Inequitable British Elections Provide Lessons for US Reformers

Posted by Sarah John on May 12, 2015

The 2015 British election delivered a single party government that attracted the support of only a third of British voters. The election also once again returned a parliament with very different political affiliations than British voters. Many have commented on the disproportionate election results, including here in the United States, with particularly good coverage in the Monkey Cage in the Washington Post – see, for example, this pre-election analysis and post-election one.

Few Americans are likely to imagine that similarly disproportionate results occur in the US on a regular basis. In this blog post, FairVote explores the disproportionality of UK election results country-by-country and compares them to regional US congressional results. The blog shows that in both the UK and the US, regional election results are disproportionate because voters of each political persuasion tend to be spread across each region in different densities—with outcomes that exaggerate regional differences and, thereby, exacerbate polarization. Plurality systems of electing legislatures are inherently ill-equipped to deal with this natural and inevitable spatial variation. Correspondingly, plurality tends to result in disproportionate outcomes, whether in the United States or Britain. Fair representation voting, however, does not have the same deficiencies as plurality and should be considered in both Britain and the United States.    

In Britain, the Conservatives achieved the seemingly unachievable: a majority government in a fracturing party system that is increasingly multiparty and regional. While only 37% of voters cast a ballot for them, the Conservative Party won 331 of the 650 seats in the House of Commons to take full control of Her Majesty’s Government. For many Britons—including some of the 63% of voters who did not cast a ballot for the Conservatives—the result was a relief: as noted in an earlier blog, the Westminster system under plurality rules is stable and efficient when one of its disciplined, cohesive political parties controls a majority of seats in the House of Commons.

However, sighs of relief about a return to stable government should not disguise the disproportionalities and inequities that were once again produced by the winner-take-all, plurality vote system (known in Britain as “first past the post,” despite the absence of any posts). The 2015 UK election results provide an especially vivid example of how winner-take-all and single-winner districts (called “constituencies” in Britain) distort electoral outcomes and assign winners and losers in ways that are out of sync with voter preferences, especially at the nationwide or regional level. The case for reforming plurality voting within the United Kingdom focuses largely on extreme levels of under-representation of smaller parties, like the Greens, Liberal Democrats and UK Independence Party (UKIP), which in 2015, collectively received 24.3% of the nationwide vote but only 1.5% of the seats. However, more instructive for Americans are the regional distortions in the representation of the largest parties. This has strong parallels in the US. Just as is true in each of the four countries that make up the United Kingdom, in the US, and many of its states and regions, election results are wildly disproportionate to the country, state or region-wide vote.

The British Electoral Landscape

The map of British House of Commons constituencies by party, [below, thanks to X/Wikimedia Commons] reveals tremendous regional variation in party systems and party successes. Northern Ireland (burnt sienna, green and purple on the map) has a party system completely removed from the rest of the kingdom, in which anti-unionist parties (Sinn Fein and the Social Democrat and Labour Party) compete against the Democratic Unionist and Ulster Unionist parties, both of which are in favor of Northern Ireland staying within the United Kingdom. Both Scotland (mostly yellow on the map) and Wales retain elements of the national party system (Conservative, Labour and Liberal Democratic), with the presence—especially strong in Scotland—of a pro-independence party.

The blue of the Conservative Party, like the red of the Republican Party in the US, spatially dominates the English electoral map. This reflects the geography of Conservative support: Conservative voters tend to be concentrated in less densely populated areas in the countryside and in delightful English villages—areas populated by older and whiter Britons in the highest social classes who form the Conservative Party’s core of support.

As evidenced by the tininess of many of the red constituencies on the map, the Labour Party won in the dense industrial English areas, such as London, Manchester, Liverpool, Birmingham and South Yorkshire (which is sometimes called the “People’s Republic of South Yorkshire” for its leftist tendencies) as well as south and north Wales, on the back of traditional support from the working classes and newer support from younger more ethnically diverse cohorts. It was these same voters who deserted the Labour Party in favor of the Scottish National Party in Scotland (the yellow on the map). The Labour Party, whose proportion of the vote increased from 2010, likely picked up support from disaffected Liberal Democratic voters, including those younger professionals and well-educated folk who, like millennials in the US today, flocked to reinvigorate ailing industrial cities in the 90s and 2000s.

Nationally, the UK Independence Party, a right-wing anti-European Union and anti-immigration party, received the third most votes (3.9 million, or 12.6%), with its support concentrated in England and Wales. As is evidenced by the absence of purple on the map, this support equated to victory only in one constituency. 

