Draft House of Lords Reform Bill - Joint Committee on the Draft House of Lords Reform Bill Contents

Appendix 6: Supplementary written evidence on electoral system options by Dr Alan Renwick and Professor Iain McLean

Electoral System Options

Paper prepared for the Joint Select Committee on the Draft House of Lords Reform Bill

Dr Alan Renwick, University of Reading and Prof. Iain McLean, University of Oxford,

11th January 2012

In connection with our oral evidence session with you on 19 December 2011, we have been asked to answer a number of questions concerning the operation of electoral systems—either an open-list proportional system (open-list PR) or a single transferable vote system (STV)—that satisfy two conditions:

  • they allow voters the option of casting a simple party vote;
  • they allow voters to express preferences among individual candidates across as well as within parties.

Before answering the specific questions, we think it would be helpful to outline various forms that such systems could take. We will outline two versions of open-list PR and two versions of STV that would satisfy the two conditions.

Open-List PR Systems

We are aware of two countries that presently use open-list PR and allow voters to express preferences across party lines: Switzerland and Luxembourg.[459] The systems used there allow voters to fill in their ballot papers in a great variety of different ways: they can shift names between lists, create new lists, delete names, and so on. Such complexity may make sense where it has evolved over time, but we suggest that it would not be desirable when designing a new system. In the UK context, it would create great confusion and open the procedures to ridicule.

Besides these cases, an attempt was made in the Australian Capital Territory in 1989 to combine the principle of a list election with that of the transferable vote, but the electoral system produced was probably the most complex ever implemented. It took over two months to count the votes and the system was quickly scrapped.[460] Again, we suggest that this is an example not to follow.

We suggest two simpler ways in which open-list PR could be combined with cross-party

preferential voting. The first is a simplified version of the Swiss system. The second looks

(at least to voters) more like STV. These are only illustrations of the sorts of system that could be adopted: much more work would need to be done in evaluating options before a precise recommendation could be made.

Option 1

The first system would give voters as many votes as there are seats available in their region. Voters could cast these votes in either of two ways: either by placing an X next to a party (in which case all their votes would count for the party's preferred list order; or by voting for up to seven candidates. The ballot paper might be laid out roughly as shown below (for the example of a constituency electing seven members).

When it came to the count, the first step, as in any list system, would be to count all the votes cast for each party, whether directly for the party or for the party's candidates. This would determine the total number of seats allocated to each party. Then the number of votes cast for the party directly and for each of its candidates would be used to determine the order in which the candidates were elected. As we mentioned in our oral evidence on 19th December, there are several ways in which the party's preferred order and the voters' preferences could be combined to determine the final list order. The method selected is very important: some methods give greater weight to the party's preferences, others to voters' preferences. We would be happy to give further guidance on this if the Committee wished.

This system would allow voters to express some preference ranking among candidates: in a region where seven members were being elected, for example, a voter could give three votes to one candidate, two votes to another, and one vote to each of two more. But it does not allow a full ranking. Giving voters the opportunity to rank all candidates in order of preference would require something like Option 2.

Option 2

Under the second form of open-list PR, voters would have two options as to how to vote: they could vote for a party or rank the candidates in order of preference. The layout of the ballot paper would be

You can vote in one of two ways:

  • EITHER vote for a party by placing an X in one of the boxes above the thick black line;
  • OR indicate your preferences among candidates below the line by placing a 1 next to the candidate you most favour, a 2 next to your second favourite, and so on; you can express as many or as few preferences as you wish.

something like the following:

In counting the votes, as before, the first step would be to count up the votes for each party. The simplest option here would be to say that a voter who expresses preferences among candidates is deemed to have voted for the party of their first-preference candidate. But this would have the undesirable effect of allowing a voter to influence the order of the candidates on a party's list without giving support to that party. An alternative would be to give each preference a fractional value such that the fractions summed to 1. If a voter expressed two preferences, for example, their first preference could give that candidate's party 2/3 of a vote and the second preference 1/3. If a voter expressed three preferences, these preferences could yield, respectively, 4/7, 2/7, and 1/7 of a vote for each candidate's party. The same fractions could then be used in determining final list order.

This would allow voters to express a full set of preferences. But it would be necessary to make assumptions about the relative weight of these preferences in order to count them—assumptions that might or might not express the genuine nature of voters' preferences.

