Tuesday, 10 December 2013

Every Vote Counts

The debate is coming up soon on Alternative Voting (for Constables) and Single Transferable Voting (for Deputies / Senators). In this posting, I want to look at the issues raised by the Constable's Committee response to the proposition by Deputy Montfort Tadier.
Single Transferable Voting
The Constables think that STV would take too long, and they point out that polling stations are staffed by volunteers:
"STV will require multiple counts, with the results from separate electoral districts having to be totalled to establish whether or not a candidate has been elected and which preferences should thus be redistributed. It is thus unlikely that staff and volunteers will be able to complete the STV count on polling day."
That doesn't seem a good reason for not adopting STV - it is notable that the Constable's Committee do not say that it would not be a fairer system, they simply say that it would be unduly long, and place too much of a burden on staff and volunteers. That is a very pragmatic argument, but it is not a very good one. If one voting system is much fairer than another - and the mathematics shows that it is - to say that it would not be practical is an argument for making it practical.
In this respect, it does seem like a good reason for reviewing and streamlining election procedures. The Privileges and Procedures Committee suggested electronic voting recently, and this has moved on a long way in terms of security and robustness since it was mooted in 2010.
There would be an inevitable capital cost, but that could be recouped over time. It is not like building a set for a play that has only one performance, it is like building a set that would be used time and again. The cost should therefore be balanced against long term use.
It should be noted that the present system is not entirely robust. During 2011, there were 13 individuals in both districts of St Brelade's Number 1 and St Brelade's Number 2 voting registers, and 3 of those had an identical address. The argument "if it isn't broke, don't fix it", does not really apply when even a study of one Parish throws up discrepancies which shows the current system has flaws.
The States Chamber itself has moved ahead with technology. Voting is now recorded electronically, and not via the appel. As a result, the voting results can be seen and placed online very quickly indeed. If it is not beyond the wit of the States to introduce change and technology for themselves, why should they not introduce it for the rest of us? Of course electronic technology can lead to pitfalls, such as Alan MacLean's ringbinder nudging the "Pour" vote on the Town Park, but that was down to human error, not a fault with the technology.
And Jersey is supposed to be looking to become a showcase for excellence in IT and ecommerce, with Gigabit Jersey rolling out. If it cannot sort out improvements to facilitate a better voting system by using electronic technology, how can it expect the world to listen? If it doesn't trust the technology for its own population, why should the rest of the world look towards Jersey with admiration?
When Wales was looking at STV, Peter Black, Liberal Democrat local government spokesman at the Assembly, said, "The important thing about STV is that you get councils that reflect the votes cast by the people."
And he went on to say:

