Tuesday, May 08, 2007

Ballot confusion: for majoritarianism?

In case anyone was unaware, the quantity of spoilt ballots in the election to the Scottish Parliament was shockingly high. In one or two seats it was higher than the margin the candidates won by and was significant enough to make the turnout look much lower than it actually was. The Scotsman carries a piece that suggests it may have been wee Dougie Alexander's fault:
"Douglas Alexander, the Scottish Secretary, was warned months before the Holyrood election debacle that the design of the voting papers he chose to use was likely to confuse people and cause them to spoil their ballots.

Independent field tests found that using separate ballot papers for the list and constituency votes was "clearer" and easier for electors to understand than the combined paper Mr Alexander chose for last week's poll."
I have to confess, I paused myself when I went into the polling booth - and I've got a cardboard tube somewhere that says I'm supposed to know about this sort of stuff. In particular, putting the constituency candidates and the list candidates on the same piece of paper struck me as being a bit silly; we'd just got used to the notion that Scottish democracy meant one person, two votes - which in turn we associated with two pieces of paper. Politicians and pundits tend to be a bit snobbish about this, but they shouldn't be. 'Ordinary people', if I may use this term, usually - thankfully - have better things to do with their time than work out the details of different systems of proportional representation.

Anyway, all this reminded me of something else the blogosphere is full of, apart from libertarians: it is people who assume the case for PR is unanswerable. While I'm a bit agnostic on the issue, hence the question mark in the title, I really don't think this is the case. I'll refrain from outlining the pros and cons of each system in boring modies teacher fashion and confine myself to what I think are one or two bad arguments for PR.

1) PR increases voter participation.

What evidence is there that this is a significant variable? We are told PR means every vote counts. Not if you live in the West of Scotland it doesn't. Anyway, is there even correlation to support this hypothesis? Turnout has been higher in Westminster elections than in those for the Scottish Parliament and in the French presidential election, which runs on a majoritarian ballot system, turnout was higher than in ours - even if all the spoilt ballots had been counted.

2) PR produces governments that are more representative.

It's true that on average government coalitions on the Continent elected on PR usually represent around 60% of the electorate, whereas no postwar government in Britain has ever won more than 50% of the vote. But hang on a minute. Coalitions can often cobble together a programme that no-one voted for. Like the compromise that Labour and the Liberals came up with over tuition fees in Holyrood. This wasn't a question of parties getting bits of their manifesto through: this compromise, regardless of its other merits, was something that had never been presented to the electorate in any form.

3) PR produces consensus government.

Leaving aside the assumption that this is invariably a good thing, it only does this when parties go down the route of point 2. Ironically, it is the SNP and the Liberals' failure to abandon their manifesto positions that has led to a distinct lack of consensus in the aftermath of the Scottish election. It reflects reasonably well on them, I think. It would be fairly shabby of the Lib Dems to cave in to demands for a referendum now, since hitherto they've never gave any indication that they thought this was a good idea. In the same way, I think many SNP supporters would be rightly disgusted if the party abandoned their commitment to offering the Scottish people a referendum for the sake of forming a stable coalition, after all these years of banging on about it.

Which leaves us where, exactly? I'm no fan of Sarkozy - or of the French political system in general - but damn it all, at least it's clear who's won there.

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