Can An Electoral System Be Too Democratic?

On 5th May 2011, the British people will be asked by referendum if they wish to change the way they elect the members of their parliament, from the existing First Past The Post (FPTP) system to a system of Alternative Vote (AV). The “Yes to Fairer Votes” campaign list the following as some of AV’s benefits:

Your next MP would have to aim to get more than 50% of the vote to be sure of winning. At present they can be handed power with just one vote in three.  They’ll need to work harder to win – and keep – your support.

Too many MPs have their ‘safe seats’ for life. Force complacent politicians to sit up and listen, and reach out to the communities they seek to represent.

So no more safe seats for central party leadership to “parachute” candidates into. Good thing, right? Are you sure? Consider this:

Since Dwight Eisenhower in 1956, no bald man has been elected US president, despite the fact that male pattern baldness (MPB) affects roughly 40 million men in the United States. So that’s a baldy-free run of Kennedy, Johnson, Nixon, Carter, Reagan, Bush Snr, Clinton, Bush Jnr and Obama. (Yes, Gerald Ford was bald, but he was appointed by the US Senate).

Looked at in this light, (Black) Barack Obama’s victory over (balding) John McCain appears less of a historic breakthrough, and more of a depressing confirmation of a clear historical trend – that in today’s looks obsessed society, bald guys don’t get elected US President. (And add in the fact that Obama’s taller than McCain, another factor that often suggests the winner, and it’s pretty clear that McCain’s campaign had early on boarded a direct flight to Failure City, Republic of Loserland).

And this bias against chrome-domes isn’t something unique to the US Presidency:

Research from the early 1990s found that the proportion of bald men making it to elected office in the US was four times less than the number of follicularly challenged males in the population at large.

The last time a bald politician was elected to Number 10 was Winston Churchill in 1951 – and he was up against the equally receded Clement Attlee.

[BBC News]

Where am I going with this? Well that’s just if you’re bald. Imagine how difficult it would be to get elected if you were not merely bald, but ugly as well? And how about if on top of being bald and ugly, you suffered from what could perhaps be most charitably described as a certain lacking in the charisma department? Actually, we don’t have to imagine that one.

He was up against a widely despised, smug, lying war-monger, and lost huge. You get what I’m saying.

Now I wasn’t sad to see Howard lose. But what about more talented candidates? Imagine you have someone who is simply brilliant. Who will make a terrific lawmaker, tenacious in committee and analytical in debate, someone who will surgically remove the flaws from proposed laws and expose the lies and evasions of those who parliament is required to hold to account. Someone who might make a brilliant cabinet minister. The sort of man or woman you want in charge of the economy in difficult times like this.

And then imagine that this brilliant person, this person who all concerned agree would be an asset both in Parliament and in government, is cursed by being both ugly and uncharismatic. Is there not possibly an argument here in favour of safe seats? Is there not perhaps some benefit in having seats where a non-domiciled, pedophile pit-bull terrier could get elected provided you shoved the right colour rosette on it?

Now you might say that I’m being over-cynical here, and yes I am a bit, and my tongue is somewhat lodged in my cheek. But only partially. It’s all very well saying that surely we can trust the electorate to make the right choices, to pick the brilliant but ugly bald guy over the slick, smooth-talking wanker with a sharp hair-cut and a well-worn suit, but they don’t do they?

Dwight Eisenhower. 1956. Fifty-four years of hurt. Bald men should perhaps stop dreaming.

And it’s not just me thinking this, although those other thinking it might not describe it in quite the same terms. Some believe that the roots of Ireland’s economic disaster lie in its highly democratic STV system, in which every MP is directly elected/chosen by the voting public, and in which there is pretty much no such thing as a safe seat. This has supposedly led to TDs (MPs) who are good at getting elected, but perhaps not so good at making laws or running a government.

