only search

About Peter Emerson

Peter Emerson, the child of an English Catholic mother and Irish Protestant father, is the director of the de Borda Institute, a Belfast-based NGO which specialises in voting systems for decision-making.  He has worked in several other conflict zones as well, in the Balkans, the Caucasus and East Africa.  His latest book is From Majority Rule to Inclusive Politics, (Springer, 2016).

Articles by Peter Emerson

This week’s front page editor


Sunny Hundal is openDemocracy’s social media editor.

Constitutional conventions: best practice

For the people to have their say on Brexit, how best can the multi-option conundrum be resolved?

If the problem is multi-optional, the question should be multi-optional, and the ballot paper should be a (short) list, usually of about 4 – 6 options.

A second referendum on the deal with the EU: a multi-option poll

More than anything else, perhaps, the UK now needs something which is not just accurate but also inclusive.

Brexit wrecks it: the theory of collective decision making

Basically, political decision-making should not be win-or-lose, as facilitated by the most ancient, primitive, divisive and inaccurate measure of collective opinion ever invented.

My 350 on Donald Trump: Trumpustuous times

If the US elections had been preferential – electing both President and Vice – Trump would probably not now be President-elect.

My 350 on BREXIT: The will of the people

“All the wars in the former Yugoslavia started with a referendum.”

Inclusive decision making systems are a must for any UK constitutional convention

Binary yes-no voting is a plague on democracies. We should and can do much better. Here's how.

The EU referendum - what is the question though?

Cameron will almost certainly opt for the least democratic question - a simple yes no, just as he did on the electoral reform vote. There is a much better way to calculate the public will and people should demand it.

If parliament be hung...?

What do coalition governments around the world tell us about the possible logistics of a hung parliament after 7 May? 

The 2015 general election in Britain - free and fair?

Majoritarian voting systems and parliaments are a terrible way to govern pluralist societies - here are some simple ideas that could do a far better job. We should be considering them.

Majoritarianism - the beginning of the end?

Instead of simple 'yes no' voting, the Borda Count and Condorcet allow much greater precision in drawing out the best possible outcome of a vote. For the first time ever, the Borda Count has now been used to make a democratic decision - the naming of a new bridge in Dublin.

Majority voting is outdated

Peter Emerson is director of the de Borda Institute in Belfast that works on improving voting systems. How for example could decision-making in Poland's parliament be organised, as an alternative to the absolute power that even the tiniest majority currently wields? Interview.

How to vote for peace

In order to vote for peace, we must first vote for voting systems which are 'peace-ful'. Peter Emerson argues for consensus voting which allows for differences but mutual respect, is inclusive, accurate, and very democratic

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

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.

A referendum or "preferendum" on electoral reform?

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.

Consensus voting and conflict resolution

Peter Emerson, director of the de Borda institute, dissects some of the theory and history of the modified borda count system of consensus voting.

This article is run in conjunction with a trial of the consensus voting method. To go to the project homepage, click here.

Syndicate content