Opinion: Ditch PR in favour of weighted votes

One Liberal Democrat policy area I can never get out of bed for is proportional representation. Don’t get me wrong; there is so much at fault with our present constitution – starting with the simple observation that we don’t really have one as such, through the farcical arrangements pertaining in the Commons and the Lords, and never forgetting the fact that, bizarrely, we still appear to be subjects of a Monarch ordained of God, named Betty Windsor.

However, though our democracy may be somewhat imperfect, it remains a democracy nonetheless; and the notion that we are labouring under some colossal electoral injustice is, I’m afraid, just another instance of Lib Dem whining we would do very well to drop. I’m quite sure that Liberal Democrat fortunes would rise a little under a system of PR, but hardly enough to justify making this a flagship issue. The rules of the game may be arcane, but we all know in advance what the rules are, and we all know how to vote tactically if needs be – thanks in no small part to a million bar charts which have probably outlived their useful purpose.

But, while the myriad options for systems of proportional representation have been gone over in tedious detail, there remains one topic of electoral reform which appears to be strictly off limits, and it is this: that maybe, just maybe, not all votes are equal. Or rather that, while all votes are clearly equal, some votes may be more equal than others. The purpose of this article is to address this rather glaring omission, propose my own suggestions for reform, and of course open up the floor for debate.

The first thing to say is that, up until now, what I am about to propose would not have been technically possible. Using only the prevailing piece of paper, pencil, and big black box technology, it is really quite infeasible to attach a value scale to the assembled collection of opinions. But the digital era is now firmly upon us and it is surely now time that we gave serious consideration to the possibilities opened up for us through the power of electronic voting.

So the first and very necessary and indeed urgent step, is to recreate the electoral register in the form of a large government database containing everyone’s personal information. The database would be backed up once a week onto a DVD and put somewhere safe. Voting would be as easy as clicking a mouse button. In fact, voting would be clicking a mouse button. Clever encryption technology would prevent any conceivable possibility of electoral fraud.

Now to where all this is leading: Once votes have been cast, they are then scaled (key point) according to some simple (or perhaps even rather complex) weighting function. The precise form of the weighting function would be determined by the Electoral Commission, ultimately under parliamentary control. Much fun is to be had from devising various options for reform but, purely to get the ball rolling, I have created an initial example of the sort of thing I have in mind.

Proposal for voting reform

I ought to stress that this is just a back-of-an-envelope job, with a view to instigating a lively discussion. If you don’t like my graphs, then the obvious thing is to produce your own improved recommendations. But, broadly speaking, you can see that the proposed scheme gives little weighting to votes from the very young and inexperienced. The weighting then ramps up with age, before tailing off again later in life. Eventually, when one reaches the point where most of one’s life lies in the past, the weighting diminishes once again to bugger all.

A key advantage is the ability to engage voters at a young age. I must admit that I have never quite recovered from Paul Walter informing me that his eight-year-old daughter voted for Sir Menzies Campbell in 2006, something she will probably regret should we ever meet. But with my scheme, we can sensibly open up the vote to anyone capable of firing up the computer unaided. Of course, their votes would count for precious little at that stage but, crucially, they will be actively engaged in the process.

More controversially perhaps, the scheme discriminates between the sexes. My thinking here is a bit vague, but is broadly based upon the fact that men are notoriously more inclined towards violence than women. I’m thinking that maybe if we were to give women a greater priority earlier in life, then we might not find ourselves fighting quite so many disastrous and un-winnable wars around the world. However, in order to preserve gender equality, their weighting must dip below that of men at the last.

The problem we currently face is that, without such technical arrangements in place, the electoral system is a very blunt tool which can be hopelessly unresponsive to pressing problems. It’s a bit like trying to fix the economy when one only has access to the crudest levers of power, or like trying to cure an illness with only the most primitive drugs. In such situations, one may certainly make a difference – a big difference even – but there are likely to be some rather unpleasant side effects.

It is only a highly and skilfully tuned scheme that has the power to reach the parts that other electoral systems simply cannot reach. Rather than fuss over PR, is it not time that Liberal Democrats embraced some truly radical proposals for electoral reform that can really do the business? You may not like my graphs, indeed I would not be surprised to learn that they might be flawed in one or two minor respects. But can anyone seriously suggest that even my initial proposal is not a huge improvement over our present, crude, and wholly unscientific arrangements?

* Laurence Boyce is a Liberal Democrat member, and well aware of what day it is.

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60 Comments

  • MartinSGill 1st Apr '08 - 9:55am

    It’s April the 1st and I sincerely hope that this is a joke. In case it’s not, I’ll bite.

    Your voting scheme is simple discrimination. Treating one person (or their vote) as more valuable than any other is simply wrong. Maybe we shouldn’t weight the votes of men less, but the votes of blacks, or gays, or Jews? We used to have a voting system like this; in previous centuries we weighted the votes of women and slaves as being zero. Because the votes of men (aristocrats/land-owners) were “more equal” to the votes of women or slaves people or commoners. Perhaps you should go and read Animal Farm; what you’re proposing is that “some animals are more equal than others”.

