A definitive list of electoral systems from best to worst

Special Correspondent at the New Statesman and 2017 Political Studies Association (PSA) Journalist of the Year, Stephen Bush, gives a summary of the various electoral systems on offer.

Good electoral systems

The additional member system: the Thierry Henry of electoral systems, if you will. Under this system, you have two votes: the local vote and the party list, which can be national or regional. (British sensibilities means that it would have to be regional). The result is then adjusted so that the list system creates the parliament you should have if votes counted equally. So if between the solidly blue majorities of Oxfordshire you have enough for one extra Labour MP, one Liberal Democrat MP or the city itself can support one Green MP, you get one.

Gives people a representative with a local connection in the parliamentary system, but fixes the disproportionality of first-past-the-post with the list. The best of all possible worlds.

Supplementary member system: As above, but your two votes – local vote and party list – don’t actually affect one another. So if Anneliese Dodds wins by miles and miles, those wasted votes don’t count for sh**. You still get disproportionality in this system so it’s not as good.

Party list: Why have a constituency link at all? This is the pure PR option. Philosophically, I like this, but the problem is that it hands all the control over a party’s parliamentary delegation to party bosses or to the activist base, neither of which particularly encourage heterogeneous thinking. This reduces both voter choice and the ability of parties to renew themselves. (Of course, voters tend not to actually exercise any kind of local vote but the system produces a wider range of candidates in constituency systems, so while it shouldn’t work in theory, constituency systems work better in practice).

However, a bad PR system is better than a good majoritarian system, unless it’s the single transferable vote, of which, more below.

Anyway, time for our only good majoritarian system: the alternative vote – RIP, you are with the angels now. I like this system a lot: you rank your votes numerically, and if no candidate secures more than 50 per cent of the vote in the first round, then the lowest-ranked candidates are eliminated and their second (and third, and fourth, and fifth and so on) preferences are reallocated.

This is the best majoritarian system as it guarantees all of the “benefits” of majoritarian systems – stable majority government, clear winner, very effective device to fire politicians – but means you don’t get candidates winning with very low shares of the votes because of a split opposition. It also gives every voter the power that high-information voters largely already have: the ability to vote tactically. And you don’t even need to think about voting tactically: just vote for your candidates in the order you desire and you’ve voted tactically.

I used to rank the alternative vote above everything other than the additional member system, but covering two Labour leadership elections in two years now gives me horrible flashbacks to having to explain it to people who really ought not to have needed it explained.

Good(ish) systems

Single transferable vote: You have multi-member constituencies and you rank them and it’s more proportional somehow and to be honest the reason why this is so low is even I find it dull to talk about. It’s quite good for local elections, I guess, but that’s about it.  But it’s better than what’s about to come.

Bad systems

Two-round: Like the alternative vote, but if no-one gets more than 50 per cent in the first round, you wait a fortnight and everyone votes again. Has the same perverse incentives as first past the post but it’s French, so it’s therefore a little bit sexier than its Anglo-Saxon rival, and just pips first past the post.

First past the post: The system we use here in the UK. Doesn’t even do a good job of providing the things majoritarian systems are meant to as it hasn’t given anyone a decent majority for twelve years. It also creates perverse outcomes. Most people’s votes don’t count for a damn thing.  Why would you use this?

Majority bonus system: A PR system, but the party which finishes first gets a bonus helping of seats. Why would you do this? Just have a majoritarian system if that’s what you’re into. Seriously if you’re thinking of using this system, go home and rethink your life.

Really bad systems

Sword from a stone: Some crusty guy pulls a sword from a stone. He rules you forever, but at least he’s kinda badass.

Lady in a lake: Some chick throws a sword at a crusty guy, who does not die but instead rules you forever.

Monarchy: The distant ancestor of one of the crusty guys I mentioned in the last two systems rules you. No vote for you.

Supplementary vote: You get two preference votes. If no candidate gets more than 50 per cent, all but the top two candidates are eliminated and second preferences are counted. I know what you’re thinking: “But what if I cast my second preference for someone other than the top two?” The answer is: “You don’t get a vote, bye.” And maybe you’re thinking “Who thought this was better than the alternative vote? Why would you use this system?” to which the answer is “Tony Blair. And because f*** you, that’s why.”

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