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Electoral Reform
Posted: Wednesday, December 18, 2002

by Kenneth Aquan-Assee

As long ago as 1861, John Stuart Mill presented arguments for proportional representation (Representative Government, 1861). He saw that it was important for majority interests because it would give minority opinion a platform from which to challenge conventional wisdom. This, in turn, would improve majority rule. This argument is still valid.

Contemporary opinion recognizes that our current system in T&T and elsewhere, facetiously called "First Past the Post" or FPTP (winner takes all; loser takes Prozac), has a major shortcoming: unless you vote for the winning candidate, you will have no representation. In effect, voters with different views will not have their views represented in Parliament and the latter, therefore, will not be representative of the diversity of opinion.

Apathy and low voter turnout is one casualty associated with FPTP. Ironically, by not voting one also votes for the continuing incumbency of the existing parties that one disagrees with.

The argument for Proportional Representation (PR) as an alternative is simply that it will provide for a greater representation of different views and for legislatures that reflect more accurately the composition of the electorate. There will be a greater pool of candidates to choose from; more people are likely to vote; more women are likely to be elected; campaigns will have to focus more on issues (with less mud slinging); and any possible gerrymandering involving electoral boundaries will be eliminated. In effect, PR will stimulate the debate and discussions that should be at the heart of our democratic process, and will make our political choices more meaningful.

PR is not a perfect electoral solution. Its disadvantages are that it may (not inevitably will) lead to coalition or minority governments. However, its many advantages are said to outweigh its possible disadvantages. Although the ethnic polarization of the Indo-Trini and Afro-Trini vote exists, it may simply reflect the fact that the legacy of ethnic political mistrust that exists cannot be overcome with the current political parties and leaders. It may also reflect the 'Hinduization' of the political arena, where adherence to Hinduism is the basis for political, as well as social and economic, choices. But since there are Indo-Trinis who are also Christians and Muslims, and since there are also Hindus with a better reality-perspective than the fundamentalists, PR can definitely improve the political situation in T&T. It will have to be recognized that the development of our full potential as a nation requires the full cooperation of everyone, and this can be achieved only if reasons exist for mutual trust. By all means, let there be competition in the private sector, but cooperation is required in the attainment of national goals.

It is worth noting that PR is used by a great part of Western Europe, as well as many emerging democracies of Eastern Europe and the former Soviet Union. It is also under active consideration in the UK, as well as receiving increasingly favorable attention in the U.S.

Since electoral reform is a topic of current interest in T&T, the following information on possible electoral reforms may be found useful.

*If it is decided that senators and the President should be elected, as are mayors, consideration may be given to Instant Runoff Voting (IRV). IRV is not a form of proportional representation, but an effective method of electing a single winner who will receive, not a mere plurality of votes, but a definite majority. Voters have the opportunity to rank candidates in order of preference.

IRV is used by Ireland to elect its president, and by Australia to elect its House of Representatives. The American Political Science Association also uses IRV to elect its president, and reportedly many jurisdictions and organizations worldwide.

It is claimed that IRV saves money by eliminating the cost of runoff elections since it determines a winner in a single election; increases voter turnout since it gives voters more power and an incentive to get involved; focuses more attention on issues than on personalities, thereby avoiding mud-slinging; and prevents any minority from defeating a candidate supported by the majority.

In IRV voters rank candidates in order of choice: 1, 2, 3 and so on, and as many or as few candidates as they wish, it takes a majority to win. If anyone receives a majority of the first choice votes, that candidate is elected. If not, the last place candidate (the fewest first-choices) is defeated, just as in a runoff election. All ballots are counted again, but this time each ballot cast for the defeated candidate goes to the next choice candidate as indicated on each voter's ballot. In effect, each time a candidate is eliminated, all voters get to choose among the remaining candidates. This continues until one candidate receives a majority of the vote.

The snag is that T&T will have to get modern voting equipment to facilitate and expedite the counting process, which can be tedious and exhausting.

*If it is decided that proportional representation should be the basis for the election of one or more MPs in a given constituency, consideration may be given to The Single Transferable Vote System (STV). This is used in the Australian Senate, the Republic of Ireland, Tasmania, Malta and Northern Ireland for local elections and elections to the European Parliament.

