Monday, 13 September 2010

Electoral Disenfranchisement

The Committee recalled that it was minded to bring forward proposals inviting the States to introduce a system of deposits for election candidates, and to amend the nomination procedures for Senators to provide that each candidate would require 2 seconders from each parish in a senatorial election. The Committee had agreed that a threshold of 5% of the votes should be applied under which a candidate would lose their deposit... Having discussed the various options, the Committee agreed that deposits should be lost if a candidate did not receive a vote from at least 5% of the total number of voters in the election. This test would apply equally across every district irrespective of the number of candidates standing for election.

The Committee gave further consideration as to whether different levels of deposit should be introduced for different elections, but agreed that a standard £500 deposit should be applied in respect of elections for Senator, Deputy and Connétable. It was agreed that, if a candidate's deposit had been sponsored, then this should be stated upon receipt. Candidates would only be able to stand for election if the correct deposit had been received in advance of the nomination meeting.

In respect of the nomination procedure for Senators, and the Committee's proposal that candidates be required to obtain 2 signatures from each parish, it was noted that, while the number of persons registered to vote in each parish varied widely, it would be extremely complicated to introduce a system that reflected in a proportionate way the differing electorates of the 12 parishes. The Committee therefore confirmed that a simple system of 2 signatures from each of the 12 parishes should be pursued.

Election deposits in the UK were introduced to stop frivolous candidates from standing, and as far as that goes, they succeed very well. What does not seem to have been addressed, however, is how far they disenfranchise poorer people from standing for election. The moral argument seems to be wholly one of utilitarianism, of targeting frivolous candidates, and it is not clear whether Jersey should adopt this as a good ethical principal without at least considering the problem of the poorer voter.

It is not that long ago that in order to stand for election, a politician had to have sufficient private means, and that was seen as unjust, of privileging only those who could afford to stand. The situation was then for a means-tested salary to be paid to States members, which seemed eminently fair for enabling poorer candidates to stand without being barred by way of means. But because of apparent unfairness to candidates with sufficient means, it was decided to widen that to include all candidates, regardless of means. Yet when it comes to a deposit being necessary - and of £500 - a not insignificant sum - the whole move against people being disenfranchised because of lack of funds is reversed on purely pragmatic grounds, that it keeps out "chancers".

I cannot find the ethical dimension addressed anywhere in this debate: should we rely on utilitarianism as a standard for judgment? Yet that is basically what is being proposed here, not what is just, not what ensures fairness to everyone, without favour, regardless of means, but simply what works to exclude the frivolous candidate. What lesson this is teaching the politicians of the future? That pragmatism is the basis on which democratic reforms should be founded? That expediency should be the yardstick by which we measure changes in the ability of someone to stand for office? I know that election deposits occur in other countries, but I remain unconvinced that they have addressed the moral question either - if you look at the history of deposits, the pragmatic argument rules. Should we just follow suit, because it has been done elsewhere? I don't think much of that argument either.

Karl Popper warned planners to always be on the look out for unexpected consequences of actions. One of the unexpected consequences of electoral deposits is to take away the option of standing from the poorer people in the Island, and effectively disenfranchise them. But are there other means of doing this which will not cause the same problems?

One of those might be to drop the idea of an election deposits system in favour of requiring candidates to provide a higher number of signatures in order to stand in elections, so that it would exclude numbers just based on immediate family and close friends. But I think that should be done generally, not as PPC suggest, on a "per Parish basis". This is to prejudge the voting outcome. I think 30 - 40 votes on the nomination papers (on anywhere in the Island) would remove the "chancers" who have easily 10 family and friends.

When someone is standing as Senator, PPC's suggestions would mean that someone with widespread Island support from eleven Parishes could be prevented from standing because of a failure to secure votes in one Parish. Now if election boundaries were fair, and there were the same number of people in each Parish, this might seem like a good idea, but as we all know, there are far fewer people in the Island in St Mary's Parish than any other.

While St Mary's Parish is not quite a "rotten borough" (in the sense of the pre-1832 UK Reform Act), it still has a disproportionate voting power in the States compared to other Parishes - the ratio of voting population / candidates for St Mary is almost double that of many other Parishes. This means that candidates wanting to stand for election could be effectively held to ransom over their political objectives by St Mary's electors in order to secure the necessary votes - if it was to be proportionate, it would mean 2 votes from all other Parishes, and one vote from St Mary to ensure candidature.

But to require voting support for candidates in this way could be seen as prejudging the voting outcome of the election. For a Senator to gain enough votes, does it matter if they failed to get one nomination vote from one Parish? This would bias the election in favour of those who were already known on the public stage, and those who managed to find enough people in St Mary - a country district - to agree with their manifesto.

As there is a clear division on elections between town and country, as can be seen from voting patterns on election night, this would throw up a clear bias in favour of the country candidate as being suitable Senatorial material, and the larger urban districts might not even get a look in. Town voters would find it harder to find one of their number who would past muster, and a bias towards the often more conservative Country candidate would be introduced. Now I'm not saying either that a more left or right wing candidate would be a good thing - I personally think the States needs both - but simply that this proposal would introduce a bias which would not be fair to the urban population.

In conclusion, I remain unconvinced that the proposals by PPC are well founded on ethical considerations, on principles of fairness and justice. They seem to me to be largely influenced by pragmatism - if it works, it must be right - and I'm not sure that is either good for local politics, or good for setting an example to the youth of the Island either.

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