Referendums should be multi-optional: an open letter to Michael Wills MP

Peter Emerson
23 June 2009

When do we want it? Now - The Guardian - 18th June, 2009

Dear Mr. Wills,

You say, "Plebiscites... offer the wealthy and powerful an opportunity to manipulate outcomes" and, if the vote is a straight yes-or-no, then that is indeed the case.  You continue, "That is what 20th-century Europe teaches us."  I'm not sure if by this you mean the plebiscites of Hitler and Mussolini, the majority votes of Lenin and Stalin, or the referendums which the EU's Badinter Commission recommended for the former Yugoslavia; but I think it applies to all three categories.

The two-option majority vote has long been regarded as manipulable.  After all, in many instances, the question is the answer, and it's a pity that the 20th century did not learn the lessons of the 19th, when Napoleon started the rut.  In 1800, he re-imposed majority voting in the French Academy of Sciences, where they had been using a Borda Count.  The latter "is a unique method... to minimise the likelihood that a small group can successfully manipulate the outcome," (Professor Donald Saari).  Furthermore, it "is the best protection ever devised from the tyranny of the majority," (Professor Sir Michael Dummett).  In the same year, Napoleon held his first of three two-option referendums.

Whenever the question is multi-optional, as it would be in the case of a national ballot on electoral reform, as it was in parliament when the debate centred on reforming the House of Lords, and as it would be in many instances of deliberative democracy, should not provision be made for a multi-option preference vote?  And not least because, if the ability to express preferences in elections is good for a pluralist democracy, as you suggest, then surely the same should apply to decision-making.

The late Robin Cook MP, as I'm sure you know, tried to introduce multi-option voting into parliament, but in vain, for "that would have involved the technological development of a pencil and a piece of paper, which was far too big a step for our parliament and its medieval procedures."  (Interview with Alexandra Runswick, Unlock Democracy, Spring, 2005.)   Similarly, Lord Desai argued for the Borda Count in the 2003 debate on Lords reform, (Hansard, 22.1.2003), equally unsuccessfully.  To the best of my knowledge, however, none has proposed multi-option referendums.  Yet there are many instances of multi-option voting abroad:  New Zealand held a five-option ballot on electoral reform in 1992; the Norwegian parliament has provision for two-round voting (although they don't use it very often - the last time was in 1972); and the precedent for Westminster was set in 1949, when provision was made for Newfoundland to hold a three-option referendum on its constitutional status.

If, then, as you suggest, "Politicians of all parties... are to... work together to produce the radical constitutional reform our democracy now so desperately needs," would it not be better for them not only to talk with each other, but also to then vote with each other, {not (for-or-)against each other in majority vote divisions}, but by expressing preferences for various options in multi-option votes, so to identify that option which is the most broadly acceptable?


Peter Emerson

The de Borda Institute

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