electoralIt’s an exciting time for government. There’s a Presidential election next year in the US, and the UK will choose its Prime Minister in May, just a few months from now.

But how we choose our leaders differs by country – and ultimately influences the result, our governing bodies, and therefore in essence our lives.

There’s a well-known paradox of electoral systems: when voters have three or more alternatives, no voting method can convert the preferences of individuals into a complete, transitive, community-wide result.

It’s true: in the UK candidates need just one more vote than any rival to win their Westminster seat. And with more parties contesting elections, MPs are very often elected with less than majority support in their constituencies. Most of us vote in essentially safe seats that return the same party in any case. The choice with which we are faced, if not to support a winning party, is not to vote or vote tactically.

So is the electoral system broken?

Let’s not give up that easily. Democracy – the ultimate foundations of society today – is of course the worst system except for all others tried. And the type of electoral method we use determines the extent to which our government truly represents the public, and its accountability.

Each system has drastically different implications for voters, for parties, for Parliament and for government. Majoritarian systems, simple but highly disproportional, encompass those such as First Past The Post (FPTP) whereby electors choose their favoured contender and the candidate with the most votes wins. All other votes count for nothing. It is this method that creates a more Presidential-style of power: party lines, the leadership, donators and partners all have great influence, and the individual MP barely any.

Proportional representation, whereby seats are distributed according to vote share, encourages active and healthy dispute in the public domain. It connects party leaderships with their MPs, and MPs with their voters, allowing less room for external influence. It is typically recognised as producing far more accurate, representative results – but thus no stable majority government.

With obvious flaws in each method, the question becomes one of the lesser of all evils.

It requires consideration of what the public want.

And in a 2011 UK-wide referendum we found out: they were asked if FPTP should be replaced by Alternative Vote for electing Members of Parliament. The referendum produced a definitive no vote against AV.

It is still disputed today whether this was primarily because the ‘No to AV’ campaign claimed the system is too complicated for the public to understand; or because AV was considered to do little for smaller parties; and so on.

But the outcome was clear.

Even with several preference systems already in use in Britain today (Supplementary Vote elects the Mayor of London, and the Single Transferable Vote is employed throughout local elections in Scotland and Northern Ireland), the public chose not to adopt PR in our Westminster elections.

The electoral system is not in crisis if the overwhelming majority of those taking part in our political process – the public – support it.

That is the case today.

And with national polls indicating the two main parties together have seen their total share fall from 81 to 72 per cent in the last year, there is good reason to believe the 2015 election will return favourable results for smaller parties – UKIP and the Greens, for instance – even under our FPTP system.

The electorate today is far more aware, educated, and flexible with their political loyalties than ever before. With access to information, to each other, and to our elected representatives so readily available, we are freely able to keep up to date with, and scrutinise, the governing of our everyday lives.

Perhaps, then, the question to ask is not whether the electoral system is broken, but how we will use it (in its current, public-approved form) to shape our future for generations to come.

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