STV Systems Allowing a Party Vote

Two ways of combining STV with the possibility of casting a simple party vote (so-called 'above-the-line voting') are used in elections currently: the standard form used in Australian Commonwealth elections and elections in three Australian states; and an alternative form used since 2003 in New South Wales. We describe these below as Options 3 and 4. We presume that, if either of these systems were proposed for the UK's second chamber, voters would be free to fill in as few or as many preferences as they wished. In either case, the layout of the ballot paper might again be roughly as shown above.[461]

Option 3

In the most familiar form of STV with a party vote option, voters can either express a vote for one party or rank candidates in order of preference. The instruction on the ballot paper is the same as under Option 2:

You can vote in one of two ways:

  • EITHER vote for a party by placing an X in one of the boxes above the thick black line;
  • OR indicate your preferences among candidates below the line by placing a 1 next to the candidate you most favour, a 2 next to your second favourite, and so on; you can express as many or as few preferences as you wish.

Votes here are always counted as votes for candidates, not parties. A vote for a party is counted as a vote for the ordering of candidates determined by the party. The usual STV counting rules are applied to these votes in the same way as to votes cast below the line.

In the Australian version of this system, parties are required to indicate ahead of the election their ordering not only of their own candidates, but of all candidates: if all of the party's own candidates are either elected or eliminated before the count has been completed, votes cast for the party will continue to transfer, as the party has indicated, to the other parties' candidates. This requirement fits the logic of the Australian system, under which a vote is valid only if all preferences are filled in. Assuming that, in the UK, voters would be free to express as many or as few preferences as they wished, it would make sense to apply the same logic to above-the-line voting and therefore not require parties to express their ranking of other parties' candidates. It is an interesting question whether parties should be allowed to express such a ranking.

The system as used in Australia has sometimes caused controversy when candidates with few first preferences have been elected because they received preference transfers from others. Few voters are aware of how their party has ranked other parties' candidates, so such outcomes can seem to have little to do with voters' preferences. Concerns such as these prompted the adoption of the alternative system in New South Wales following the 1999 elections. We describe this as Option 4.

Option 4

In this version, voters can either rank the parties or rank the candidates. If they rank the parties, then their vote counts first for the candidates of their first-preference party (in the order determined by the party), then for those of their second-preference party, and so on. Thus, it is the voters, rather than the parties, who determine transfers from party to party. The parties rank only their own candidates and offer no official view on where votes should transfer thereafter. We reproduce a full sample ballot paper here, though, again, it is only the instruction that needs to change:

As noted above, this system was introduced in New South Wales because of concerns that voters' preferences were being transferred in ways that most voters had no knowledge of. The Joint Standing Committee on Electoral Matters of the NSW legislature reviewed the new arrangements in 2005 and expressed satisfaction with them.[462]

Similar concerns to those that prompted the reform in NSW have been raised in Australia at the Commonwealth level. The Australian Parliament's Joint Standing Committee on Electoral Matters advocated the adoption of the NSW system for Senate elections in its report on the 2004 elections.[463] The Government rejected this proposal, however, saying it believed that such a change was "likely to result in increased complexity and possible confusion for voters, leading to a potential increase in the level of the informal [i.e., invalid] vote".[464] The same Joint Standing Committee conducted a further investigation on the specific issue of preferential voting among parties in 2009. This was in response to a Bill submitted by a Senator advocating such a system. The Committee rejected the proposal on the grounds that it would increase complexity and therefore, in all probability, lead to a rise in the number of invalid votes.[465] It should be noted, however, that the Bill had proposed that voters be required to express a minimum of four preferences among parties if voting above the line. We presume that no such requirement would be proposed for the UK's second chamber.

General Observations

Before moving to the committee's questions, we should like to make two general observations.

First, while we have tried to make the systems above as simple as possible, all are complex compared to most other electoral systems—including open-list PR systems without the option of cross-party preference voting and pure STV systems—in the sense that they increase the range of choice available to voters. Voter choice is desirable in a democratic election, but it can also become burdensome or confusing. Particularly when it is proposed that second chamber elections should be held concurrently with Commons elections that will use a different system (first past the post), it is important to bear this complexity in mind.

Second, while much discussion has focused on the degree of "independence of spirit" of members of the second chamber, we think, as we said in the oral evidence session on 19th December, that the electoral system will not be the primary determinant of this independence, at least as regards the independence of partisan members from their party. The non-renewable term is the most important factor here. The likelihood of election of non-partisan independents is another matter, and we discuss it below, under Question 1.

The Committee's Questions

Through its Clerks, the Committee has asked us seven specific questions. In light of the options laid out above, we now address these questions.

