Does your vote count?

Posting a vote in a ballot box
Does your vote count? Photo by Element5 via Pexels (CC BY 2.0)

We live in a democracy, where our government is chosen by the people. But a lot of people are unhappy about how it works. Our voting system needs fixing.

In 2019, nearly three quarters of people polled in the UK said that our system of government needs ‘quite a lot’, or ‘a great deal’ of improvement. In every election in the last 25 years, more than a third of eligible adults have not voted. That doesn’t sound very democratic. So, what’s wrong with the voting system, and could we put it right?

How does our democracy work?

Because governing a country is complicated, and we all have busy lives, we elect MPs to represent us and form the government. We each have one vote for a single member to represent our local constituency. The candidate with the most votes is elected, and the others get nothing.

Everyone gets a vote, so what’s the problem?

First, most people don’t get what they vote for. It is 85 years since any party actually won more than half the votes cast in a UK General Election. And one voter in three doesn’t bother to vote at all.

Second, in most places, voters don’t count. This is because the same party wins every time, so candidates don’t really need to pay attention to those voters’ views. In East Anglia, nine out of ten constituencies regularly elect a Conservative MP. Yet, over the last five elections, between 43 percent and 56 percent of people voted for other parties.

Third, many people are not choosing the government they want, but just trying to stop one they dislike. In 2019, one in three said they were voting tactically, for the ‘lesser evil’. 

Finally, a party may get a lot of votes, but, if those votes are spread thinly across the country, that party will lose in most places. In 2017, the Conservatives got 318 MPs, with an average of 38,000 votes each. However, because their votes were spread thinly across the country, the Green Party got only one MP for 507,000 votes, and UKIP, with 4 million votes, got no MPs at all. So, when people say that voting is a waste of time, they may be right.

smaller parties need more votes to elect each MP
Average number of votes in thousands needed by each party to elect an MP. Photo by Make Votes Matter

How Conservative is the East of England?

The East of England is a broadly conservative region. But the effect of our voting system is to exaggerate that wildly. In 2019, the Conservatives won a bit more than half the votes (57 percent), but they won 90 percent of the seats.

The root of the problem is our ‘first past the post’ electoral system.

Each of us votes for a single candidate. The candidate with the most votes in each constituency becomes the MP. The party with the most MPs gets to form a government. Over the last 25 years, average turnout has been 66 percent, and the average winning party got only 41 percent of the votes cast. So, we give almost absolute power to governments elected by less than a third of the overall electorate. Opposition MPs can protest, but the ruling party rarely has to change its mind.

Isn’t this the normal way of organising elections?

Among the thirty seven countries in the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development, only three (Canada, the USA and the UK) still use first past the post. Recent history does not suggest that either the USA or the UK is a good example of stable and responsible government. In both cases, many people of all parties are very unhappy about their politics.

Almost all other democracies have some form of ‘proportional’ voting. It’s a system where each party wins a number of seats in parliament which roughly matches the number of votes cast for that party. There are two broad ways of achieving this.

Under ‘Single Transferable Vote’, there are several MPs in each constituency, and voters rank candidates in order of preference. Your first choice may not get elected, but there is a good chance that your second or third will. This results in many constituencies electing MPs from more than one party.

The alternative is ‘Additional Member’ systems, voters have two votes: one is for a constituency MP (as we currently do in UK general elections), and the other for the party. When all the constituency MPs have been elected, the party lists are used to top up seats so that the final numbers in Parliament match the overall vote share.

What are the advantages of a proportional system?

In proportional systems, it is rare for a single party to win an absolute majority. This means they have to agree compromises to get things done. This makes it more difficult for any one party to introduce extreme policies. Negotiations and debates in Parliament ensure that policies are carefully thought through, because the Government is more vulnerable to losing votes in Parliament.

Countries with proportional elections are different. Researchers have shown that proportional countries generally have more long-term policymaking, with fewer sudden changes of direction after elections. They have less inequality, stronger public services and welfare systems, stronger environmental policies, and better gender balance in their parliaments. Election turnout is higher, and people are more likely to say they are happy with their government (even if their own vote is for a losing party).

Could the UK bring in proportional representation?

In polls, a majority of people in the UK say they are in favour of reforming our system, but could we change?

It is possible: in the last 20 years, 27 countries have switched to proportional systems without major problems. But it is difficult, because a party that wins under the present system is unlikely to want to change it. However, since the winning party never has an absolute majority of the votes, it is possible for the other parties to form a pact to overturn this.

Some people worry that a proportional system allows extreme minorities to get into power. Certainly, minority parties are more likely to win seats. But, once in parliament, they have to win arguments and negotiate compromises if they want to influence things. And most countries require a party to gain a minimum proportion of the overall vote (like 5%) to get any seats.

Some suggest that people will find it confusing, but voters don’t seem to have a problem in other countries. Here in the UK, we already use proportional systems in Scotland, Northern Ireland and Wales. We also used it in elections for the European Parliament.

So, a more democratic system is possible. The results would be fairer, more popular, and produce results which most of us want. Is now the time?

Can you help us reach more readers?