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Choice Voting, List Voting, and Piracy in Europe

by Forrest Barnum // Published June 10, 2009
"You gotta convince me that you know what this is all about, that you aren't just fiddling around hoping it'll all... come out right in the end!" –The Maltese Falcon (1941)

Two types of proportional representation voting were used by all nations in the recent European Parliament elections. Most nations use party list systems; I however, want to look closely at the three exceptions – Ireland, Northern Ireland, and Malta – who use what Americans call choice voting and what also is known as Single Transferable Vote (STV) systems. Comparing results in the three STV nations with those from list jurisdictions leads me to believe that choice votinghas proven itself a superior system to list voting in these elections.

To briefly summarize how choice votings used in each nation: Malta – a diminutive island nation – elects five Members of the European Parliament (MEPs) from one multi-member district. The Irish Republic – a not so diminutive island nation -- sends twelve MEPs to Brussels, chosen from four three-member districts. Combining elements of both previous nations, Northern Ireland – part of a island whose sovereignty is contested between two other island nations -- serves as a single district, and chooses three members. Extra drama was added in the case of Malta, allowed to elect a sixth 'observer' MEP who will take office when the Lisbon Treaty – containing several technical changes to the composition of the European Parliament -- is ratified.

The results in Ireland and Malta were interpreted as slaps at unpopular domestic governments. The ruling center-right Partit Nazzjonalista (PN) won only two of the six Maltese seats, while the center-left Partit Laburista (PL) won the remaining four. Malta Independent nicely captures the twists and turns of the 29-round counting process. Two things are worth noting, the importance of transfers from small parties, and the impact of choice on internal party politics. Consulting the handy transfer charts provided by the Times of Malta illuminates the internal dynamics of the count. Generally speaking, votes from smaller groups flowed towards the large center parties; likely, they were a decisive factor in the late-count victories by the PL. As well, voters surprised prognosticators with some of their choices. The Malta Independent bit expressed surprise at the victory of certain candidates. The simple explanation offered in the article – that high ballot positioning was the best guarantee of victory – fails to account for the positions of the PL's victors; who were respectively 2nd, 5th, 7th, and, 10th out of 11). Evidently, voters indulged their democratic desires with scant regard for straight party line voting. I believe both phenomena are positive; their absence from List systems is an issue I will address at the conclusion of this post.

In Ireland, the obvious winner is the left-wing Labour Party, which picked up two seats despite the loss of one MEP from the national quota. First preference support alone fails to account for this victory, although Labour benefited from a positive swing, the party finished a distant third -- well behind Fine Gael (FG) and Fianna Fáil (FF) (the major governing party) and just ahead of Sinn Fein. As in Malta, examining transfers reveals how Labour gained; Sinn Fein voters overwhelmingly picked Labour as their second choice across the county. By combining their votes and lifting Labour, Sinn Fein partisans made their voices heard without wasting their votes. Notably, Sinn Fein's vote actually increased from the last election, even though they lost their only seat. Transfers again explain this outcome; a controversial party whose platform explicitly demands the repatriation of Northern Ireland, Sinn Fein attracted very few preferences as rounds progressed. This is not to say that diversity was restricted; a far-left Socialist won on preferences in Dublin and an independent was re-elected in the Northwest region. Sinn Fein votes were again crucial, pushing both candidates over the quota in their respective contests. Although there was less inter-party choice for Irish voters compared with Malta, FF and FG ran two candidates in most regions, giving voters more power than in most list systems.

The other major trend in this election was the rejection of the two governing parties, FF and the Greens. FF's fall is particularly notable, since its founding, the party has been the largest group in the Dial Eireann, the lower house of the Oireachtas (the Irish Parliament). These elections have for the first time made FG the clearly dominate force in local and European politics. A review of the tables above suggests that FF's inablity to attract transfers severly hindered the party's chances. FG, Labour, and Sinn Fein shared their votes amoung one another in later rounds, lifting many of their candidates to victory. FF likely suffered from the recent death of one of its traditional coalition partners (the Progressive Democrats) and the resulting lack of stable transfers.