    The only weighting you can come up with that doesn’t discriminate against any group is one where every vote is equal. Which we already have.

    I also suspect, based on what you’ve written, that your technical grasp of the implications of your massive database, and of electronic/internet voting, could be better. Encryption is irrelevant when voting, authentication is vital. With your database you create a single point of failure, if the database data is corrupted or manipulated no independent data exists to verify against. Additionally, there’s a reason intelligence agencies and terrorists use compartmentalisation, the less information you have in any one place, the less you lose/are-damaged if security fails, and security always fails in the end.

  • Iain Roberts 1st Apr '08 - 10:26am

    Nice one – had me going for the first few paragraphs 🙂

  • Steven Ronald 1st Apr '08 - 10:57am

    I think a clever person’s vote should count at least double that of a stupid person – In no other area of society are the dumbest people treated as equals to clever people so why should this be any different to the absolutely critical decision of who runs the country?

    Present crude arrangements indeed.

  • Mark Wright 1st Apr '08 - 11:01am

    They say that the best way to insure against Government abuses is not to give them powers that could be abused in the first place. A system such as this, whilst interesting, would so utterly open to huge abuse (just think what a govt like that in Zimbabwe would be able to achieve with this system) that it would be total insanity to even try to implement it.

  • Iain Roberts 1st Apr '08 - 11:06am

    Like most political thinkers through history, I believe that the Government would be best run by people like me; the only question is which electoral system best delivers that result.

  • Steven Ronald wrote:
    “I think a clever person’s vote should count at least double that of a stupid person”

    It’s not so unreasonable – graduates used to have two votes – they could vote for the university burgesses as well as their constituency MPs. They were even elected by STV!

    The only aspect I’d take issue with is that Laurence Boyce’s suggestion favours the clever at the expense of the good. Why not reward holiness as well as intelligence? Regular churchgoers could receive points for each service attended. Perhaps ministers, priests, rabbis and so on could also give their flocks a rating that could be incorporated into the system.

    Atheists would score zero, of course. Militant atheists would get a negaive rating …

    Chris Phillips

  • Hywel Morgan 1st Apr '08 - 12:20pm

    “So the first and very necessary and indeed urgent step, is to recreate the electoral register in the form of a large government database containing everyone’s personal information. The database would be backed up once a week onto a DVD and put somewhere safe.”

    Unfortunately too close to the truth to to be funny (and the rest of this is 🙂 – there is legislation in place for a national electoral register database to store that information and with powers for the Secretary of State to vary it “in such respects as he thinks appropriate”. All passed by Parliament with cross party agreement and virtually no debate.

    I don’t understand how we oppose ID cards for creating a huge national database and supported this.

  • Stephen Glenn 1st Apr '08 - 1:38pm

    cpg said “It’s not so unreasonable – graduates used to have two votes – they could vote for the university burgesses as well as their constituency MPs. They were even elected by STV!”

    Obviously with the diluting of the University graduate elite in recent years we’ll need to rehash this system slightly.

    Anyone with a degree from a University which has held that status for say 100 years of more is clearly the brightest sort of graduate just look at how many of them are in the Cabinet and Shadow Cabinet. Ok maybe lets not look to closely. But they should obviously have 5 votes, if they have a First from Oxbridge 6 or a Double First 7.

    Now the 20th century Brick Universites such as East Anglia although they have some prestige can only manage say 4 votes, those who graduated from the former Polys or Unis that once were Polys like myself 3. Those whose degree come from a Further Education establishment without their own Univerity granting powers therefore only two.

    Obvisously a problem would arise with graduated of the University of Ulster. Clearly those who have a divinity degree from the Magee Campus should not be discrimiated against by the upstarts take over and should be given their full entitlement of 5 votes. Graduates from the Coleraine Campus would qualify for 4. Jordonstown being a former Poly would only allow their graduates 3 votes. As as for he former Belfast Art College that makes up the Belfast Campus clearly this is open to arbitration, somewhere between 2 and 3, 2.67 votes may be fair.

    Obviously while this system may add to the differences percieved of certain graduates it is nothing new and would enhance the above proposal no end.

  • MartinSGill 1st Apr '08 - 2:29pm

    A reasoning test?

    Wouldn’t that disadvantage the religious? Aren’t all/most of their views on morality, ethics and the way of the world based on faith, not reason?

  • MartinSGill 1st Apr '08 - 3:48pm

    Are you still not even so much as raising an interested eyebrow?

    It’s an interesting mental exercise, but it’s fundamentally illiberal, and is a ready made tool for despots to have their way.

    Imagine Laurence if a pro-religion government were elected and all atheists as morally inferior (which is of course total nonsense) had a reduced weighting.

    Any policy or law about how we are governed must have safe-guards to protect citizens from a run-away or dishonest government. Your approach means that if a single safe-guard fails, the weighting commission, all the other safeguards fall like dominoes, since the ruling government can bias any future election to silence it’s critics.