British Map

Image by Italay90, recoloured by Cryptographic.2014 (This file was derived from: 2010UKElectionMap.svg) [CC BY-SA 4.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/4.0)], via Wikimedia Commons

Blue: Conservatives; Red: Labour; Orange: Liberal Democrats; Yellow: Scottish National Party. 

The Inadequacy of Winner-Take-All: A Country-by-Country Analysis

Plurality with single-winner districts is an electoral system ill-equipped to deal with complexity. However, the British electoral landscape is complex, with its regional variations and multiparty tendencies that go back to the 19th century. While national results are highly disproportionate, a country-by-county analysis reveals the extent of plurality voting’s failure to produce fair results.

Northern Ireland

In Northern Ireland, a country with only 1.2 million registered voters and 18 House of Commons seats, Sinn Fein won only four seats from 25% of the country-wide vote, while the Democratic Unionist Party won eight seats from 26% of the country-wide vote. That means that just 8,028 extra votes across Northern Ireland translated into twice as many seats. When we consider the ratio of share of seats won to vote share (see the table, below), we see that, for the Democratic Unionist Party, every 1% of the vote cast for it translated into 1.7% of seats. By contrast, for Sinn Fein, each 1% of the vote translated into only 0.9% of the seats. Ulster Unionist Party (UUP) were even further underrepresented, with each 1% of the vote earning them just .7% of the seats.

The UUP won fewer seats than the Social Democratic and Labour Party, despite more voters casting ballots for the UUP.  In other words, the Democratic Unionist Party won a seat for every 23,033 voters who cast ballots for it across Northern Ireland. By contrast, the Ulster Unionist party won only one seat for every 57,460 voters—more than twice as many—who cast a ballot for the party.

These ambiguities and inequities emerge because rarely are all the different parties’ supporters evenly spread across the land – and that is the only condition under which plurality elections are sure to deliver a fair result.  

2015 Election Results in Northern Ireland

Party

Seats

Change from 2010

Vote Share

Share of seats

Ratio of share of seats to vote share

Democratic Unionist Party

8

0

25.7%

44.4%

1.7

Sinn Fein

4

-1

24.5%

22.2%

0.9

Ulster Unionists

2

2

16.0%

11.1%

0.7

Social Dem and Labour Party

3

0

13.9%

16.7%

1.2

Alliance Party

0

-1

8.6%

0.0%

0.0

Other

1

0

11.3%

5.6%

0.5

 

Scotland

In Scotland, the fact that the Scottish National Party (SNP) gained 50 seats for a total of 56 of Scotland’s 59 seats would encourage any observer to conclude that the SNP must have won in a landslide across Scotland. In reality, the SNP did not even achieve a majority. While the SNP won 95% of the country’s seats, only half (50.0%) of voters in Scotland actually gave them their vote. Almost a quarter of voters (24%) cast ballots for the Labour Party, which was obliterated from the Scottish electoral map, losing 40 of the 41 seats it held before the election. As is evident in the table, the SNP won 1.9% seats for every 1% of the vote they received; by contrast, the Labour Party won only 0.07 (yes, zero point zero seven) seats per percentage of the vote. In other words, the SNP won a seat for every 25,972 voters who cast a ballot for the party; the Labour Party won only one seat with a total of 707,147 votes cast for it! The Conservative and Liberal Democratic parties also received a far lower share of seats than their proportion of the vote.

The decimation of the Labour Party in Scotland is more a consequence of the geographical spread of their voters than a decline in Labour Party support. Plurality elections tend to over-represent collections of likeminded voters who are evenly spread out over a country or region and make up a plurality of the electorate. On the other hand, plurality rules tend to punish likeminded voters who are concentrated in a few areas or are evenly spread out over a country or region but are not numerous enough to make up a plurality. The Labour Party in Scotland falls into the latter category – a strong, evenly spread out base of supporters that make up a quarter of the population. As a result, the Labour Party was able to finish second in 44 of the 59 constituencies in Scotland, as shown by Duke Associate Professor Kieran Healy, but came away with only one of the country’s seats.

