Monday, 11 March 2013

Vote Informally: The Case for Option D.

"I don't think government should compel people to go and vote if they don't want to vote. We live in a free society. If you don't like politics, if you don't think the leaders are much chop, you should have the freedom to go 'no, I'm not voting" (Mark Latham)
One of the main failings of the electoral commission and the States is the refusal to address what I call "Option D", the right to say "none of the above". I've been taking soundings and talking to a number of people, none of whole like what is on offer, and most of whom will either vote for one option as the best of a very bad job, or not vote at all.
One thing is for certain, there won't be, as in Australia, a call for a mass spoiling of papers, leaving them all blank. The reason for the difference is simple. In Australia voting is compulsory.
In Australia, where people have to vote, former politician Mark Latham said: "They say voting is compulsory in Australia but it's not compulsory to fill out the ballot paper, you can put it straight into the ballot box totally blank."
This is technically termed "voting informally". As well as leaving ballot papers blank, Australia also saw protest votes by using  scribbles, slogans and other protest vote marks on the ballot papers.
Mark Latham was pilloried by a number of people who said that it was a juvenile approach to take, like a spoilt child. But why should it be? To vote for a particular person, or in the case of the referendum, legitimises that option, and that is something that a number of people in Jersey are just not prepared to do.
Of course, I cannot help suspecting that one of the reasons against having "None of the Above" is that it would send out a clear vote of confidence on the Electoral Commission. Instead of which, whichever option wins, they can claim success in providing the people of Jersey with the choice they wanted.
That's why I also expect a lot of people to vote for Option C. Some don't especially want to Constables in the States. Some don't want superconstituencies. But the one thing pretty well all of them that I've talked to do want is to retain the Senators. I am still hearing about Island wide mandates. That is something which a good many people do not want to lose.
They know the arguments but they trust their gut feeling more. Gut feelings are something rationalists always find it hard to understand, but we've seen them surface time and again. You cannot argue people into submission.
Look at the horse meat scandal. The rational argument was that food should have been labelled with proper provenance, but it was really the gut feeling  of revulsion that was more important. And how a number of voters feel is rather as if we are not seeing the proper ingredients in the Referendum, and the Commission is trying to palm off the voters with horsemeat.
So a vote for Option C can also be a vote for Option D. It is not a vote for the "status quo", it is a vote to keep the Senators. But because of the poor way in which the choices have been framed, there are no other routes available. I don't think the Electoral Commission really took into account the strength of feeling for the all Island mandate; it seems to have made up its mind that for change, the Senators must go.
In fact, I think it unlikely that anyone who votes for Option C is happy with the current system; this is simply the one option that says "No" to the other two options. If there had been an "Option D", they would have just as easily voted for that.
If there was compulsory voting, the informal option would certainly be the best way to go, but without that, the best option in game theory for Option D is to vote for Option C.
It will mean back to the drawing board and more frustrations. That cannot be helped. But sometimes it is better to wait and ensure that whatever is chosen is the best option, rather than settling for second best, the least worst option.
The Electoral Commission were congratulated for the speed of their deliberations, but perhaps part of the problem was that haste. They may have done the best they could but it still looks like a rushed job to get the options sorted out.
The proposed form of the questions came out only with the final report by the commission, and at that point, the Commission was close to new submissions. So - there was no feedback on the form of choices, apart from that given by a few politicians (who must be commended for doing so) in the States.
This was a major weakness in the Commission's results, and an opportunity lost. They should have gone back to seek more submissions. Instead we only had a consultation on the interim recommendations.
As a result, even some politicians I have spoken to who are supporting Option A or Option B acknowledge that it is a mess. Those supporting Option C are quite sure of that. Common descriptions I have heard of the choices are "a pig's breakfast", "a muddle", "hashed together at speed".
The other way of expressing frustration is simply not to vote. It is one of the causes for electoral apathy - the idea that it will not really change anything. How we interpret any option - A, B or C - if the turnout is perhaps as low as 15% is another matter.
What is absolutely certain is that it will not represent the popular mandate.This is not a case of stratified random sampling, where the proportion who vote can be deemed to be representative of the whole. Anyone who suggests that simply doesn't understand statistics. A random and stratified sample is used in opinion polls, and significance tests can show how well it represents the whole. But an election by its very nature is not random. It is a self-selecting sample.
If anything, an extremely low turnout shows that people want Option D - none of the above, or that they simply couldn't care less. Not everyone is politically motivated, and short of a system of compulsory voting, it is unlikely that they will go out and vote. And as Gerald Kaufman said "those who are most dependent on the state seem to have the least engagement with it".


Nick Le Cornu said...

Most of us have reservations about aspects of the two Options, A or B. I say two, because C is not an option; it is the broken present with its mass voter abstention and disengagement.

I object to the reduction in numbers. Scrutiny will be reduced to an even more toothless dog than it is now, staffed essentially with loyalists (there are noble exceptions I need not name). This of course is the intention. The Executive will be even more powerful than now.

The real point is that, for me, Option A embodies some fundamental changes that are crucial to the creation of a democratic States, a democratic Island and one where progressive change is feasible. These are: All elected on the same day, one category of member, equal and fair votes for all, equal size constituencies; inevitably contested elections (no pocket or “rotten boroughs”), the ending of the historical injustice of the political dominance of Country over Town (gerrymandered). Since Option A embodies those things, inspite of imperfections, it is a symbol for hope and for change. To vote for A, is an act of hope; a belief that change really can come. To abstain or vote otherwise is a step backward; to resign oneself to passivity.

Option A has to win on the first round of voting to demonstrate the Public Will for a type of reform that offers real change. Remember, the Referendum is purely advisory. Any legislation has to be passed by the existing States under its present, flawed, structure. The likelihood is that the Turkeys will not vote for Christmas. They will filibuster; they will postpone any decision, so that in the end the elections are fought with the existing structure, thus preserving seats and pension supplementing salary for more individuals that might otherwise be the case under either Option A or B.

Those who devised the Referendum, with its three “options” less the “none of the above!” (which would have been an option), did so with the expectation and hope it would deliver support for option B. Remember Option B is government policy as the Chief Minister has endorsed the retention of Constables.

The Referendum is a way of legitimising something that is clearly inegalitarian and rationally indefensible. The proponents of B know this and they also know they will have problems with the Privy Council when it comes to scrutinise the legislation. This will be the “Sark Moment”; the point when the British Government may decide to reject it and demand something unspecified but “more democratic” and kept throwing it back, until it really embodies the expected features of what is conceived of as a modern democratic system.

Significant support for retention of the Constables will be used to demonstrate the popular affection for a quirky but essentially much loved detail of provincial identity. Retention of Constables will be presented as essentially benign; when in fact it is a cold calculated articulation of power. The majority of Constables will vote for the Executive. They will do so out of gratitude, in not having had their necks wringed for Christmas and because they are a loyal and conservative voting block.

Nick Palmer said...

Well, I think Option D is preferable. I think voting should be compulsory but negative votes should be allowed.