Social Statistics section meeting: The quest for fairer voting

The first recorded election under proportional representation (PR) system took place on 17 December 1819. Two hundred years later, on 17 December 2019, the Social Statistics Section held a meeting examining PR voting systems and in particular the Single Transferable Vote (STV) system. The meeting was chaired by former RSS President Valerie Isham.

The first speaker was Klina Jordan, co-founder and chief executive of Make Votes Matter. Klina began by reflecting on the 12 December General Election, where the government was elected on a minority of the vote – 44% of votes won 56% of seats. Klina highlighted that the last time a government was elected in the UK with a majority of the votes cast was in 1931. There have also been two occasions of ‘wrong winner’ elections in the past 70 years – the Conservative Party in 1951 and the Labour Party in 1974. That is, the losing party received more votes than the party elected to power. This phenomenon has also been seen in the United States, Canada and New Zealand. Klina argued that is it possible to change the voting system of a country and that a PR voting system can reduce the proportion of ‘wasted votes’ and increase voter turnout. Currently, PR voting systems are the norm around the world, with around 80% of democracies and 85% of OECD countries using PR.

The second presentation was from Ian Simpson, Research Officer at the Electoral Reform Society. Ian presented analysis of recent local elections in England and Scotland. The English elections used the First Past The Post (FPTP) system, while the Scottish elections used STV. The analysis was completed using R and a Loosemore-Hanby Deviation from Proportionality Index was calculated. The analysis showed that democratic outcomes were better under STV than FPTP. Almost half of the seats won in the English local elections were won with a minority of the votes, and this was the case for all of the major political parties in at least one instance. In comparison, there were no minority wins in Scotland, uncontested seats were almost eliminated, and representation was more closely matched to how people voted.

The final speaker of the evening was Denis Mollison, of Heriot-Watt University.  Denis highlighted that the recent public availability of large preferential voting data sets for STV elections makes possible analyses of how STV functions in practice, and of voter behaviour, particularly examining how voters’ second preferences relate to their first preferences. Intelligent approaches to the related but distinct problem of making a single electoral choice, whether in a multi-option referendum or in the election of a president, go back as far as Condorcet (1785). Condorcet’s proposal is affected by the possibility of a cyclic paradox. A methodology of relating first and second preferences has been used to estimate the size of the cyclic effect. Analysis of the EU Referendum and election data suggests that the cyclic effect is remarkably small, so that for large-scale elections it will usually be negligible compared with the distortions introduced by using rival single-choice methods such as the Alternative Vote or Borda.

Attendees had an opportunity to ask the speakers questions and comment on the analysis during a panel session.

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