Is AMS truly democratic?

Democratic Audit are carrying out an audit of democracy and ask:

What does democracy require for an electoral system?

  • It should accurately translate parties’ votes into seats in the legislature (e.g. Parliament)
  • In a way that is recognized as legitimate by most citizen (ideally almost all of them).
  • No substantial part of the population should regard the result as illegitimate, nor suffer a consistent bias of the system ‘working against them’.
  • If possible, the system should have beneficial effects for the good governance of the country.
  • If possible, the voting system should enhance the social representativeness of the legislature, and encourage high levels of voting across all types of citizens.

How democratic are the reformed electoral systems used in mayoral and devolved elections? Democratic Audit UK, 18 January 2016

It then applies these criteria to its audit of the AMS system used in the Scottish Parliament and the Welsh and London Assemblies.

I take issue with two of these criteria – which are fundamental to the examination of the Additional Member System (AMS).

It should accurately translate parties’ votes into seats in the legislature (e.g. Parliament)

At first glance this seems “obvious” and “uncontroversial”, but I think it does not go far enough. Proportional representation of parties rarely leads to proportional representation of opinion. This is an inevitable side effect of the party selection process – which is a key element of AMS.

Under AMS you have two votes:

  1. You vote (using First Past the Post) for a constituency representative from a set of candidates nominated by the parties.
  2. You vote for a “party list” prepared by the parties who effectively then have the power to nominate sufficient additional members from their list to try to bring party representation in line with the overall party vote.

Voters have to vote for party nominees.

If they don’t like the particular nominee for the constituency they either have to vote for a different party or withhold their vote. Under First Past the Post dissidents risk splitting the vote if they stand – so diversity of views within parties is extinguished in favour of the selection committees’ majority choice.

If voters don’t like the party nominees on the “party lists” again they have to vote for a different party or withhold their vote. And because of the way that the list vote is used to even up representation, it is hard to know before-hand how many candidates on a party list will eventually be elected. So if you think that the second or third candidate is a fool, but you quite like the first candidate, you just have to risk the fool(s) being elected!

The essential problem is that the parties determine the candidates and the electoral system punishes any party that is not of one mind. But if a party has a number of substantial minority views perhaps the electorate may share those views and shouldn’t they be represented in the legislature?

So you may have a party with a substantial Europhile group and a substantial Eurosceptic group – but the selection committee (because of majority voting) is likely to select candidates almost unanimously from one of those groups.

Likewise you may have a party with a substantial unilateralist group and a substantial multi-lateralist group – and the balance might be quite fine. So you might find, for instance, that in one election they elected predominantly multi-lateralists but later that fine balance swings in favour of a unilateralist majority leading for calls for deselections etc.

And yet these shenanigans happen within the parties, the voters do not get a choice between say Europhile and Eurosceptic or Unilateralist and Multilateralist – they have to take what-ever flavour the party selection process offers them.

If the parties could offer a variety of flavours of opinion and if we had an electoral system that did not punish them for doing so, we could elect a parliament (or assembly) that truly represents the diversity of opinion within the country.

So I would rephrase the first criteria to read:

  • It should accurately translate opinion within the country into seats in the legislature (e.g. Parliament)

A system that offers such an opportunity exists – and is used within the United Kingdom. It relies on multi-member seats with transferable voting.

Multi-member seats means that in say a four seat constituency any minority that can command a single vote over a fifth of all the votes (the quota) will be elected.

The “Quota” is {total vote/number of seats+1}+1, so

  • 3 seats > 1/4 of all votes +1,
  • 4 seats > 1/5 of all votes +1,
  • 5 seats > 1/6 of all votes +1, etc.

So in a 4 member seat 4 people elected with a little over a fifth of the vote each means just over four fifths of the voters will recognise a representative as “theirs” and all the remaining votes pulled together (at a little under a fifth) would not have a better claim on a seat than any successful candidate.

Transferability of votes eliminates wasted votes and split votes.

If a candidate has negligible support, rather than their votes being wasted they are transferred to each voters’ second preference. So party dissidents either achieve the quota and justifiably get elected, or their votes get transferred to their supporters’ subsequent preferences – usually a main-stream candidate from the same party – thus closing the “split”.

If a candidate achieves more votes than required to achieve the quota the excess (unused element) can be transferred to each voter’s subsequent choice. Thus in a 4 member seat if a party has the support of just over four fifths of all the votes, transferability will probably lead to four candidates from that party being elected.

The only thing that will prevent this is if a voter does not “vote the list” but chooses to give their preferences to candidates from different parties – perhaps they have a high respect for a candidate from a party other than the party they naturally support. Not necessarily a bad thing you may think – unless you are a party official!

Parties like to control your choice – which is why they like list systems like AMS and dislike transferable preference systems like STV (Single Transferable Vote – the system outlined above). Voters should have the maximum control over their choice.

If possible, the voting system should enhance the social representativeness of the legislature, …

Again this may seem to be an adequate and legitimate criteria. After all we want our Parliaments to “look like us”, don’t we?

The complaint is that too many legislatures (particularly those with non-proportional systems) tend to end up “male, pale and stale” and the argument is that they cannot adequately represent the whole population.

If that were true it would also be true that they could adequately represent those voters who are male, pale and stale. But do we judge whether someone is an adequate representative purely on grounds of gender, race and age?

Now perhaps I am “male, pale and stale” but who would be best able to represent me:

  • Nigel Farage – male, pale and of an age where many would say he is stale, or
  • Diane Abbott – clearly not male, not pale and considerably less stale than Nigel Farage?

It is clearly a ludicrous question that implies you would stereotype who should best represent me based on my appearance!

What we want to see is the diversity of political opinion in the population reflected in a parliament that is meant to be “representative”. To achieve that we need a voting system that encourages diversity of representation. STV, the transferable preference voting system (in multi-member constituencies) described previously does exactly this.

It also coincidentally means more women get elected, more races are represented and we get representatives with a wider range of ages. This happens because:

  • Transferable voting and multi-member seats means parties do not have to decide on the single candidate that they (with all their prejudices) believe is most likely to win for them.
  • If they are switched on, selection committees will realise that by offering candidates with a range of opinions they will probably maximise their appeal to the electorate.
  • Parties do not need to be so fearful of nominating women or ethnic minorities and finding they are “rejected by a prejudiced electorate”; if the electorate is genuinely prejudiced the few votes these candidates gain will probably transfer to “mainstream” (i.e. male and pale!) candidates. On the other-hand if the electorate is willing to vote for women and ethnic minorities they will get elected.
  • Parties do not have the stranglehold on selection because dissidents or deselected members can stand as independents in the knowledge that transferability of votes means that splits self-seal.


So going back to Democratic Audit’s question:

What does democracy require for an electoral system?

It requires one that disempowers parties and empowers voters by allowing voters to vote for specific individuals rather than “the party’s nominee”

It requires one that encourages the diversity of opinion in the country to be represented in a truly representative parliament or assembly.

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