In an era marked by division and conflict, politics can often be negative and nasty. But could electoral reform be the solution? Rethinking how we ask voters what they want could ensure representative government for all and help us create a collaborative political culture.
Not all democracies are created equal
Electoral systems vary. But all of them, apparently, are democratic. Decision-making, in contrast, seldom varies, and many decisions are taken by a (simple or weighted) majority vote. Variations may occur with regard to minimum turnouts; referendums may be advisory or binding. Sometimes, especially in conflict zones, double majorities are required. But the question is invariably dichotomous: it is either “option A or option B?” or just “option A, yes-or-no?” or, at worst, “options A – Z, yes-or-no to all or none of them?”
If I wanted to know the average age of a particular group of people, I could ask a binary question – “Are you young or old?” – in which case, with an average audience, the answer is bound to be wrong. With a multi-option question, however – “Are you in your 20s, 30s… whatever?” – and if voters say what they are and not what they are not, the answer could be quite accurate.
Similarly, when trying to identify an average opinion, information as to what some voters do not want is unhelpful. But from a short list, if everyone votes for what they do want, it should be possible to identify the most popular option.
Adopting a more accurate decision-making procedure, a non-majoritarian preferential points system, could make majority rule – a cause of so much bitterness and suffering in the world – obsolete. Escaping majority rule would help create a more inclusive, consensual polity. This suggestion comes with a warning: the rise of populism in Europe may one day see an extremist party achieve 50 per cent of the vote and take power. We must reform now, lest it be too late.
A brief history of classical democracy
Majority voting worked fairly well in ancient Greece, in part because there were no political parties in those days. So the ‘rich-men-only’ voted with each other one day and against on the next, without falling into permanently opposing factions.
The Romans, however, found fault. The consul, Africanus, was dead, murdered. His manservant lay accused. And the court of law had three possibilities: A acquittal, B banishment, or C capital punishment. If the question was “execute, yes or no?” the A and B supporters might vote to save him. If “liberate, yes or no?” B and C could try to punish him; or if “exile, yes or no?” A and C might join forces. If in a multi-option debate there is no majority for any one option, the outcome of any majority vote might depend less on the preferences of those voting and more on the choice of question. So in CE 105, Pliny the Younger invented plurality voting, and to finish the story, the servant was banished.
Bosnia and Brexit: The perils of binary choices
Divided by the 1990 election, Bosnian society was 40:30:20 – Muslim:Orthodox:Catholic. So here too, there was no majority, and in a binary contest, in a ballot or a battle, any two religious groups could combine against the other. The EU (then the European Community) nevertheless “insisted” on a plebiscite, and the rest is history – “all the wars in the former Yugoslavia started with a referendum”. The same now applies to the war in Ukraine.
In 2016, the UK debated its relationship with the EU. There were (at least) four options: the UK in the A EU, B European Economic Area, C Customs Union or D World Trade Organisation. The referendum, however, was a majority vote on just one of them: “option A, yes-or-no?” Only 48 per cent said ‘yes’, and so Remain lost. But a ballot on any of the other options would probably have lost as well.
After all, options B, C and D together achieved a total of 52 per cent, so maybe each of the three got about 17 per cent. In which case, if there had been a multi-option vote, option A might well have been the outright winner.
So, again, if no one option has majority support, a ‘yes-or-no?’ question may be inappropriate and the answer hopelessly inaccurate. In identifying any collective will, any ‘no’ answers – information as to what certain voters do not want – is at best unhelpful. If the electorate had been offered a choice of the above four options, it would have been possible to see which option was the most popular.
Admittedly, in a straight plurality vote, the outcome might have been close to a dead heat, with each of the four options getting about 25 per cent support. Plurality voting can indeed be capricious.
Modified Borda Count: escaping adversarial politics
A more accurate methodology is the Modified Borda Count (MBC), the multi-option points system in which voters cast their preferences on one, some or all the options listed. In the debate before the vote, every relevant proposal is ‘on the table’ – as long as it complies with the United Nations Charter on Human Rights. A team of independent referees decides on a shortlist, usually of about four to six options, to best represent the debate. Next, those concerned cast their preferences. These are then turned into points, and the winning option is the one with the biggest total.
He who votes for only one option gives this choice just one point. She who votes for two options gives her favourite two points, (and her second preference one point). And so on. So in a five-option ballot, if you want your favourite to get the maximum five points – you have to cast all five preferences.
Because success depends on the total number of points, candidates will want a good number of high preferences, some middle ones perhaps, but very few low ones. In other words, candidates will be incentivised not only to persuade their supporters to submit full ballots, but also to talk positively with their opponents.
So the MBC methodology encourages full participation and mutual respect. In a word, it is inclusive.
The tyranny of the majority
Nearly all electoral systems are regarded as democratic. Different electoral systems tend to produce different party structures and these too, seemingly, are all democratic. Britain has first-past-the-post (FPTP) and, therefore, two large parties. In contrast, Belgium’s proportional representation (PR) list means that lots of parties are represented in parliament. And the German multi-member proportional system, which is half FPTP and half PR, means the Bundestag has two large and a few smaller parties. There are quite a few other variations. If a country has a high fixed threshold, and Turkey’s 10 per cent is a world record, then even with PR, very few parties get into parliament. If there is no fixed threshold, and if the entire country is just the one constituency as in the Netherlands, many parties will be represented.
