How to argue about voting systems

Arguments about voting systems seem to miss the point more often than one would expect by chance. So I’ve set out a few propositions below that I think get less attention or credit than they should (I should say none are original, and I’ve said most of it before[1])

  1. There is no good voting system. Ken Arrow got a Nobel[2] prize for pointing this out in 1951, but much debate about voting systems proceeds as if this isn’t the case.
  2. Voting systems should serve “the people” not the parties. Voting systems should be judged on whether they produce real-world outcomes (not seats or governments or even policies) that best reflect the preferences of the people even the ones they don’t realise they have[3]. Parties are just a means to an end.
  3. The most popular arguments for Proportional Representation are worthless[4]. By this I refer to any argument along the lines of “Party x won y% of the vote but only got z% of the seats. I don’t care that your team was robbed. Go back to watching soccer.
  4. Political parties are evolutionary products of the voting system. Parties are how they are because of the rules of their ecosystem. It’s meaningless to say that if Westminster used PR the Green Party would get more seats because if Westminster used PR the Green party would be a different party. With different members and different candidates – individual politicians respond to voting rules when they decide which parties to join[5]. Arguing against the current voting system based on injustice it does to the political parties it created is not even wrong.
  5. Political parties can influence outcomes without winning a single seat. An obvious point, worth making again. The Labour and Tory Parties are a wee bit greener and more xenophobic anti-immigrant than they would be if the Green Party and UKIP didn’t exist. Congratulate yourselves Greens and Kippers, you already won. Yes, you only had a marginal effect, but that’s because most people disagree with you.
  6. First Past The Post is a stupid name. There is no post. The 100m sprint analogies used in the anti AV campaign are conceptually stupid[6]. If we must use sporting analogies, FPTP is like the shot put. But we don’t need to be this dumb.
  7. Votes are a signal wrapped up in an incentive[7]. Just not a very clear signal or a very strong incentive. I expand on some of these arguments in excruciating greater detail in this paper. Voting systems (like AV) that convey more information may be better than otherwise very similar voting systems (like FPTP) that convey less, all else equal[8].
  8. We should be making voting systems more complex. The additional complexity of a voting system is a feature not a bug. Politics is complex. Policies are complex. Democracy gives me the (admittedly very weak) power to impose my views on you. The votes of people who can’t be bothered to figure out how a voting system works should be down-weighted compared to those who can. Obviously, we could take this argument too far, but I think this is true of any currently proposed voting system (i.e. any system that can be comprehended by any adult of sound mind with the inclination to spend 5 minutes on the BBC website).
  9. No we should not be making voting more convenient. For more or less the same reasons as #8, charging people to vote, in the only currency we all have an equal amount of (time) is OK. I’m not saying people should have to swim through treacle to vote, but really, showing up at your local primary school at any time during waking hours or filling in a postal vote form is as easy as it should ever be.
  10. AV[9] is probably the only voting system that is almost certainly better than FPTP[10]. This is a personal hunch (see #2 & #11). Of course, other systems may be better than AV, but that’s much harder to demonstrate.
  11. Maybe it’s just not feasible to argue that any major voting system is better than any other. I might not go this far (see #10), but it’s certainly a reasonable position, given the empirical difficulties posed by point #2.
  12. Addendum: This isn’t about you. Any argument based on you having zero influence (e.g. because you live in a safe seat under FPTP) is inadmissible. You’re supposed to have (virtually) zero influence! If a lot of other people (in the same and other constituencies) share your preferences, you’ll be ok – their votes will influence the outcome for you. If no one else shares your views you deserve zero influence.

Acknowledgments: This post was most recently sparked by twitter discussions  with John Rentoul and Carl Gardner and improved after discussions with Daragh McDowell and Aric Gilinsky.

[1] Nobody listened then either.

[2] Yes, I know it wasn’t a proper one. I just don’t care.

[3] Glossing over many things here, but in brief: most people don’t know sh$t. But, in principle, we can estimate, ex post, the effects on welfare using people’s preferences as a guide.

[4] Is that going too far? I don’t think so.

[5] Defections being only the most prominent cases of this.

[6] OK, more of a pet peeve than a worthwhile argument, but that’s what blogs are for.

[7] With apologies to Tyler Cowan and Alex Tabarrok.

[8] Voting systems that provide more of an incentive (i.e. where votes carry more weight, like PR sometimes) may be better than those that provide less (like FPTP), but all else is much less equal in this case, so this is much less clear.

[9] I’m using this loosely to refer to similar instant runoff single member systems that allow voters to indicate more than just their first preference.

[10] This could be my least popular political view? How dull.


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