• miércoles, mayo 04, 2011

    UK Referendum: Why Electoral Systems Persist

    On May 5th, the UK will face a referendum to change the electoral system. The question on the ballot (yes/no answer) will ask the following:

    At present, the UK uses the “first past the post” system to elect MPs to the House of Commons. Should the “alternative vote” system be used instead?

    The incumbent system, First-Past-The-Post (FPTP), is part of the Plurality family. Under this system the candidate with most votes is elected to office.

    The challenger system, the Alternative Vote (AV), is part of the Single Transferable Vote (STV) family. Under this system a candidate requires 50% of the votes to be elected to office. Instead of casting one vote for one candidate, each person order-ranks the candidates. If no one reaches the 50% threshold with the sum of the first preferences, the candidate with the fewest votes is eliminated and that candidate's votes are transferred. This process is repeated until a candidate reaches 50%.

    (To see YES campaign, click here; to see NO campaign, click here).

    Although the challenger system is an interesting one, it is likely that it will lose in the referendum (see here and here).

    To understand why it will lose, it is useful to look at evidence from Latin America. In a very interesting paper Laura Willis-Otero argues that three elements were crucial in determining the change/no change of electoral systems during the 20th century in Latin America:

    (1) the entrance of a substantial number of voters made the incumbent party more likely to change the electoral system,

    (2) the emergence of new parties "stole" votes from the older parties, and then pressured them to change the electoral system,


    (3) when the incumbent party was strong enough to gain a plurality of the votes and remain the absolute winner, they decided to retain the electoral system.

    In the UK there are no new voters or new parties to fuel the motion. The Liberal Democrats are the only ones comiited too see the motion through. But as the third party, little can they do.

    The impressive deployment that the incumbent Conservative party has made to retain the FTPT system, is hands down a safeguard for status quo.

    Not even Labour will be able to stop the Tories. Though leader Ed Milliband has asked voters to cast a YES, everything seems to indicate that the party is divided enough to alienate voters into not registering for the referendum, or simply casting a NO.

    Though the change of the electoral system in the UK depends on the people (registered to vote in the referendum), rather than on the legislative body (as was the case in Latin America), the mass mobilization of the major parties against the new proposal has worked as an effective deterrent of change

    The bottom line is that when the parties in power do not want to change the system, the system cannot be changed--even though it comes down to the people.

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