2015 Election Results in Scotland

Party

Seats

Change from 2010

Vote Share

Share of seats

Ratio of share of seats to vote share

Scottish National Party

56

50

50.0%

94.9%

1.90

Labour

1

-40

24.3%

1.7%

0.07

Conservative

1

0

14.9%

1.7%

0.11

Liberal Democrat

1

-10

7.5%

1.7%

0.22

Others

0

0

3.3%

0.0%

0.00

 

Wales

In Wales, the Welsh nationalist party, Plaid Cymru, held its three seats in the west of the country, while the Labour Party dominated the urban areas around Cardiff and the Conservatives expanded their seats in those rural parts of Wales closest to the English border. In a vote that was split between 5 significant parties, the Labour Party was actually overrepresented in Wales (unlike in Scotland), winning 25 of 40 seats (63%) from 37% of the vote. For every 22,099 Welsh Labour voters, Labour won a seat. UKIP, the Liberal Democrats and Plaid Cymru (the Welsh nationalist party) were underrepresented, collectively receiving almost a third of the vote (32.3%), but only one tenth (10%) of the seats. In the case of Plaid Cymru (whose name means “the party of Wales” in Welsh), the underrepresentation of its supporters stems from their concentration in the West of the country, far away from English imperialism. In the constituencies closest to, and most integrated into, England, Plaid Cymru received as few as 3.9% of the vote. By contrast, in the West, in constituencies like Carmarthen East and Dinefwr, Ceredigion, Dwyfor Meirionnydd and Arfon, Plaid Cymru won as much as 43.8% of the vote. UKIP, on the other hand, was disadvantaged by its relatively even levels of support across Wales. As is so often the case with winner-take-all plurality, the exact geographical arrangement of voters mattered much more to election results than voter preferences in Wales overall. 

2015 Election Results in Wales

Party

Seats

Change from 2010

Vote Share

Share of seats

Ratio of share of seats to vote share

Conservative

11

3

27.2%

27.5%

1.01

Labour

25

-1

36.9%

62.5%

1.70

Liberal Democrat

1

-2

6.5%

2.5%

0.38

Plaid Cymru

3

0

12.1%

7.5%

0.62

UKIP

0

0

13.6%

0.0%

0.00

Other

0

0

3.60%

0.0%

0.00

 

England

In England, where the Liberal Democrats lost 37 of their 43 seats in the election, voters from both major parties are overrepresented in the House of Commons. Even with the phenomenal decline in their vote share (from 23.0% in 2010 to 8.2% in 2015), Liberal Democratic voters remain underrepresented, with 349,738 voters per seat won. However, even more underrepresented are voters outside the ideological center: UKIP and the Greens received one seat a piece, despite both gaining over a million votes. Indeed, UKIP voters were more than 50% more numerous than Liberal Democratic Party voters, but won a sixth as many seats.  Again, these disparities arise from variations in the spatial distribution of voters for each party.

2015 Election Results in England

Party

Seats

Change from 2010

Vote Share

Share of seats

Ratio of share of seats to vote share

Conservative

319

21

41.0%

59.8%

1.46

Labour

206

15

31.6%

38.6%

1.22

Liberal Democrat

6

-37

8.2%

1.1%

0.14

UKIP

1

1

14.1%

0.2%

0.01

Green Party

1

0

4.2%

0.2%

0.04

Others

0

0

0.8%

0.0%

0.00

 

Within England, you can see stark regional disparities as well. The map several paragraphs above showcases sweeping Conservative victories in many rural areas, which shut out representation for all other parties even though their total vote was about half across that area. Stephen Morey offers the example of the shire of Cornwall, a region at the south-western-most tip of England that famous for its tin and copper mining and delicious, in the view of this author, pasties. In Cornwall, there are six constituencies. Morey’s analysis shows that each and every one of those six constituencies sent a Conservative to Westminster, despite the Conservative receiving only 43.1% of the vote in the region, and never more than 50.5% in any Cornwall constituency. Similarly, Labour dominates most of London—so much so that you can walk across London from east to west (and mostly along the Thames) and never leave a Labour constituency—even though Labour won only 43.8% of the vote across London. The result is that each party’s representation reflects its geographic bases far more than its true levels of support across England.

 

Lessons for the US

Americans should take note of the electoral distortions that are so apparent in the UK. While the electoral landscape in the US is somewhat less complex due to the dominance of the two major parties, plurality is still ill-equipped to accurately translate voter preferences into representative legislatures. In any case, the presence of a national two-party system is, in part, artificial: facilitated by state assistance to existing parties and legal barriers to the emergence of new parties. Nonetheless, even with a national two-party system, a regional analysis of the results of state and congressional elections shows distortions of voter will in the US at levels similar to those seen in the UK.

