Voter behavior


Things went a bit crazy on Twitter after my last post, with a lot of people saying that they’d rather not have proportional representation than allow BNP to have anywhere near 12 seats. This reminds me of a quote from Terry Pratchett’s The Fifth Elephant, where it’s said:

[Vimes] had been rather interested in the idea that everyone had a vote until he found out that while he, Vimes, would have a vote, there was no way in the rules that anyone could prevent Nobby Nobbs from having one as well. Vimes could see the flaw there straight away.

Essentially, you either believe in democracy, or you don’t. You can’t ignore the fact that 563,743 people voted for BNP, which is far more than the Green party got. Heck, it’s more than Greens, Respect, and all the other ethical issue based parties got put together. Furthermore, more than 2.6 million votes were cast in favor of various breeds of nationalism, be it Plaid Cymru, Sinn Fein or Scottish National Party. So while I don’t really disagree that BNP shouldn’t have that much representation, there’s a few things to clarify.

When people vote, they tend to play the system. Tactical voting doesn’t escape anybody – even the 14 year olds have figured it out. In FPTP systems, that means that there will be unnatural aggregation towards the two biggest parties, in fact, FPTP systems generally end up eliminating all other niche parties, or, as is the case in the UK, marginalizing them into relative extinction. New parties rarely emerge in FPTP systems, and they die fast.

In Iceland, as I mentioned in the previous post, there’s a variant on proportional voting, but there’s an interesting and often-contested rule that parties do not get any seats unless they get more than 5% of the vote, which for a parliamentary election, with 63 seats up for grabs, no party can get more than 3 seats. The reasoning behind this is not entirely wacky, but it’s still not something I like personally. This rule has the side effect that new parties often don’t get many votes during the first election they run for simply because their supporters don’t believe they’ll get more than 5%. In the last general election here, after the “Pots and Pans Revolution”, a new party did emerge out of the revolutionary spirit, The Citizen’s Movement, got 7.2% of the vote and four seats. The Liberal Party got 2.2% of the votes, which would have meant one seat if not for the 5% rule.

Generally speaking, this is just a tendency towards making one’s vote count for something, even if it means choosing the least bad option in some cases. It also means that in some cases, parties like BNP will get a disproportionate number of votes simply because other fringe parties have less of a chance of getting in – fairly decent people voting Nazi not because they’re anti-immigrant or anything like that, but merely because they’d rather have the Nazi’s than the Conservatives or Labor, which is actually alarmingly reasonable.

Indeed, if it were decided today to do a simple reallocation of seats based on a proportional voting system, using the outcome of the general election the other day, it’d be horribly skewed. The entire election must be redone in order to make up for the bias of voters “gaming” the system. Heck, we’d probably be quite surprised.