but, obviously, much more strongly than AV. Why hasn’t it been considered?

Next time, run-off elections.