Northern Ireland's political culture differs greatly from the rest of Britain; the electoral system, issues, parties and, personalities are entirely different. The traditional sectarian divide between Unionist Protestants and Irish Republican Catholics makes itself felt in the particular orientations of the four major parties; they neatly divide into moderate unionist (Democratic Unionist Party), hardline unionist (Ulster Unionist Party), moderate republican (Social Democratic and Labour Party), and hardline republican (Sinn Fein) camps. How does choice voting function in such a divided community? Many voters were willing to rank alternative parties as a first choice before switching to mainstream candidates in later rounds. With Sinn Fein's candidate winning election in the first round, votes from the non-sectarian Alliance and Green Parties split almost evenly between the Social Democratic and Labour Party and the three Protestant choices. If a different system was used in Northern Ireland, there would be a strong incentive to vote only for sectarian parties; indeed, even with choice voting, many media commentaries suggest a 'crisis of unionism' has occurred thanks to Sinn Fein's first place finish, an opinion that ignores the Unionist  parties continued hold of two of the three seats.

Choice voting functions differently in different contexts, bringing extremes to the center in Northern Ireland, allowing diverse views into elected bodies in Ireland proper, and giving voters choice in the two-party Maltese system. In all cases, votes from smaller parties were necessary to elect candidates and in some instances, a preference could be expressed for one candidate or candidates above others within a party. These dynamics are largely absent from the List systems used in other EU nations. As our good friends at the Electoral Reform Society argue, the far right British National Party (BNP)'s success was partially a product of the electoral system. Much of the BNP's support came from disaffected Labour voters; if choice voting were in use, their discontent could have been constructively channelled in two ways. Voters could have chosen among several Labour candidates, potentially favoring new blood over incumbents; instead, the closed list simply made the vote a referendum on the party itself. Alternatively, a disgruntled constituent could indicate a first preference choice for a protest party like the BNP, before moving to more mainstream alternatives in later rounds.

Obviously, it is difficult to usefully and accurately prognosticate something that never occurred, but more Europeans should consider adopting choice voting. This is not at all to say that List voting is worse than winner-take all voting, diverse views that accurately represent the will of the voters are represented. One of the most intriguing stories to come out of the election occurred in Sweden, where the new Piratpartiet (Pirate Party) plundered the ballot box, achieving a fifth place finish, winning an MEP and 7.1% of the vote. The Pirate Party does not advocate taking to the high seas and terrorizing the innocent with cutlass and cannon, but wants to protect the Sweden-based file sharing website The Pirate Bay from prosecution. Young voters sailed to the polls in higher than normal numbers to give a generous booty of 26.6% of the under thirty vote to the new group, which must have been a rum find for the mainstream groups. Total voter turnout increased 5% in Sweden; this contrast with the rest of Europe is largely credited to the Pirates' plunder of the ballot box. The party's ability increase its lucre and draw votes in other elections remains to be seen, but without proportional voting, this election would have been becalmed.

Still, despite this democratic result in Sweden, the superiority of choice votign is – I believe – born out by results. Choice voting allows protest votes, curtails radicalism, and bridges divided communities more than list systems, whose dynamics can encourage more extreme voting, party control, and reduced voter choice. Without overstating the case, I believe that it is also no coincidence that turnout in Malta (78.81%) and Ireland (57.6%) was well above the European average (43.2%), while Northern Irish (42.81%) voters came out in greater numbers than the neurasthenic British average (34.48%). Voters are choosing to participate in greater numbers in the choice voting nations, reformers looking at the European Union's problems should be mindful of this when parsing the results of these elections. Sometimes the simplest solutions are the best; running deficient voting systems off the plank and pressing better ones into service is one such fix.