Question 1. What would be the difference in outcome between having an STV counting system with the above characteristics [i.e., allowing voters the options of a party vote and cross-party preference voting], or an open list counting system with the above characteristics?

There are some differences between the systems described above in the nature of the preferences that voters can express. In addition, two sorts of effect can be noted:

1. Differences in the interpretation put on voters' preferences. The systems count the preferences expressed by voters in different ways. Most notably, list systems always count a vote for a candidate in the first instance as a vote for the candidate's party, whereas STV systems count a vote for a candidate solely as a vote for that candidate. Under STV, therefore, a voter can vote for one candidate from a party without giving any advantage to any of that party's other candidates, whereas under a list system a vote for a candidate can help secure election for another candidate from the same party.

2. Differences in the amenability of the systems to independents. In our oral evidence on 19th December, we suggested that STV is more compatible with the election of independents than are list PR systems. This is because large numbers of votes cast for a popular independent under list PR can be wasted. There is some reason to think that this tendency would be weaker with the forms of list PR discussed here: voters would not need to put all their eggs in one basket by supporting an independent, but could rather split their vote. Nevertheless, such voters would be giving weaker support to the independent than they could (without risking wasting their vote) under STV, and we would therefore still expect independents to perform somewhat better under STV.

By contrast, we do not think there is any reason to expect any significant differences among the systems described here in the degree of independence of partisan representatives from their parties. These systems would all give candidates broadly equal incentives to compete on the basis of their personal reputations. More importantly, as we suggested above, the non-renewable terms in the proposed second chamber would leave parties unable to coerce rebellious members.

Question 2. Would putting the party voting option below the line, rather than above, have any significant impact?

We understand this question to relate to the physical appearance of the ballot paper: whether the option to vote for a party should come at the top or the bottom. So far as we are aware, all jurisdictions that currently give voters the choice of a party vote or a candidate vote place the party vote option first (either on the top or on the left). It is reasonable to suppose that reversing this order would increase the number of voters expressing preferences among candidates, but we are not aware of direct evidence on this point.

The Committee might remember that there is no reason to expect rates of "above-the-line" voting to be as high in the UK as in Australia. While fewer than 4 per cent of voters voted below the line at the most recent Australian Senate elections,[466] this low rate can be explained in significant part by the rule in that case that a candidate vote is valid only if all candidates are ranked. In other systems where voters have a choice as to whether to cast a party vote or a candidate vote, there is considerable variation in the proportion of voters taking the second option: around 20 per cent do so in Austria, two thirds in Belgium, and 90 per cent in Brazil.[467]

Question 3. How (particularly with an open list system) would a party voting option work with independents? Should they have an "independents" box (then get placed depending on how many individual votes they received), or would they only get votes if people voted for them directly under the line?

We suggest that an "independents" box would, particularly in a list system, be undesirable. As we noted above, in any system of list PR, a vote for a candidate is in the first instance a vote for that candidate's party (or, more precisely, for the candidate's list) as a whole. Thus, voting for a candidate in an "independents" list could sometimes lead to the election not of that candidate but of another from the list.

There are two alternatives: it might be possible to vote for independents only below the line; or independents might be allowed to register as one-person "lists" appearing above the line. Independents are able to register this way in Australia; in practice, some do so while others do not. Given the bias in the Australian system towards above-the-line voting, those who do not register to appear above the line are severely disadvantaged. In the absence of the requirement to fill in all preferences, however, the difference would be minor: it would amount to a difference only in independent candidates' visibility on the ballot paper.

Question 4. Assuming that the party's candidate ordering has some weight, should the list of individual candidates below (or above) the line be ordered by party in their order on the party list?

If the party's candidate ordering has some weight, this ordering should be transparent to voters. The most sensible way of doing this is to give that ordering on the ballot paper. An alternative would be to publicize the parties' orderings widely, including in polling stations, and then use alphabetical, randomized, or rotated ordering on the ballot paper. This might permit a purer expression of voters' preferences among candidates. If the system is designed, however, to allow parties' rankings to matter, there would appear little reason to emphasize purity of voters' candidate preferences, and using orderings that differ from the party's ranking could create confusion.

Question 5. Should electors voting for parties still order their votes (i.e. vote for more than one party), or just put a single x against their favourite party? Are both possibilities, and if so what difference would it make to the results? Does the answer vary depending on whether the chosen party has fewer candidates than there are seats to be contested?

As described above, the standard form of STV with above-the-line voting allows voters who choose the above-the-line option to vote for only one party. But the New South Wales version allows voters to rank parties in the manner suggested in the question.

