In 2014, Modi became our country’s prime minister, with only 31% of the vote share. That means 69% of Indians voted against him. What kind of logic is that? On the other hand, in the 2016 US presidential elections, Hillary Clinton got three million more votes than Donald Trump. But Donald Trump became the US president. In what kind of democracy does the person against whom the majority votes become the country’s leader?
Friends, this is what I want to discuss in this blog that how do voting systems work in the world’s democracies? After reading this, I am sure you will start thinking about which voting system is the best for democracy. Let’s understand.
Here’s an example.
Imagine four candidates present themselves in your constituency, i.e. Akshay, Salman, Ranveer, Hrithik (A Bollywood example again. I hope you don’t mind because we can remember these names easily). So now we vote, and after voting, we see that Akshay has got 35% votes, Salman has 39%, and Ranveer and Hrithik get 16% and 15% votes respectively. In our country, the candidate who receives the maximum votes wins the constituency. This is called the first-past-the-post voting system. That means in this case since Salman got the highest vote, 39% the leader of our constituency will be Salman with 39% votes.
First-past-the-post voting system
This first-past-the-post voting system is used in 58 countries all over the world. But there are some clear disadvantages to this system. In the case of our example, if we assume that Hrithik’s fans hate Akshay,. They hate him so much that they don’t want Akshay to win. So a lot of Hrithik’s fans voted for Salman because they knew that Salman is a top candidate. media was repeatedly discussing only Akshay and Salman, and not Hrithik and Ranveer. So, people voted for Salman out of compulsion.
Astonishing right? Because what kind of democracy is this where people aren’t voting for their first preference but instead, voting out of fear and compulsion for another candidate just so that the third candidate doesn’t win? Some people will say they are voting for the lesser of the two evils (Which is the generally millennial mood related to our country’s election). This is a significant advantage of this system.
On the other hand, if this example was a reality in our country, it is possible that Salman’s voters will call Hrithik a vote-cutting candidate. Because from their perspective, Hrithik is just cutting votes. People who voted for Hrithik would have otherwise voted for Salman. So, vote cutting is a significant disadvantage.
Also, a third disadvantage here is that a lot of people vote for candidates depending on their winnability. What are the realistic chances of their candidate actually winning? If the media is repeatedly discussing only the top two candidates, then a lot of people will not vote for the remaining candidates. They will think it is pointless to vote for candidates who have no chance of winning. This is called a wasted vote.
Instant-runoff voting system
To counter all these disadvantages, there is a system called instant-runoff voting. In this, instead of voting for one candidate, you arrange all the candidates in your order of preference. You rank the candidates as your first, second and third preferences. This instant- runoff voting system is used in Australia.
Let’s come back to our example to see how the winner is determined in this system. If we have the same four candidates with the exact voting percentages in the first preference, the candidate with the lowest voting percentage will be eliminated, and his votes will be transferred. So we will see the second preference of the 15% of people who voted for Hrithik. These votes will be transferred to that second preference. If we assume that the second preference of all of Hrithik’s15% voters was Akshay, then these 15% votes will be transferred to Akshay making his total 50%. Akshay will be declared the winner.
Typically in instant-runoff voting, one has to cross the majority. This means each candidate has to get more than 50%. If a candidate receives 50% in the first preference itself, then we won’t see the second preference. You can clearly see your advantages as a voter. You won’t have to vote out of compulsion. You won’t have to choose the lesser of the two evils. In this case, you will generally vote for your first preference. And if you feel you want the third candidate to lose, then in the second preference, you will choose your second candidate.
With this, the disadvantages of the first past the post system are eliminated. This type of voting system is used in many countries. In our country, the president of India is elected using the instant-runoff voting system. Some states use this differently. Like instead of arranging all candidates in your order of preference, you can only select your top four or top three candidates. This is called contingent voting. This system is used in the presidential elections of Sri Lanka. Voters choose their top three candidates. Three people are ranked, and the winner is decided. Interestingly, Oscar award winners are also selected by instant-runoff voting.
Some people might say that if Hrithik has received 15% per cent of votes then in a good democracy his 15% seats should go to his political party. Only then it can be a good democracy. The number of votes that a candidate gets should equal the same number of seats for the party. This system is called proportional representation. In fact, it is the most common system in national legislatures worldwide. It is used in more than 80 countries. Belgium was the first country to use the proportional representation system in its 1900’s general elections. There can be multiple ways to implement this voting system. In some countries like Israel and the Netherlands, the entire country is one constituency and is not split into another constituency. The people of the national vote based on the party and the voting percentage of the parties determines the number of seats allotted. This is called pure proportional representation.
Other modified or derived systems
In some countries, parties publish a list of candidates and people cast their vote based on these candidates. This is called the closed list system. While in some other countries, when the parties publish this list, people can also rank these candidates and which type of list is being published and what percentage of votes should be given to what candidate on the list. This is called the open list system.
If the 2014 elections had used the proportional representation system, then based on 31% vote share, the BJP would have got 169 out of 545 seats. In fact, all parties would have received seats based on their percentage. It’s not like proportional representation system doesn’t have its disadvantages. People who criticize it say that on a local level, the correct with their leaders are lost. On a national scale it looks right that if a party has received these many votes, they get these many seats. The connection with local constituency leaders is lost.
Another thing that is said against this system is that it is difficult for a party to reach a majority in a proportional representation system. There are high chances of parties forming a coalition government. It is said that coalition governments are not stable.
Maybe this could be the reason why in countries like Germany, a mix of voting systems is used. It is a mix of first past the post and proportional representation. The national legislature of Germany uses first past the position for 50 per cent seats where people elect their constituency leaders and for the rest 50 per cent seats, parties publish a list of candidates and proportionally represents their voting percentage to allot setas. You can say that the advantages of both systems create a balance. In most presidential countries like Russia or South American countries or France, use a two-round voting system. In this round of voting happens and if any party doesn’t get a majority, then there is a second round of voting. Usually, in the second round, there are only two top candidates. The disadvantages of this system are the same as that of the first past the post voting system. In fact, it has more disadvantages. Only two candidates are selected, and smaller parties do not get the opportunity to rise to the top. People again vote for the same candidates that have more chances of winning.
This was an overview of different types of voting systems, but in reality, voting systems can be quite complicated. All the types I mentioned can have various subtypes, and in many countries, they are modified based on their needs. For example, in Greece, the party that wins the majority gets a bonus of 50 seats. They receive 50 extra seats in their parliament because they won the majority. These small details have been modified by countries in their own way. The more you understand about this, the more you will be able to answer the question of which voting system is the right one.
I will definitely write another post on the process of US elections and how candidates are chosen.
What do you think is the best voting system among the one’s discussed? Let me know in the comments section.