"My view is that changing the system could well result in a renewed interest in council elections. In some places, there have been low turnouts because some people take the view that it is a waste of time voting because the result is a foregone conclusion. With STV, every vote counts." (1)
It is interesting that when the issue was raised in Wales on 2002, and the Sunderland Commission proposed that proportional representation should be adopted to elect all members of the 22 local authorities in Wales from 2008, the same kind of argument that the Constables Committee has given came out:
"If the Assembly Government adopts the proposals from the Sunderland Commission on Local Government Electoral Arrangements, we will adopt a system which complicates matters immensely." (2)
But another sign that matters are broken is the decline in people coming out to vote. First past the post is seen very much as wasting votes, and nothing changing. People don't bother, because they don't believe the voting system itself will deliver change.
Lucy Stephenson, writing in the JEP, suggested that voter apathy was a result of people being happy with election results. That is certainly wishful thinking not born out either by my own small scale surveys or past Mori polls. The mantra is often "it won't make any difference if I vote", usually coupled with a rather cynical comment on the States. The one I liked the best was "I don't vote; it only encourages them". But that encapsulates the reason for apathy.
Without a hope of change, the act of voting is seen to legitimise the government that we get. Hence opting out is in fact not just a sign of apathy, but also a sign of protest - a refusal to allow voting to provide a legitimisation for the States. It might be asked how low does the turnout have to be before the very idea that the States are democratically elected is seen as special pleading. Gandhi would have understood well the power of non-violent protest, of refusing to take part.
Alternative Voting System
The alternative vote system for Constables should certainly go through. All the Constables say against this is that it could be longer than expected to process votes:
"The Alternative Voting system is, in effect, that used for the recent referendum on the Reform of the States Assembly. It might be possible for such a count to be concluded on the polling day, but this would depend upon the turnout, the number of candidates and whether a recount or recounts were required."
The substantial weakness in any argument, and probably why they do not really make one, is that the Referendum showed that the public coped very well with the AV system, as did those counting the votes cast. Far from ending far in the night, or with many spoilt papers, the Referendum showed how well the existing system could cope, and it coped magnificently.
The Constable's elections rarely see any contest, and I doubt seriously whether we would see more than three candidates trying for the role. Most elections have historically been just two individuals, in which case AV would not apply. It seems clear that the Constable's Committee is raising the spectre of multiple candidates in order to frighten the Assembly into turning the proposition down. But there are only twelve constables, one in each Parish, and the odds of multiple contested elections with more than three candidates must be weighted heavily against that happening. Even if STV is not passed, this would be a step in the right direction.
Ever dropping voter turnout rates are a sign of what appears to be overall political disengagement by the electorate. High cynicism and low confidence prevail among voters attitudes toward politicians and political institutions.
Jennifer Dalton comments that:
"Psychological factors are significant determinants of voter turnout, particularly level of interest in politics, knowledge or information about politics, alongside feelings of political efficacy. Those who have less interest in politics, have less knowledge about political issues, or feel that their votes will have little impact, are less likely to vote."
"Aside from compulsory voting, which tends to result in higher turnout, many contend that electoral reform can increase overall voter turnout. Specifically, it is suggested that where electoral systems have higher levels of proportionality between the parties' shares of the popular vote and the number of corresponding party seats in the legislative body-as occurs in Proportional Representation (PR) or mixed systems-higher levels of voter turnout are more likely."(3)
One has only to compare the declining voter turnout with other countries and islands to see that the existing system is in need of reform
Sarah Birch conducted a study which looked at testing the hypothesis that perceptions of electoral integrity are positively related to turnout. The empirical analysis looked at data from 31 countries, considering such matters as "Perceptions of electoral fairness", "Interest in politics" as well as age, gender and any party affiliations.  Statistical multivariate analysis showed results confirming the hypothesis. Her reported noted that:
"Confidence-related abstention can have a variety of nefarious consequences for democracy. If democrats choose to exit from electoral politics in reaction to perceived flaws in electoral processes, the result may be a downward spiral in democratic performance and legitimacy" (4)
"Elections are the building blocks of democracy; it follows that electoral integrity is a precondition for meaningful democratic competition at all levels. In as much as poor evaluations of the fairness of elections keeps citizens away from the polls, democratic legitimacy and performance will be compromised."
The system of First Past the Post creates an unrepresentative States, which "wastes" votes. This hugely discourages citizens' participation and breeds cynicism about politics. People are less likely to participate in elections when their vote is less likely to make a difference.
It is time that it was changed. It is time to ensure that every vote counts.
1)      "STV Gives You Councils That Reflect the Votes Cast by the People" , Western Mail, Cardiff, Wales, 2006
2)      Voting Fears `Are Unfounded' COUNCIL ELECTIONS: TV Programme Shows How Easily Public Can Adopt a New System. Western Mail (Cardiff, Wales), 2002
3)      Alienation and Nationalism: Is It Possible to Increase First Nations Voter Turnout in Ontario?, Jennifer Dalton 2007
4)      Perceptions of Electoral Fairness and Voter Turnout, Sarah Birch

1 comment:

Phill said...

There has been a lot of work on e-voting systems around the world and I think one of the key things to learn is that open, transparent systems are the only trustworthy choice. Here's a good reference point: http://openvoting.org/