Our yes/no voting system means nothing ever happens - RSA Comment - RSA

Our yes/no voting system means nothing ever happens


  • Picture of Peter Emerson
    Peter Emerson
    Director of the de Borda Institute
  • Democracy and governance
  • Environment
  • Climate change
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Climate change tells us we must cooperate or die. But where’s the cooperation between political parties? Peter Emerson suggests a radical change.

The US political scientist William H Riker voiced an unpalatable but unarguable truth many decades ago when he said:

Simple majority decisions cannot be fair in a democratic sense, because the imposition of binary alternatives is itself unfair.

US political scientist William H Riker

Now we have some stark, existential choices about the future of our planet. Climate change is telling us to cooperate… or we die. Nations do cooperate (sometimes). Within nations, however, political parties often do not.

Now people cannot work well with each other, if they are forever voting ‘for’ or ‘against’ each other; if compromise is not even on the ballot paper. Furthermore, you can’t best get consensus in majority voting, because, with a certain number of votes ‘for’ and others ‘against’ – it in fact measures the degree of dissent.

So instead of voting, the COP gatherings rely on a purely verbal methodology; hence those all-night sessions and worse: the vetoes. There is an alternative: people could work with, and vote with, each other in preference voting. As we shall see.

The ancient Greeks had a system

In days long gone, the Greeks used simple majority voting, the only voting procedure they knew: either a single ‘Option X, yes or no?’ or a pairing, ‘Option X or option Y?’ Good as far as it went. But what happens when (as in Brexit) there’s no majority for anything?

For example, say of 14m people in the UK, 5m want the UK in the EEA, 4m prefer the old status quo, in the EU; 3m choose the Customs Union (CU); and 2m opt for the WTO  model. So, in majority voting, you get respective majorities of 9m, 10m, 11m and 12m against everything.

Likewise, if we ask a bunch of kids, ‘What’s for lunch?’ maybe there’s a majority against turnips, swedes, broccoli… everything! Puddings are a trifle easier, with majorities now in favour of ice cream, doughnuts and chocolate cake… but majority voting can sometimes be pretty meaningless.

Binary choices yield bad results

So for multi-option debates, the Greeks adopted a specific procedure; otherwise, sometimes, the outcome could be anything. Now when there are four options on the table, as in Brexit, there are four single choices – A, B, C or D; and six pairings: A or B/C/D, B or C/D, and C or D.

With single choices, there might indeed be a majority against everything; with pairings, however, there’ll always be something, but sometimes, (especially when there is no majority for any one thing), it might be anything.

In 2016, David Cameron posed a single choice, ‘EU, yes or no?’ It lost (or won depending on your point of view). Three years later, Theresa May had her indicative votes, four single choices; they all lost. But Boris Johnson used a pairing: not, say, ‘EEA v EU?’ but ‘my deal or (the most unpopular of all) no deal?’

He won. Of course he won! ‘Any deal versus no deal?’ and ‘any deal’ would have won. Majority voting can be, yes, pretty meaningless.

We’re not learning the lessons of history

Pliny the Younger realised this in the year 105. That, in time, someone was bound to devise a form of multi-option voting. The first were the Chinese, who invented lots of things in those days, and in 1197, its government took a plurality vote on the question of war with Mongolia: five wanted to attack, 33 opted to alternate between attack and defence, and 46 preferred defence.

In Europe in 1299, Ramón Llull considered preference voting. Then, in 1433, another pious soul, Cardinal Nicholas of Cusa, suggested a preferential points system: ‘After much study,’ he said (and his biographer records), ‘no more perfect system can be found’.

It’s like this. No-one votes ‘no’. If a party doesn’t like the status quo, it may move a motion: let’s say option A. Just like in the (German) constructive vote of no/confidence, other parties may propose not amendments but alternative options, B, C, whatever; each a complete package.

Every relevant option (compliant with human rights) is ‘on the table’ (and computer screen), so in a parliament of ten parties, up to ten options may be considered. Parties may seek to amend, composite or even delete an option, though such a change will be adopted, only if the original proposer(s) agree. When all is said but still undone, the chair draws up a balanced (short)list of let’s say five options, such that all options still on the table are included – verbatim, amended or in composite. Next, every member may state their preferences.

How it works in practice

In the count:

  • She who casts just one preference (and says nothing on the other options) gets one point for her favourite, (and the other options get nothing).
  • He who casts two preferences gets two points for his favourite (and his second choice gets one point), and so on.
  • So she who casts all five preferences gets five points for her favourite, (four for her second choice, and so on.
  • In a mathematical nutshell, in a vote on options, the voter may cast m preferences, and obviously, < n.
  • Points shall be awarded to (first, second… last preferences) cast, according to the rule (mm-1 … m).

Unfortunately, this was changed to (nn-1 … n) or (n-1n-2 … 0) and these n rules are mistakenly called a Borda Count (BC). That’s inaccurate as Jean-Charles de Borda proposed the m rule.

Other voting procedures – approval voting, range voting and even the BC often favour the intransigent voters. In contrast, the Modified Borda Count (MBC), as his original is now called, is neutral. Furthermore, it encourages everyone to participate, and to the full. Little wonder such a voting procedure was adopted in Porto Alegre in 1989, when participatory budgeting was born. And this paper suggests the MBC could be key to the ‘political systems that guide collective democratic decision-making’ to quote from page 27 of the RSA’s Design for Life.

If the MBC were the world’s democratic norm, politicians could cooperate more, with all-party power-sharing coalitions in parliaments accepting collective responsibility for their consensual decisions, all based on preferential decision-making. The world would be more peaceful, majority/minority clashes could be a thing of the past, the COP conferences could get more done… and our species might even survive.

Peter Emerson is the director of the de Borda Institute, a Northern Ireland-based NGO, which aims to promote the use of inclusive voting procedures on all contentious questions of social choice.


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