STV might require an increase in the size of existing constituencies, if each will be electing, as is usual, 3 to 5 MPs.

In STV voters rank their favorite candidates in order of preference:
(1,2,3,...). All of the Number 1 votes are added up, and if a candidate receives more than the threshold for that election, they are one of the winners. The first step in the process, therefore, is to establish the threshold: the minimum number of votes necessary to win a seat.

The threshold usually consists of the total number of valid votes in the constituency divided by 1 plus the number of seats to be filled, plus 1 vote. The formula looks like this: Threshold = [valid votes (1 + No. of seats)] + 1 vote. So if there are 10,000 voters to choose 3 candidates, a candidate would need 10,000 (1+3) or 2,500 plus one more vote, i.e. 2,501 votes.

It is standard procedure to drop any fraction that results from the calculation of the threshold.

After counting all of the Number 1 votes, if all of the seats are not filled, a transfer of ballots process starts, where the last place candidate (fewest No.1 votes) is eliminated and his or her ballots are transferred to the Number 2 candidate on those ballots. This process continues until all of the seats available are filled.

The STV helps insure that the results are fair and in proportion to how votes are cast.

The downside is that there is the possibility of coalition or minority governments, not necessarily a bad thing for T&T.

* It may be desired to keep the FPTP system, but to introduce proportionality between parties through what is called party list voting. This system is called the Additional Member System (AMS) and is used to elect the Scottish Parliament, the Welsh Assembly, and the London (UK) assembly. It is also used in Germany, and was used in the New Zealand referendum of 1993.

Basically, each voter has two votes: one for a single MP via FPTP and another for a national party list of candidates. Half or more of the seats are given to the single-member constituencies; the remaining seats are assigned to the party list. The overall number of MPs gained by a party is determined by the percentage of votes it receives in the party list vote. In effect, the party lists are used to increase the number of FPTP seats to a required number. For example, if a party has gained three seats in the constituency votes but should have seven in proportion to its aggregate votes, the first four candidates on its list (7 minus 3 = 4) are also elected as Additional Members.

Its reported disadvantages are that it retains many of the faults of the FPTP system and the list systems of PR. It creates two types of MP, one with and another without a constituency role or duties. Thus, half of the MPs are not accountable to any voters but to the national party. Moreover, who is chosen as a candidate for a constituency or as an Additional Member depends entirely on the party.

Its reported advantages are that you do end up with an MP accountable to each constituency, and some degree of proportional representation although on party lines. Each voter has an effective vote, and can express a preference, which is not possible under FPTP. It has apparently produced stable governments in Germany, although, it has been noted, these were not single party governments.

When a constitutional crisis occurs, as it has in T&T, some degree of constitutional change may be required to resolve it and avoid similar crises. While self-criticism is an index of maturity, we Trinbagonians tend to be excessively self-critical and self-depreciatory, placing excessive reliance on foreign skills and ideas. We must not assume that our existing constitution is inadequate in its entirety. That would be to throw the baby out with the bath-water. It is important to identify what part or parts of our Constitution can be improved and how; it is equally important to recognize what parts have served us well. It is difficult to understand how we could have had the high 2002 UN rankings on Human Development and Gender Empowerment unless pre-UNC parliaments were working in our interests.

That T&T is considering some form of constitutional change reflects great credit on it. There are many developing societies, which pay lip service to their constitutions, or are still hostages to pre-industrial institutions, ideas, and practices incompatible with the norms of democracy. We enjoy and take for granted what so many other developing countries (including Mother Africa and Mother India) lack: tolerance, stability, parliamentary tradition, democratic norms, social, economic, and educational progress. As the saying goes "Little do they of T&T know who only T&T know": it is only by seeing things in a wider context and by making comparisons that we can assess anything properly.

To ensure that citizens know what is expected of them (especially future parliamentarians), it is imperative that adequate attention be given in our schools to helping our students understand our Constitution, the nature of democracy, and the operation of its institutions. I assume the existence of adequately funded state schools, for democracy requires the separation of church and state.

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