Can Europe Make It?

Majority voting is outdated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.

Marcin Gerwin Peter Emerson
25 January 2014

Marcin Gerwin: There are many divisions and even hostility in the Polish parliament. The ruling coalition has currently 232 votes in a parliament which has 460 seats. This slight majority allows them to run all the ministries, and they can pass almost any bill they want. Do you think that creating an all-inclusive government, where all parties have their representatives, could help to tone down the atmosphere and that it could create a more cooperative environment?

Peter Emerson: In a word – yes. However, I think I should argue the other point first. There is no justification for majority rule. When I was in Russia, it was quite interesting, because when Gorbachev started perestroika, all sorts of experts rushed over to Moscow to tell him what to do to be democratic. They advised the system that we have here in Northern Ireland and that you now have in Poland and pretty well everyone else has as well – and that is that you elect your parliament by one of many electoral systems - apparently they all are democratic, even though some are bad and some are worse. But when it comes to what happens in parliament, nearly every parliament in the world debates things and then takes a majority vote.

These experts in Russia had a lot to say about majority rule, but Mikhail Sergeyevich doesn’t speak English, so they had to use the Russian word. And the Russian word for majoritarianism is bolshevism. It comes from the Russian word for majority which is bolshinstvo, so the member of the majority was a bolshevik and a member of the minority was a menshevik. The decision to split into bolsheviks and mensheviks was taken in 1903 in London by the mathematical accident of just one vote. The whole thing was a nonsense. But God, such a dangerous one.

If not a majority vote, what are the other ways that decisions can be made?

There are lots of voting methodologies – Borda count, Condorcet… One of these could be used. And in fact Dublin City Council recently took a vote by means of a Borda count. Which is brilliant. It was partly because they had more than two options on the agenda, so then you almost have to move beyond majority voting.

And when you look at it, the majority vote is actually the most inaccurate measure of collective opinion ever invented. It’s over two thousand years old: it was used by the Greeks and the Chinese. But there is no justification to for its use today because it’s so inaccurate.

People tend to think that parliament has to be left-wing or right-wing. Maybe it’s neither? Maybe it’s in the middle, as most countries are? And yet if they divide left and right as has happened in England, Germany, France and so many other places, you get this artificial division. But as I say it is inaccurate. Maybe the majority, if you believe in majority rule, is actually the middle ground? In politics most of the people are in the middle. To think that we should be left-wing or right-wing is totally artificial and a bit of a nonsense.

To say that the majority vote government that you have in Poland is inadequate is true. But there is also no justification for it, no principle upon which it is based. It’s just that everybody else uses majority voting. It has come to be the sort of world norm, by accident almost.

Would the preferential vote be better?

Yes. If parliament debates something that is controversial, and most things in politics are controversial, then in a plural democracy you are bound to have more than two options on the table. Almost by definition. And if there are more than two options, then yes, have the preferential vote and find that option which has the highest average preference. So you’ll get the consensus of the parliament, if it exists.

The example that I often use in this case is the decision taken by the UN Security Council in 2002 on the question of Iraq. It was such a complicated question – there were sanctions and inspections, diplomatic efforts and the use of force… And yet, when it came to the vote there was only one option on the agenda – resolution 1441. This meant you had this crazy situation that France didn’t like it and yet voted in favour of it.

What should have happened is that America and England produce one option and that’s option A, France puts a rewording and you have option B, maybe somebody else has a different idea. Then you have a debate and you can get many other options. If you don’t come to a verbal consensus then you take a preferential vote with all options on the ballot and find a consensus… if there’s one there.

Do you think that every party that has won seats in a parliament should have a representative in a government, proportionally to the number of seats they have won?

If you use the matrix vote to elect the government then it will be (approximately) in the same proportion as in the parliament. All major parties will be involved and even some of the minor parties could get in as well.

Are there any examples of governments with all political parties included?

Yes. Power-sharing and governments of national unity have been used in many conflict zones like Bosnia or Lebanon. What they don’t do, however, is take decisions by preferential voting systems. The one country that has all-party government without having a crisis first is Switzerland. They have an all-party 7-person presidential committee. Parties are represented in that according to the ratio of 2:2:2:1, which they have now changed to 2:2:1:1:1. It’s what they call a magic formula. So far the magic has worked and they’ve had it for over 50 years.

What would decision-making with a preferential voting system look like in practice?

You have a minister for example who prepares the bill and that is presented to parliament. But the debate doesn’t happen immediately. You let everybody read it and have a look at it, and if some other parties want to present an alternative then the minister’s proposal is called option A, and any other party can prepare an alternative – option B, C, or whatever. If you do things by preferential vote, by the Modified Borda Count, (MBC), then the outcome will be the option which gets the highest average preference of all the parliamentarians.

So if you want your option to win you have to make sure that it gets a lot of high preferences from your supporters, but also some middle and very few low preferences. So you also have to try and persuade your (former majoritarian) opponents that your option actually is not so bad, that in fact it’s pretty good. Because in the MBC the outcome depends on the votes of everybody and not just the majority. It’s actually a very cohesive, a very inclusive form of decision making.

Normally, if things are going to be decided by a majority vote then during the debate people get polarized, abusive and it all becomes rather childish on many occasions. But if you have the MBC at the end of things, then you find a completely different atmosphere - people are cooperating, talking with each other, making bargains with each other, like “you give me your second preference and I’ll give you my second”. What you have is a huge dialogue or actually a polylogue where everybody is talking to everybody. And when we have done it, sometimes for real and sometimes just in exercises (in workshops), it has always created a very positive atmosphere.

So in your opinion the preferential vote would be an even better way to limit conflicts in parliament?

Yeah. Well, you need both; you need an inclusive government, and secondly, in decision-making, both that government and its parliament should use the MBC. If the proposed question in parliament is dichotomous, then as in Northern Ireland guess what – it’s the unionists on one side and nationalists on the other. It’s all so predictable and, as I say, childish. But it is a false dichotomy to think that everything is a matter of right or wrong. There must be more than two ways to running an economy or developing a town. And in such a scenario, the preferential vote is best able to identify the collective will of those involved.

If you have a preferential vote, what you also need is somebody who is impartial to the process policing it or refereeing it. They listen to the debate, they make sure that all the options represented in the debate are included, at least in composite, on the final (short) list of all the options. They ensure that the process is fair.

Many politicians are in favour of the majority vote because it allows them – the leaders – to choose the question. So to suggest multi-option voting to politicians will probably make them squeal and run a mile. But other members of society like academics or journalists should be more interested.

How do you count votes using the Modified Borda Count?

If there are five options on the ballot paper then if you vote for only your favourite option and say nothing, nothing, nothing, nothing about the other options then your favourite gets one point and everything else gets nothing. But if you vote for all the options in your order of preference then in a five-option ballot your favourite option gets five points, your second preference gets four, and the next three, two and one. So the voting system itself encourages the voter to express most if not all of his or her preferences. In so doing, they acknowledge the fact that other parties’ options are perfectly valid, that they have their good points as well as their bad. Maybe this option is a little bit better than that one, so it could be a reasonable second preference and that maybe a third one and so on. Because this system encourages people to vote like that you get this much healthier atmosphere in the parliament.

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