A referendum or "preferendum" on electoral reform?

Peter Emerson
28 May 2009

Given the furore over mps' expenses, many people are calling for changes to our system of governance: inter alia, some want a referendum on electoral reform.  The question, then, is what is the question?  pr-stv?  av+?  pr-list?  Or should the question be, first and foremost, what sort of referendum should we have?  A majority vote with just two options?  Or should we allow for some pluralism?

In 1992, New Zealand set up a commission which, having taken submissions, drew up a short list of five electoral systems.  They then held a multi-option ballot, with ams, av, fpp, mmp and pr-stv on the ballot paper.  The votes were counted in a variation of a two-round system, with the second round a majority vote between the winner of the first round and the status quo, mmp and fpp; some would say the ‘final' should have been between the winner and the runner-up, mmp and pr-stv.

What is true, however, is this.  In an obviously multi-option setting, any use of a two-option ballot is almost bound to be inaccurate.  It is as if the waiter in a restaurant asks me, "Do you want beef or cod?" when in fact I want an omelette.  Obviously, such a ‘beef-or-cod?' question is valid only for those who favour either one or the other, while those who fancy chicken, nut roast, or anything else, the question partially dis-empowers.

That or people might vote tactically.  If the referendum is to be, let us say, av+ versus fpp, what is she who prefers the (German) system of mmp meant to do?  Or he who wants (the Irish) pr-stv, or a (Danish) pr-list system?  Do we vote for av+ because it is better than fpp?  Or do we vote for fpp in the hope that we might have a better ballot some time in the future?  Or do we abstain?  The very fact that some people might be tempted to vote tactically means that the outcome will not and cannot accurately reflect the will of the people. 

So let us have a multi-option ballot.  Set up a commission; take submissions, deadline, 30th June; draw up and publish a short list by 31st July; and hold a multi-option ballot on 31st August.  And let us please replace any Orwellian single preference voting procedure - this option ‘good', those options ‘bad' - by something a little more sophisticated in which each person shall be allowed to cast his/her preferences on (one, some or) all the options listed.  In such a vote on n options where a voter casts m preferences (and where 0 < m < n), a jth preference shall be awarded (m - j + 1) points, and the winner will be the option with the most points.   

This voting procedure, the Modified Borda Count or mbc, encourages everyone to cast a full ballot.  Each states their 1st preference, but each also states their compromise options; and if everyone does that, we can then identify that which has the most points, i.e., the widest possible support.  At the very least, this will be society's best possible compromise; at best, it will reflect our collective wisdom.

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