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Our 350 on Donald Trump: electoral reform

"The recent success of campaigns, such as Trump and Brexit, should compel us to make a critical analysis of the way modern democracies conduct elections."

Judy Bogaard Dave Read
15 November 2016

The recent success of campaigns, such as Trump and Brexit, should compel us to make a critical analysis of the way modern democracies conduct elections. Democracy is fragile and needs careful nurturing.

The current frustration and alienation of voters could lead to systems or leaders that we would rather avoid, just as it did in the early twentieth  century. Information is paramount in every field. It should be also in the realm of politics.

The system of party funding of election campaigns and the feedback loop of opinion polls is threatening democracy. The media’s coverage, with its focus on personalities and their entertainment value is marginalizing policy debate. Voters feel that their vote is about as significant as that for a TV talent show.

We propose an alternative system. Political parties would submit all policy to the Electoral Commission well before an election. The Commission would supply a spreadsheet to the public and media with each party’s policies and the mechanisms by which they will be implemented, costed independently by the Treasury and presented in a standard format. Current policy would be displayed in the same spreadsheet so that each voter can see what changes are proposed. The system of public- funded broadcasting time allocated to each party would continue and be expanded to explain and allow debate of the policy spreadsheets in depth. Opinion polls in the lead up to an election would be banned as they distract from a focus on policies. We have a precedent for this: in New Zealand, section 197 of the Electoral Act prohibits anything that can be said to interfere with or influence voters, including advertising and opinion polls. Unfortunately it only applies to Election Day.

After a complete electoral term we would be able to compare the current situation with the original policies, providing an invaluable “score card” for the incumbent government and allowing voters to see just what has or has not been achieved. The Electoral Commission would be charged with making the policy comparison template in order to present policy in the most meaningful form to voters. Immediately following each election the Commission would take public submissions on improving the structure of the policy template.

If we truly value democracy and want to maintain it in a vibrant state with an informed electorate keen to participate, then the status quo is not an option. It is now time to refine our rules around electioneering to promote the rational debate needed for strong democracy.

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