A more effective democracy

1, 2, 11 and 12 August 2014. My translation of the Interlingua original.

Introduction

In 2010 I suddenly had an idea for an electoral system that would be better than the existing voting systems. I wrote some articles about the idea, only in Dutch, but there were few reactions and no enthusiasm at all.

I am pertinacious, and today (31 July 2014) I present the same idea, on the occasion of the 14th Nordic Meeting and the 20th International Interlingua Conference. After my presentation, here and now in Åsa, near Göteborg in Sweden, the text will also appear on my website.

Principles of democracy

In a democracy the majority decides. This is the basic principle of every system of democratic government.

But there is yet another foundation of the rule of law, and that is the protection of minorities. Minorities have rights, and in my opinion, minorities should also have a voice, clearly heard in a representation of the people, an elected parliament.

So I am in favour of a system of proportional representation. Propor­tion­alism guarantees that both the large political parties and the small ones have the opportunity of winning one or more seats in parliament.

Proportional system

In many countries, such as Germany, England, the Netherlands and Denmark, after an parliamentary election attempts are made to form a government, a cabinet, that has the support of the parliament. This is more difficult in a proportional system. With such a system, there will be many parties in parliament, small ones and large ones, with diverging opinions.

To form a government, it is necessary to find a coalition of parties, parties which are able to reconcile their differences, which can agree on a programme for government based on compromise.

This takes time, time in which the previous government, the demissionary cabinet, is ineffective. For example, in the Netherlands in 2010, it took 127 days, more than 4 months, until a cabinet was formed. And that cabinet still did not have the guaranteed support of a majority in parliament.

This duration of 127 days wasn’t the record. In 1977 a formation lasted 208 days. Almost 7 months without a new government.

Let’s compare the situation in the Netherlands with that in the United Kingdom of Great Britain in the year 2010. After the elections on 6 May, only 5 days of negotiations were necessary to have a new government. How is this possible? A simple answer: the United Kingdom has a system with single-member voting districts.

Single-member districts

In every district, only the candidate who won more votes than any of the other candidates, wins the seat in parliament allocated to that district. In practice, the consequence of such a system is that there are only two, at most three political parties. The results of elections are clear and simple and the formation of a government supported by parliament is easy.

But the disadvantage of single-member districts is that small parties have no real chance. The voice of minorities will not be heard.

Not only the United Kingdom has such a system, but also the United States and France.

Election threshold

An intermediate system between proportional representation and majority voting in districts, is proportionalism with an election threshold. Germany has this voting system.

With an election threshold, even small parties can win seats in parliament, but only if they get, for example, more than 5 percent of the votes.

This systems promotes clarity and governability. Large minorities can be heard, but the small ones are not.

Using the turnout

So grosso modo, in the world there are three voting systems. One system that doesn’t work well, and two systems that silence minorities. I don’t like either of the three.

Now what is the alternative that I propose? I suggest using the turnout percentage. This is the percentage of voters who actually go to the ballot box to cast their vote. In some countries, such as Belgium, people have to go voting. But where voting is not obligatory, like in the Netherlands, the turnout is generally low, between 50 and 70 percent. At least 30% of eligible voters do not vote.

Why is it that non-voters do not vote? I see 4 possible motives for that:

  1. Disappointment and dissatisfaction. The thought: “Politician won’t do what they have promised anyway.”

    And this is true. Governments in a proportional system are always coalitions of more than one party. By definition, a coalition agreement of a government is not identical with any electoral programme. For the parties, it is inevitable to climb down on certain points.

    As we say in Dutch: they must water the wine.

  2. Cynical disinterest: The attitude: “Politics is for politicians, it’s not my thing. I stay out of it.”

  3. Positive resignation. The idea: “In general politicians are sensible people. Let them handle it, politics is their profession, isn’t? Meanwhile I do my own things, that for me are more important.”

  4. There can be other reasons for not voting: old age, poor health, work pressure, holidays, not taking the trouble of arranging for proxy voting.

The exact motive for not showing up in a polling station doesn’t really matter. In all cases, I think politicians may decide on behalf of those who don’t vote. For them and without them. This is because in fact, those who do not vote, give the politicians carte blanche!

Empty seats

The idea I had that night, between 31 August and 1 September 2010, was simple:

Let us give non-voters empty seats in parliament. Seats that do have a vote in parliament, but which are not occupied by live people. The voting behaviour of the parliamentary group, the fraction, of the empty seats, is automatic and defined in advance.

Later on I will talk about those predefined voting rules. What I propose involves that the empty seats always support the current government. This greatly facilitates forming a coalition of parties, which will govern together.

Distribution of seats

An example: an hypothetic election outcome in a fictitious country with fantasy parties, for a parliament of a 100 seats (Excel spreadsheet, in Interlingua).

Party Per­centage Seats (pro­por­tional) Seats (turnout 70%) Seats (turnout 80%)
Radical left 11 11 8 9
Green left 7 7 5 5
Social democrats 17 17 12 14
Christian democrats 15 15 10 12
Central liberals 11 11 8 9
Conservatives 18 18 12 14
Evangelical protestants 5 5 4 4
Orthodox protestants 2 2 1 2
Populist right 14 14 10 11
Empty seats -- -- 30 20

Potential coalitions with a majority:

Parties Seats (pro­por­tional) Seats (turnout 70%) Seats (turnout 80%)
Christian democrats, Central liberals, Conservatives 44 60 55
Radical left, Green left, Social democrats, Central liberals 46 63 57
Social democrats, Conservatives 35 54 48

How do the empty seats vote

The rules that I propose for the automatic voting of the empty seats in parliament, are the following:

  1. The empty seats vote in favour of every bill (every enactment).

  2. The empty seats vote in favour of every motion. This is true of both motions by coalition parties and motions by opposition parties.

    Thus the policies of the government have stronger support, but also critical views are welcomed.

  3. The empty seats always vote against a motion of censure. This promotes the stability of the government.

In my view such a system combines the advantages of the three existing arrangements:

  1. The majority decides, but minorities are also heard, like in a system of proportional representation.

  2. The formation of a governing coalition is easy and swift. The government can carry through its policies vigorously, effectively and clearly. Politicians can do what they promised before the elections.

Disadvantages?

A potential disadvantage of the system that I propose, I already described in Dutch under the title “Saboteerwetten?”, in English: sabotage laws.

That is, just like the government can more effectively enact bills in parliament, so can the opposition. They could propose bills with the sole purpose of frustrating the government’s policies. This would result in a chaotic and incoherent administration.

But I trust that politicians are sensible people with good intentions, so the problems are not likely to occur. Also, if they did occur, that would stimulate more voters to go to the ballot box. If all voters vote, there are no empty seats in my system. The new system would then be identical with the traditional practice of proportional representation.

So perhaps one day the system that I propose, will be realised and could function. What do you think?


Copyright © 2014, R. Harmsen, all rights reserved.

Original in interlingua

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