Democracy, can we actually vote for it?

The Western world claims to be a democracy. With lobbyists and big money having so much influence that statement might be up for debate. But we still have a vote to get the right people to power, don’t we? It depends on how you look at it.

What is the influence of our voting system on our voting behaviour?

What do we actually do when we vote? In most voting systems that I know, with the exception of Australia, you check one box on a list. In essence, you vote for one party. That may sound like it’s democratic but how often have you wished that you could vote for 2, or even 3 parties because they, together, represent best what you stand for? Right now you have to make a choice and that choice can be a hard one. It is also detrimental for new parties or minority parties because you might make a choice that is not based on who best represents you but on who has the best chance to get more votes. So, instead of just voting, you are also burdened with trying to make a prediction of the voting habits of others in order to make sure your vote is not lost. This is especially the case if you want to make sure there is enough counterweight against a political party from the other side of the political spectrum. This is tricky business at best.

It usually goes something like this in multi party systems. Say there are party A and B on your side of the political spectrum, X and Y are all the way on the other side and K and L are somewhat in the middle. Now say that X has become very popular and you absolutely don’t want to get them to come to power. You have one vote to cast. That means you actually vote for one party and against all the rest in an equal way. Party A and B are both in line with your own ideology and they are both established parties. Are you going to cast your vote to party A or B? This is a difficult choice because you don’t know what other voters will do. This decision gets even worse if you would be more aligned with a party that is not yet established, say K. Would you then cast your vote on K? Or would you think it’s a better strategy to go for the more established candidates?

Say you cast your vote to party K. When the results are published, it looks like this:

  • Party A: 22%
  • Party B: 18%
  • Party K: 7%
  • Party L: 18%
  • Party X: 33%
  • Party Y: 2%

You might go, damn! I wish I had cast my vote to party A or B. Or, why didn’t more people vote for party K? Maybe they were afraid that their vote would be lost? The thing is, you’ll never know because the voting system does not bring these things to the surface.

Party X now announces itself as the winner of the elections and representing the voice of the people and if you live in a country where coalitions need to be made, they will use this ‘victory’ as a power tool to make things go their way because they are backed by the people. Well, they are backed by 33% of the people. We actually don’t know anything about the support they have from the other 67%. Does that sound fair and democratic to you?

If we clump the political spectrums together we have the following result:

  • Side A, B: 40%
  • Middle: 25%
  • Side: X, Y: 35%

So, 65% does not support that side of the political spectrum, Sadly enough, their view on leadership will now become the dominant way of governance. Partly because they probably managed to force it into a governance agreement with the other parties they are forming a coalition with. How democratic is this?

And in countries like the US, having to make these kind of decisions when voting makes it virtually impossible for independant candidates to win the elections. It’s even worse than that. Some people might even decide not to run for president out of fear that they might steal votes away from the party that they consider to be the second best choice, or the best of the lesser evils. Their candidacy might help the one that they absolutely don’t want to come power, come into power. The voting system protects the 2 party system immensily!

Popularity contests

Another side effect of these kind of voting systems is that elections become a popularity contest, not a call for sane governance. This is reflected in the numerous amounts of broken promises in any political system. It is not just the voting system that contributes to this of course but it does add to it.

In order to get voted in, you need to persuade people to choose your party above any others. It’s not enough to be second in mind for the entire population, no, you need to be top of mind. That means there is now an immense incentive to avoid anything that might be seen as unpopular, even if it would contribute to sane governance.

Taxes are one of those things that have been used over and over again to become popular. Throw tax breaks in your election progran and you are guaranteed to become popular with quite a few voters. But tax breaks means reduced income for government, which means dimished ability for spending. So, after getting into power, the cuts come to the surface. And usually in places where it hurts like healthcare, pensions, unemployment programs, privatisation of government services which usually lead to price hikes… And paradoxicaly enough, new taxes are often introduced too. Of course, you can’t become popular by coming out with a program that says you can only lower taxes if you then take away a whole range of benefits, so that part is conveniently left out.

Popularity contests do not make good governance though, as we have probably all experienced. The truth is, good governance looks at the long term and looks at things from a more systemic point of view. That means that it needs to be acknowledged that taxes are necessary to fund government projects that serve the people, as they should. It also means being open to different points of views and then deciding on the best solution to the best of our ability based on the knowledge we have at hand.

Currently though, because of the popuraity race, there is too much tendency to portray whatever the other party says as stupid, not realistic and lacking solid ground without the introduction of any facts whatsoever or cherry picked data at best.

Popularity races are also strengthened by the ideology based party system itself. Ideology based groups will always be at least partially blind to the advantages of proposals from adversaries. But that is for another article.

Are there better ways?

There are better voting systems than the ones we have in most parts of the world.

For a long time I believed that the cumulative voting system was a good one but it has some drawbacks. With cumulative voting you either select multiple options or you distribute a number of points, often equal to the number of options, between the possible choices. This gives a clear image of which parties are preferred but does not allow you to express a clear dislike of an option.

Take the example above and let’s use a point voting system. In this case that means 6 points are distributed among the parties. Imagine the extreme case where the voters for party X are all die hard loyalists and everyone else is squarely against them. That would mean that all 33 X voters would assign their full 6 points to party X, giving them 198 out of 600 points when there are 100 voters in total. Even if they don’t get a single point from the others, they would still end up with 33% of the points and would probably declare themselves the winner if none of the other parties managed to rake in more points.

Maybe adding an equal number of negative points might solve the problem. In the extreme case of the example given here that would mean that everyone who is not voting for party X would allot their 6 negative points to party X, subtracting 402 points from their result. That would have them end up with -204 while their voters would only have 198 negative point available to distribute over all the other parties.There is no way they would come out on top like that. But I haven’t found any research about a system like this

There are a lot of voting systems out there and if you want an exhaustive list I suggest to have a look at Wikipedia’s voting system page. I have been looking into them and the Shulze method looks very promising but it is designed to select a single winner, something that in a lot of countries is not really desirable. Shulze himself apparently thought the same and created a variation that allows people to elect multiple winners: the Shulze STV method.

As you can see, there is no clear winner and voting is a very complex matter when you look at all the different criteria that come into play. Yet, I believe that the voting systems we have in place in our political decision system today are not up to the job of delivering representative results. And the way forward is going for better, not perfect.

Also published on Medium.

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Filed under: Politics & Economy


  1. Synopsis please. (Too much to read)
    Break it down to a paragraph.

    • In short, it comes down to the following: the method of voting influences the results. And in most cases, those results fail to accurately represent what is really supported by the people. It is not because 33% of the population flocks to a specific political party that that party has a more general support. It just might be that the other 67% of the voters are radically against it. This is not reflected in voting systems around the world. Therefor it’s important to consider the consequences of the voting systems we put in place.

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