Both Fine Gael and Fianna Fáil have committed to changing the electoral system, to a still proportional, but more list based system. But perhaps the most succinct explanation is given by journalist and campaigner Fintan O’Toole in his petition for reform:

3. END CLIENTILISM

Change the electoral system that turns TDs into constituency fixers. Replace it with a mix of direct election and a list system similar to that used for the Scottish parliament.

Such a system would massively remove the power of individual voters to select who they want to represent them. Most of the direct election seats would be “safe”, meaning that it would be the relevant local party who would ultimately select the MP. And then the list would provide extra opportunities for central parties to “parachute” in bright and brilliant but ugly and tongue-tied candidates.

And I can’t help but notice the similarity between the Yes to Fairer Votes campaign’s “Force … politicians to … reach out to the communities they seek to represent” and O’Toole’s “[End] electoral system that turns [MP]s into constituency fixers”.

You know, this was supposed to be a satirical post. But I don’t think it is. I really am starting to think that an electoral system can be too democratic.

Which is a bit of a pisser really. Bugger.

7 comments to Can An Electoral System Be Too Democratic?

  • Roger Gammans

    What do you mean by democratic ?

    This isn’t an idle question, the problem with current so called democratic models for deciding who should govern assume that people make rational decisions. They don’t.

    Almost all democratic models I have seen which includes STV , AV and FPTP are effectively uncontrolled markets. Everybody can spend (normally spelt cast) their vote based on what is on the packet , um, the manifesto of the politician concerned. But if what they get is different, well tough, buy something else next time.

    Their are obvious problems with this first off people don’t vote for politicians with manifesto’s they vote for parties. The party system provides a mechanism to more quickly reach consensus but it is also a mechanism for reducing voter choice . Also many voters seem to have a die hard party allegiance, which means will slow the change of government and make it easier for MPs to stay in parliament or their next sessions no matter how much they mislead the voter with their manifesto.

    Secondly nobody thinks uncontrolled marketplaces are good in commerce – why should they be in politics. Not only is the marketplace uncontrolled so that the voter can be missold the best MP for them, the MPs themselves conspire through the party system to remove choice from the voters.

    I don’t have a easy solution but I would really like to see something much simpler like bigger constituencies and electing 2 MPs per constituency , whether by the ‘First two past the post’, or STV.

    I would also like to see a RON (ReOpen Nominations) candidate. A requirement for each MP tohave their own personal manifesto, and then a neutral summary of the MPs record against their personal manifesto and their voting record would be good data too.

    But unfortunately I don’t expect data to change voting habits, which is real shame.

    • I would support a none-of-the-above option for the first election only. But if was then rerun after that one won, I think it should not be an option.

      i.e. If people don’t like the initial set of candidates that put themselves forward, then they have a chance to have the election again. But that one is on a put-up-or-shutup basis – if you think you can do better, then put yourself forward. If not, then you’ll just have to pick from the people who have put themselves forward.

      And it’s an interesting point that there isn’t much “regulation”, although there is some. A Labour candidate at the last UK general election had his victory disqualified due to telling lies about his opponant.

  • Frankie D.

    “Is there not possibly an argument here in favour of safe seats?”

    No. It’s an argument in favour of getting people to vote based on facts, not appearances, and getting rid of the current image based system.

    • True. I was posting somewhat tongue-in-cheek. But getting people to vote bassed on facts might be easier said than done.

      • Ian

        Particularly in the Blair/Howard comparison. It’s not as if Howard wasn’t a widely despised, smug, lying.. ‘something of the night’.

        Plus during his time as leader, the Tories were suggesting that UK foreign policy should be whatever the Americans want it to be. Or that during Hague’s time as leader? Thank goodness it doesn’t matter what he says about anything, especially foreign policy. Oh wait..

  • I like to think that any political system should be rebuilt every few years. This way it stop people gaming the system too much as a new system is put in place.
    Then when people start working out how to game THAT system a new one is put in place again.
    It’s a bit like the whole CCG thing where the keep making old cards non tournament legal to shake things up.
    But I’m an optimist. Honest.