    We need to work to improve those safeguards and make a fairer system, you idea goes entirely in the opposite direction.

  • MartinSGill 1st Apr '08 - 5:06pm

    Agreed Martin. Suppose we limit the dependant variables to age and sex (or any other useful ones that people can come up with). Not personal beliefs, which people could lie about anyway, and not intelligence or the lack of it.

    It’s a slippery slope. We start with age and sex now. In a few years a government comes in that wants to add another weighting: “we already do weighting, we’re just making it fairer”.

    It also cannot work. The moment you reduce the value of my vote I’d feel discriminated against (along with loads of other people). I already do feel discriminated against by the current electoral system, your changes would just make the discrimination more blatantly obvious than it already is.

    Race and religion will get drawn in eventually; it always happens, even if it’s by a round-about way of favouring those age groups over or under represented by a certain religious view or race.

  • I’d be laughing if I wasn’t crying.

    The problem with proportional voting systems is how to reach agreement over the proportions involved – we can argue that forever.

    The problem with universal suffrage on an egalitarian basis is that neither voting nor suffering is equal across the universe.

    The real question is about how we use different voting methods to separate the different forms of representation to account for the diversity within society (something our currently unreformed bicameral system attempts, but fails, to do).

    Laurence is unwitting in his description of how the complexity of any one-size-fits-all solution creates a bad fit for most, but as I’m still waiting for a punchline to hit me I’m left looking at the joker.

  • Steven Ronald 1st Apr '08 - 7:00pm

    ha ha – still loving this article – a finely honed piece of work.

    And that graph is a work of art – “draft proposal”/”present crude arragements”/”annoying/lush/interesting/very intersting/off peak” – excellent.

  • Not really, Laurence, that is just a restatement of our relevance, however unvalued we may see it ourselves.

    It is a directly political question which hints at an underlying critique of the contradictions within the current system: it demands a satisfactory reponse from the beneficiaries of the system as to why they support victimising smaller groups, even if it isn’t the whole picture itself.

    The unspoken truth of it is that our society is more closely modelled on a vision of liberal ideas than theirs and that they can’t escape the inevitable truth that the future will be too.

  • I don’t get this at all…
    Votes would be weighted for age / gender / education / intelligence / class / wealth / race / ethnicity, all of which weightings would be based on lumping people into broad categories.

    in which case what is wrong with our existing of voluntary voting, where levels of turnout produce pretty much the same result?

  • Unbelievable that people are still discussing this, given that the author says it wasn’t a joke. What utter nonsense!

    Chris Phillips

  • Pointless: You want young voters to get a lesser vote. But less of them vote anyway.
    Never invent a complex system to do what a simple system will do equally well.

  • LiberalHammer 3rd Apr '08 - 8:53am

    Laurence,

    Having re-read this there appears to be a subtext of ‘people with a similar mindset to my own – politically aware, neither young nor retired, atheist – get the highest weighting of votes’. This is old fashioned elitism really. Apologies if that is not what you meant, but that is how uit reads.

    And who would ratify this weighting? Parliament?? Really? This scheme would be just as bad as at present – worse as you are giving voting decisions over to the state!

  • Liam Pennington 3rd Apr '08 - 9:34am

    This proposal is clearly bonkers, so why not try something else whilst retaining the weighted votes idea?

    If someone votes by post before polling day, their vote is weighted x 2
    From 7am – 8am of polling day x 3
    From 8am – 9am x 5

    and so on, till those who vote in the last closing minutes of polling day have their votes are worth x30 or somesuch?

  • Well presumably there is a risk-weighted effect to take into account – you want to vote, and your vote to have the highest weight, but you would rather vote with a lower weight than fall under a bus on the way and fail to vote at all… Clearly it will increase the voting weight of those who can do quick risk analysis calculations. As someone who can claim to be a qualified Risk Manager I’m not going to complain about the idea 😉

  • Liam Pennington 3rd Apr '08 - 10:23am

    “If you really want to see a decent candidiate as your MP, you have to do more than just vote for them; you need to give them the highest possible vote you can. So to give your real choice the value they deserve, remember to get to St Somethings Parish Hall at 2158. You don’t even need your polling card….”

  • Martin Land 3rd Apr '08 - 10:30pm

    Laurence, I think LD Members who don’t do any work in their constituencies should have no votes. After all, those who preach but don’t practice are the worst sinners of all aren’t they?

  • this is awful, im sickened to think that liberals are even considering such a hideous idea!!!!
    the point of voting is that all are equal, the reason why 16 year olds should vote lawrence is that they have to pay tax at that age, those who are ruled should be able to choose their rulers!and i cant believe theres people actually on here asking for discrimination in voting!

  • also you said that people only problems hgave been were it might lead!!!!!
    it is discrimination, it isnt leading there, thats the point of the thing and thats why its so awful!!!!! i 16 year olds who are smarter than 34 year olds but does that mean the 16 year olds are right?who are we to judge who is cleverer?or should have more of a vote

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