In New England, as in the original England, the translation of seats into votes is highly skewed. Republican voters and partisans are effectively shut out of representation in most New England states. In the 2014 congressional elections, 31.4% of voters voted for a Republican candidate across New England – an impressive percentage given that in Massachusetts, with almost half New England’s population, only 3 of 9 House races were contested by a Republican candidate (Massachusetts, it should be noted, has not elected a Republican to the U.S. House since the 1994 election). Despite making up almost a third of voters across New England in 2014, these Republican votes translated into less than a tenth of the region’s seats. In 2012, where many more Republican voters turned out to vote in a competitive presidential election, the disparity between Republican voters and Republican congressional seats won was even greater. While 40% of New England voters voted for Mitt Romney in 2012, no congressional districts were won by Republicans in 2012.

 

Representation of Republicans (GOP) in Congress, New England

 

 

2014

State

Number of districts

GOP House Votes

GOP Seats

Connecticut

4

39.14%

0.00%

Maine

2

38.50%

50.00%

Massachusetts

9

17.01%

0.00%

New Hampshire

2

48.32%

50.00%

Rhode Island

2

38.80%

0.00%

Vermont

1

31.03%

0.00%

Total

20

31.45%

9.52%

Distortion toward Democratic Party

22%

 

In the Massachusetts House of Representatives, we find more evidence of the problems with winner-take-all plurality when it comes to representing voters who are concentrated geographically (in the case of Republicans in Massachusetts, in the suburbs and exurbs outside major cities). Although the data are complicated by the large number of races that are so uncompetitive that no one dares challenges the incumbent, in the 58 races that were contested between a Republican and a Democrat, 45 percent of voters voted for the Republican Party candidate. The Democratic Party won 40 (69%) of those seats, leaving the 45% of Republican voters with only 18 (31%) seats.

Massachusetts General Assembly, House of Representatives Election 2014

   
   

Democratic

Republican

 

Total

n

%

n

%

Total Seats in House

160

125

78%

35

22%

Uncontested House seats

88

72

82%

16

18%

Seats major v minor party

14

13

93%

1

7%

Contested between Republicans and Democrats

58

40

69%

18

31%

Votes cast in contested races

809,626

433,806

54%

367,570

45%

 

In the South, a similar underrepresentation—this time of Democrats—is evident at the congressional level, with Democrats shut out of Arkansas and Oklahoma completely, despite constituting between a quarter and a third of voters in those states. In both states—and the region generally—the domination of the Republican Party is a relatively recent phenomenon, taking shape now that the realignment of white southern voters to the Republican Party, which began in the 1960s, is largely complete.

Across the South, 39% of voters cast ballots for Democratic candidates in the 2014 congressional election. After the ballots were counted, Democrats ended up with a quarter (25%) of congressional seats. Very similar disparities existed in 2012, when more Democrats turned out to vote. The geographical concentration of Democratic voters in the larger cities of the South, as well as deliberate redistricting to favor incumbents, means that winner-take-all plurality voting fails to deliver representation to the many Democrat voters.

 

Representation of Democrats in Congress, the South

 

2012

2014

State

Dem House Votes

Dem Seats

Dem House Votes

Dem Seats

Alabama

36.00%

14.30%

30.69%

14.29%

Arkansas

32.30%

0.00%

30.67%

0.00%

Florida

47.00%

37.00%

42.62%

37.04%

Georgia

40.80%

35.70%

41.48%

28.57%

Kentucky

40.00%

16.70%

36.36%

16.67%

Louisiana

23.90%

16.70%

27.91%

16.67%

Mississippi

36.90%

25.00%

36.73%

25.00%

North Carolina

50.90%

30.80%

43.95%

23.08%

Oklahoma

32.40%

0.00%

26.63%

0.00%

South Carolina

43.00%

14.30%

33.07%

14.29%

Tennessee

36.80%

22.20%

32.70%

22.22%

Texas

40.00%

33.30%

33.10%

30.56%

Virginia

49.00%

27.30%

39.62%

27.27%

West Virginia

40.10%

33.30%

41.58%

0.00%

Total

40.70%

27.70%

38.82%

25.00%

Distortion toward Republican Party

13%

14%

 

Conclusion

At the regional level, plurality electoral systems produce wildly distorted election results, whether in Scotland and Wales or in New England and the South. This is due to a fundamental inability of plurality in single-winner districts, wedded to geography as it is, to account for the complicated spatial arrangements of political preference that exist in any pluralistic society. In light of the 2015 election, public debate in the United Kingdom is currently centered on fixing the problem of election results wildly out of synch with voter preferences with forms of fair representation voting (also called “proportional representation”). Given a similar problem exists in the US, it is time the US seriously considered fair representation voting too. 


 
Show Comments
comments powered by Disqus

Join Us Today to Help Create a More Perfect Union