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

Peter Emerson
22 May 2013

Democracy has become selfish. It should be a collective process, a means by which individuals may campaign and vote for what they think is best for everyone. Alas, many use it on an individual basis, voting to benefit only themselves, even at the expense of others.

It starts with economic interests; hence pre-election budgets and so on. It ends in war, as politicians exploit our motivations of greed or worse, fear. To do so, they use simplistic and adversarial voting procedures.

So I want to talk of some of the horrors of primitive voting procedures; to examine these voting mechanisms; and then to describe a more ‘peace-ful’ democratic structure.

The horrific consequences of argument

The 2008 post-electoral violence in Kenya and the 2010 war in Côte d'Ivoire were caused, in part, by their winner-takes-all-loser-gets-nothing electoral systems. The voter was allowed only one preference, so the vote was tribal. 

The same was true “in the former Yugoslavia where all the wars started with a referendum,” to quote Oslobodjenje, Sarajevo’s newspaper, 7.2.1999. Are you Serb or Croat? was one (paraphrased) question. Partners in a mixed marriage were thus, in effect, disenfranchised; as were any who wanted to vote for compromise. As in war, so too in these Balkan referendums, people had to (either abstain or) take sides.

The 2003 invasion of Iraq was also caused, again in part, by a majority vote. The complicated subject of sanctions, inspections, diplomacy and threats, was all reduced to just one proposal – Resolution 1441 – on which the 15 members of the UN Security Council voted yes-or-no. France did not like the phrase “serious consequences”; yet France voted in favour! The outcome, therefore, supposedly unanimous, was anything but! 

Exclusive voting

Many single preference election systems – as in Kenya, Ivory Coast and Bosnia – are little more than sectarian headcounts.  In decision-making, it’s even worse. The two-option majority vote is Orwellian in its simplicity – ‘this’ good, ‘that’ bad.  Secondly, it is the most inaccurate measure of collective opinion ever invented. And thirdly, in societies undivided, it tends to polarise; while in divided societies – like Northern Ireland – it often exacerbates those divisions. 

Attempts to summarise a complex problem into a choice of only two alternatives are almost bound to distort. And when voters cannot express their opinions accurately, as in the UN, the outcome itself cannot be accurate. 

The principle of majority rule may be fair – it is certainly better than an opposite, minority rule. But the practice – majority rule by majority vote, majoritarianism – is hopelessly unfair, not least because you cannot identify a majority opinion by a majority vote. It allows a faction in society to dominate the minority, as was the case in Northern Ireland. While at its worst, it tempts that majority into violence: when the Interahamwe launched its genocide in Rwanda, they used the slogan “Rubanda Nyamwinshi – we are the majority”.

In many instances, then, a majority vote does not identify the “will of the majority” - let alone the “will of the people”, it identifies the will of those who wrote the question. No wonder umpteen dictators, from Napoleon to Saddam Hussein, have used majority votes; it is to control and manipulate.

Inclusive voting

There are some more peaceful procedures. Candidates in Papua New Guinea tend to be tribal, but the voters must cast at least three preferences. So, in seeking voters’ 2nd or 3rd preferences, candidates cross the tribal divide; and so too, for a valid vote, do the voters.  Lebanon is another example; each constituency has as many contests as there are confessional groups, all the parties must have candidates of each confession, and voters must vote for one of each.

In decision-making, in contrast, there have been very few attempts to reform the (simple or weighted) majority vote.  Belgium (and Northern Ireland) use consociationalism which allows the Flemings and Walloons (Unionists and Nationalists) an equal say, but it is still majoritarian, still win-or-lose.  Accordingly, in 1986, still eight years before the cease-fire, we brought Unionists and Sinn Féin et al together at a public meeting of over 200 in Belfast, consensus voting was put to the test.  It worked.  In 1991, we did it again, with electronic voting; furthermore, we had a Bosnian present, and thus, six months before their war, we warned of the dangers of any majority vote in that divided land.

Consensus voting

A voter cannot cross any divide – of gender, religion or ethnicity – if the voting system allows only a single preference.  A ‘peace-ful’ system must allow the voters to rank their preferences. In an electoral system, fairness can be enhanced if there is more than one winner – president and vice-president, say, as originally in the US. While in decision-making, fairness can be achieved by identifying the option with the highest average preference; and an average involves every voter, not just a majority of them. It is win-win.  And it works like this. A problem arises – the Northern Ireland constitutional question, for example, or let’s take Iraq. A debate is called.  Members draw up proposals, which are then set ‘on the table’ and, in summary, on a computer screen plus web-site. Initially, the US and UK, say, draw up one draft – option A. France proposes another, option B, similar perhaps in all but one respect to A. Syria, a member in 2002, produces a completely different package, option C. And so on. The debate ensues; amendments are suggested; points are argued; composites are formed; and the list on the table is constantly up-dated.  When the debate concludes, if only one option remains, that is taken as the consensus of Council.  If, as is more likely, a number of options remains, the chair may call for a preference vote.

Let’s assume there are four options: A, B, C and D.  If a country casts all four preferences, its 1st option gets 4 points, its 2nd gets 3, and so on. If another casts only two preferences, its 1st option gets 2 points, and its 2nd gets 1. But no one country votes ‘against’ another’s proposal; all vote only ‘for’, albeit with varying degrees of enthusiasm. 

Any protagonist state knows that, to win, it needs lots of high preferences, a few middle ones perhaps, but very few low ones. It is therefore worth its while to talk with its former (majoritarian) opponents, to try and persuade them to give a higher preference. It is also in a country’s interest to cast a full ballot, so to give its favourite option the maximum 4 points, but, in so doing, it also acknowledges the validity of those other options. This points system of voting – the modified Borda count, (mbc) – inherently promotes dialogue.

Voting should be unselfish. When electing representatives, voters should be asked to cast up to, say, six preferences. And when parliament or the electorate take complex and/or controversial decisions, the ballot paper should contain from four to six options.  Compromise should always be possible.

Consensus voting allows for differences but mutual respect. It is inclusive, accurate, very democratic, ethno-colour blind and, most important of all, ‘peace-ful’. It has been demonstrated and used many times in Northern Ireland but also in Bosnia, Georgia and elsewhere. 

Alas, politicians like to control things. Quite a few of them participated in the above consensus voting demonstrations – they included members of the Irish parliament, members of the European parliament and members of Stormont, and one future President, Michael D Higgins. The subject, however, was completely ignored by all concerned during the Belfast Peace Process. One can understand why many politicians are reluctant to question majoritarianism; the silence of most in the media and academia, however, is little short of irresponsible. Consensus voting could help, not only to resolve conflicts, but also to prevent disputes descending into arguments or worse, war. 

Their silence should not be condoned.

Peter Emerson is speaking at the Nobel Women's Initiative conference  Moving Beyond Militarism and War: Women-Driven Solutions for a Nonviolent World  May 28-31, Belfast, Ireland.  Read 50.50's full coverage of the conference  

 Read more articles on 50.50 from earlier Nobel Women's Initiative conferences





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