What happens at the moment after an election is often quite bizarre. In a two-party system, as in the UK, unless the parliament is hung with no party having a majority, the winning party forms the government and its leader becomes the premier. He/she appoints all the ministers, and this cabinet then proposes legislation which, after due debate, the said party’s majority in parliament predictably supports. In effect, it is an elected dictatorship.
When no one party or bloc has a majority in parliament, elections are sometimes followed by negotiations among the newly-elected politicians, as they try to concoct a coalition. The process may take days – 225 in the Netherlands in 2017, 313 in Spain in 2016 and 451 in Belgium in 2010/11, another world record. As this article goes to press in December 2017, Germany’s latest inter-party talks have also collapsed. A third world record was set in India in 1998 when 41 parties made up the majority coalition. The more parties there are, of course, the more majority coalitions are possible. All of them, or at least the one chosen, are regarded as totally democratic, as are any laws subsequently enacted by that majority. It is all based on the ubiquitous use of the 2500-year-old majority vote.
Power sharing as default
The MBC methodology gives a more accurate picture of voter preferences, and is therefore more democratic and non-majoritarian. It identifies the option with the highest average preference, and an average, of course, involves everyone who votes, not just a majority of them. If, then, the MBC were the international norm, there would be no further justification for majority rule, anywhere. In the USA, Turkey and Israel, for instance, Trump, Erdoğan and Netanyahu would have to share power with, respectively, the Democrats, the Kurds and the Arab List.
No one party should ever have power in excess of its proportional due, and certainly no extremist parties. In today’s coalition politics this is often the case: in Austria in 1999 (and again in 2017), in the Netherlands in 2000 when the Freedom Party supported the government, in Israel in 2015 when Jewish Home joined Likud in a majority coalition of one, and, in the UK in 2017 when the Democratic Unionist Party joined forces with the Conservative Party. All of these horrible concoctions are possible, only because of a belief in majority rule and the practice of majority voting.
Democracy should not be a means by which one section of society can dominate the rest, even if only until the next election. Rather, it should be for everybody. The democratic process should be a means by which all concerned can identify that which is at least the best possible compromise, better still the consensus, and at best the collective wisdom.
Accordingly, power should be shared. It is indeed better, they say, to have the camels in the tent pissing out, rather than outside pissing in. Trouble could come, of course, if they were indeed inside but still pissing around. It is nevertheless contended that Ireland’s Sinn Féin, for example, and Germany’s Alternative für Deutschland, should have their proportional due not only in parliament but also in government. Let them be responsible. As long as decisions are collective and the parties involved are several, no one party will ever be able to exercise excessive influence. Those who can be responsible will. And those who cannot, to take the analogy further, will either piss off or be told to do so at the next election.
There will always be conflict in politics, both within and between parties. There therefore must be a decision-making mechanism by which such conflicts can be resolved. In a pluralist democracy, a binary ballot is at best inappropriate, often dysfunctional, and at worst, a provocation to violence. An MBC, in contrast, is inclusive and, as has been shown even in conflict zones, can be the very catalyst of consensus.
A model for cross-party collaboration
A more democratic structure would see, not only the people elect the parliament, ideally by a preferential form of PR, but also the parliament (not select but) elect a government. With the appropriate methodology, a matrix vote, members of parliament (MPs) could choose, in order of preference, not only those whom they wanted to be in government, but also the ministry in which they wished each of these nominees to serve.
While based on an MBC, the matrix vote has a quota element and is proportional. A party with 30 per cent of the seats in parliament might expect about 30 per cent of the seats in government. So having given her higher preferences to her party colleagues for about 30 per cent of the cabinet seats, it would be wise for any member of this party to then vote for MPs of other parties, those with whom she considers co-operation to be more likely.
The matrix vote would encourage members to vote across not only gender and party divides but also across ethno-religious chasm(s). At best, the outcome would be an inclusive, all-party, power-sharing, coalition government of national unity.
The imperative for change
In an inclusive political structure, decisions in parliaments would be taken in consensus, rarely without a vote, more usually with a preferential MBC ballot. Decisions in referendums would also be subject to an MBC poll. In both settings, the (short) list of options would be finalised by a team of independent non-voting referees.
Parliament would consist of elected individuals, all sharing collective responsibility for the common good. MPs would debate with each other, vote – albeit in their individual orders of preference – with (and not against) each other, and work with each other to implement all decisions which gain a sufficient level of support.
With the rise of populism, it is odd that many people are prepared to maintain a system by which an extremist party could get 50 per cent of the vote and assume total power. Hitler, after all, came to power democratically, via a (weighted) majority vote – the 1933 Enabling Act. If we continue to believe in majority rule and practice majority voting, history could easily repeat itself.
 Ste. Croix, G. E. M. (2005) Athenian Democratic Origins. OUP Oxford.
 McLean, I, Urken A.B. (eds) (1995) Classics of Social Choice. University of Michigan, Ann Arbor.
 Woodward, S. L. (1995) Balkan Tragedy. The Brookings Institution, Washington.
 Oslobodjenje, 7.2.1999.
 Emerson, P. (2016) From Majority Rule to Inclusive Politics, Springer, Heidelberg.