Over on re-Constituted, I discussed the Senate in terms of its constitutional history. One thing that often gets missed in discussions about electoral reform is the interpretive aspect: when a person casts a vote, what does that vote mean? And unless you ask that question, it is really difficult to discuss which voting system is better than another.
‘Better’, of course, is a loaded term. I’m yet to find a coherent or rational defence of the current senate electoral model, but one recurring feature of their ‘argument’ is that it is better that minor parties are represented in the Senate. As I’ll discuss in this short post, that understanding of better is really weird.
But lets start somewhere else…
A simple electoral system is intuitively easy to understand. I am hosting a movie night with nine other friends and we’re stuck on which movie to watch. There are two options: Zardoz and Invasion of the Bee Girls. After hearing the arguments for or against watching either film, it is put to a vote. Two people say that they want to watch Sean Connery in a bright orange man-kini; three people say that they want to watch bee women corrupting American housewives; and five people say that they don’t care either way because they just love terrible movies.
Which film should we watch? Of those who cast valid votes, the majority wants to watch Bee Girls. Of the total number of possible votes, there isn’t a majority for either film; but it is also true that the group will be overall happier with Bee Girls than with Zardoz.
The act of voting here is communicative and helps to make a collective decision. We interpret the behaviour of voting and give a narrative, and we can speak about the overall happiness of the group.
Four people want to watch V for Vendetta. Four people want to watch 1984. Only two people want to watch Brazil.
It seems pretty clear at this stage that the group would not be happiest if we watched Brazil, but what if every person who wanted to watch V for Vendetta would be happy with Brazil but not 1984? And what if everybody who wanted to watch 1984 would be happy with Brazil but not V for Vendetta? It turns out that the group would be happiest overall if we watched Brazil, even though it was the first preference for the fewest number of people.
This is the exact problem wrestled by Lewis Carroll during one of his studies on the mathematics of electoral systems. His argument was that systems which knocked out the least preferred option imposed a counterintuitive interpretation of what the votes meant. In this case, the process of interpreting the votes does not result in a true statement about what would make the group the happiest as a whole. There’s been a failed communication.
It is not true to say that the ordinary voter understands the Senate’s election process. The system is complex. There are quotas and transfer values and blah blah blah, supermaths.
The current system also includes group voting tickets. A political party says to the electorate: ‘You can trust us! A vote for us is a delegation for us to transfer your vote in a way that suits us!’
What we have found is that voters can’t trust political parties to transfer the votes. People who thought they were voting in support of the Sex Party’s policies expressed utter shock that their votes were transferred to the hyper-racist One Nation Party. The argument given by the Sex Party was that the electoral process is a ‘game’ and they need to ‘play the game’ in order to maximise their chances of being elected. This was a thoroughly unsatisfactory answer.
Proposals announced today shift that delegation mechanism. Instead of trusting a political party to transfer the vote, voters will now be able to express their preferences without the intermediary. If I want to support, say, the Neo-Confucian Party, but would be happy with the High Tory Party as a second option, I can express that on my ballot instead of having to trust the parties. True, I could do this before by voting below the line, but it was a surprisingly difficult task. I had to number a huge number of boxes. I was prone to making mistakes. And I had to vote for individuals whom I was unlikely to know instead of just for the party.
The proposed reforms transfers power back to the voter and makes it easier to interpret the meaning of a vote. It is difficult to see why anybody would think this is a bad thing.
One argument that is advanced is that the proposals will benefit the major parties. The argument is that having anybody but the major parties is a good outcome, regardless of whether or not that’s the collective intent of the electorate. Under this view, the One Nation senator is equally good as the Sex Party senator.
The argument relies upon the strange intuition that something which benefits major parties is ipso facto a bad thing. It’s an extremist argument: even if more people would be happier with a major party candidate than any one particular minor party senator, it is necessarily a bad thing that the major party candidate is elected.
There are no good arguments in opposition to the proposed reforms as a package.