The advantage of the NSW version is that voters can control how their vote transfers from party to party, whereas in the standard system these transfers are controlled by parties in a way that is rarely transparent to voters.[468] Exactly how the systems compare depends, however, on whether parties are allowed and whether they are required to indicate ahead of the election how a vote cast for their list will transfer not only among their own candidates, but also among the candidates of other parties. If such extra-party transfers were barred, the problem identified in Australia would be removed, but rather more votes would be exhausted before the counting process was completed.

The number of candidates that a party runs relative to the number of seats available is one factor (though not the only one) influencing the importance of inter-party transfers. In so far as such transfers matter, it is important that voters understand them before deciding how to vote. That could happen either by ensuring that parties' transfer declarations are well known or by allowing voters to dictate transfers. As we have suggested, the Australian experience of the standard system (our Option 3) is that, though transfer statements are public, most voters are ignorant of them.

Question 6. Can electors voting for parties also express individual preferences below the line, or is it an either / or situation? What difference would it make?

The four systems that we described above all require voters to choose between a party vote and voting for candidates. In STV systems this is necessarily so: under STV, votes are always counted at the level of candidates: a party vote is simply a vote for candidates in the order specified by that party. We see no way of combining this logic with the possibility that voters could vote both above and below the line.

Under open-list PR, it would be possible to revise Option 1 such as to permit voters to vote both for parties and candidates: voters could be allowed to spread their votes across both above-the-line and below-the-line boxes. This would, however, weaken the simplicity of the above-the-line option.

In principle, party and candidate votes could be decoupled under Option 2 as well: voters' party votes could determine the overall balance of seats across parties and their candidate votes could determine the distribution of each party's seats among its candidates. As we suggested above, however, it would be undesirable to give voters the power to influence the list order of a party they do not vote for, so we recommend against this possibility.

It might be sensible under Options 1-4 to include a provision saying that where a voter does mistakenly cast both party and candidate votes one of these shall be deemed to take precedence.

Question 7. Should constituencies under either STV or Open list systems (with the above characteristics) be no more than six or seven members?

All of the systems we have described give voters a great deal of choice. Just as under pure STV, we therefore recommend that constituencies should elect no more than seven members in any one round in order to prevent the range of options from becoming overwhelming.

459   See Georg Lutz, "Open Ballot", in Josep M. Colomer (ed.), Personal Representation: The Neglected Dimension of Electoral Systems (Colchester: ECPR Press, 2011), pp. 153-74. Back

460   On this, see Parliament of the Commonwealth of Australia, Inquiry into the ACT Election and Electoral System, Report No. 5 of the Joint Standing Committee on Electoral Matters, November 1989 (Canberra: Australian Government Publishing Service). Back

461   For detailed discussion of STV and its variants, see David M. Farrell, and Ian McAllister, The Australian Electoral System: Origins, Variations and Consequences (Sydney: University of New South Wales Press, 2006). Back

462   Parliament of New South Wales, Joint Standing Committee on Electoral Matters, Inquiry into the Administration of the 2003 Election and Related Matters, September 2005, paragraph 5.65. Back

463   Parliament of Australia, Joint Standing Committee on Electoral Matters, Inquiry into the Conduct of the 2004 Federal Election and Matters Related Thereto, October 2005, pp. 224-9 and 232. Back

464   Government response to the report cited in note 4, p. 18. Back

465   Parliament of Australia, Joint Standing Committee on Electoral Matters, Advisory Report on the Commonwealth Electoral (Above-the-Line Voting) Amendment Bill 2008, June 2009, p. 24. Back

466   Australian Electoral Commission, www.aec.gov.au.  Back

467   Lauri Karvonen, "Preferential Vote in Party List", in Josep M. Colomer (ed.), Personal Representation: The Neglected Dimension of Electoral Systems (Colchester: ECPR Press, 2011), pp. 119-34, at p. 134. Back

468   The Australian Parliament's Joint Standing Committee on Electoral Matters has noted that "the effect of the Group Voting Ticket system is that only the very few above-the-line electors who bother to inquire will have the faintest idea where their Senate preferences are going" (Parliament of Australia, Joint Standing Committee on Electoral Matters, Inquiry into the Conduct of the 2004 Federal Election and Matters Related Thereto, October 2005, paragraph 9.32); it continued that the system "lacks transparency, and results in electors ceding their preference allocation decisions to the political parties themselves" (paragraph 9.33). Back

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