openDemocracyUK

Another voting system to wrap your brains around: MC-FPTP

David Rickard proposes a Multi-Candidate First Past the Post system
David Rickard
11 February 2010

Following on from my previous post on the Alternative Vote (AV), I’ve been playing around in my mind with different possible voting systems. As I’ve said before, the best system, in my opinion, is STV, favoured by the Liberal Democrats (who I won’t be voting for, by the way, because of their duplicitous abandonment of support for a referendum on Britain’s EU membership) and the Electoral Reform Society.

However, if the single-member constituency system is retained (STV relies on multi-member constituencies), this means, by definition, that only one candidate can win. So you need the best way to find out which is the candidate who is genuinely the most popular. AV doesn’t do this, despite the Scottish British-English prime minister’s hypocritical assertions to that effect, as I argued before: it merely determines the least unpopular candidate, or – technically – the candidate that a majority of voters whose selections remain in play within the AV system (i.e. not necessarily the majority of all those who voted) are prepared to give their grudging consent to, even if that candidate is only their third-, fourth- or even fifth-choice candidate.

The best way to determine who is genuinely the most popular candidate, even if not the first choice of a majority of voters, is as follows:

  • All voters can vote for as many candidates as they like: they simply mark an X beside the name for each candidate they wish to vote for
  • Each vote carries the same weight, i.e. there is no attempt to determine people’s ‘preferences’: if you vote for someone, this means you are making a positive choice for that candidate. They may not in fact be your personal ‘first choice’; but they are a candidate who you would be ‘happy’ to see elected and to consider as someone for whom you had made a definite, deliberate choice
  • The winner is the candidate obtaining the most votes, whether a majority or not.

Adopting a system like this means that there are no excuses. If you vote for someone, this is not a tactical vote, or a second or third best: you’ve voted for them, so you can’t complain if they win. It means you can vote for candidates you personally like, even if you don’t like their party very much, as well as voting on the basis of the political party you want to win the election overall. And it means, above all, that the winner is genuinely the most popular candidate: the one whom most people in the constituency are willing to support in a positive way.

Like AV, this would not be a proportional system when translated to a national level, simply because it continues to exclude the smaller parties from winning any seats, and because candidates can still win on a minority share of the vote. However, it is equally true, under my system, that many candidates would secure the support of the majority of those voting, even if not a majority of the total vote, based on the fact that more than half of voters would have indicated the winning candidate as one of their choices (or their only choice), whereas that candidate’s total share of the vote would be diluted by the fact that some voters had selected more than one candidate.

Similarly, my proposed system would change the results of elections in some unpredictable and quite dramatic ways. For instance, in the constituency I live in, the sitting Tory MP will probably be re-elected under FPTP with a majority of the vote (e.g. around 55%). However, the Liberal Democrat is likely to come a close second, and the other parties (in previous elections at least) have been nowhere in sight (I think Labour polled around 10% last time). If existing Labour voters decided to vote Labour and Liberal Democrat, under my system, this could be enough to swing the seat in favour of the Lib Dems. You could say this is just engineering the system to favour the Lib Dems at the expense of the Tories. However, if the value of each vote is identical (i.e. each vote is an equal, positive vote for the candidate(s) of the voter’s choice), there is actually no way you could say that if more people voted for the Lib Dems than for the Tories under this system, this was a ‘false result’, like those under AV. That would amount to insulting, indeed slandering, the electorate by saying that voters didn’t really prefer the Lib Dem candidate to the Tory, whereas the results prove the opposite: one vote = one positive choice.

Similarly, this system would empower voters to mark their approval for all of the candidates / parties they liked, meaning, among other things, that the share of the vote obtained by the smaller parties would rise: if you support UKIP but would be worried, under the existing system, that voting for them would let the Labour candidate in, under my system you could vote for both UKIP (to express your support for their positions on the EU and immigration, for instance) and vote Tory to keep the Labour candidate out. But then you couldn’t grumble about your Tory MP, because you’d made a positive choice for them. If you don’t want the Tory, don’t vote for them; but then don’t complain if the Tory wins on a minority of the vote, because the system has at least enabled the most popular candidate to win.

So I offer this new system (but horrid name) for the votes of my readers: better than standard FPTP or not; and better than AV or not?

PS: I subsequently found out that this system already exists and is called Approval Voting. However, it's not been used for any popular elections anywhere throughout the world.

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