Elections and voting systems


Defining Elections

  • an elections is foremst a way of choosing representatives - this applies to the UK and European Parliament, local government, devolved assemblies and other individuals such as London Mayor
  • some elections, notably general elections, also choose a government in democratic states
  • elections use different systems for converting raw votes into elected seats
  • it involves majority popular participation in showing a preference between parties / candidates
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Functions of elections

  • main function - elect representatives. General elections determine who will represent a constituency in Parliament
  • elect governments and Prime Ministers
  • an election provides a popular mandate to representatives or to a government
  • they provide popular consent for a party to govern
  • elections are an oppurtunity for the public to deliver a verdict on the performance of a current government
  • they grant the public with a chance to choose between differenct political philosophies and programmes
  • educative functions - inform the public about political issues
  • chance for citizens to participate in politics - thus strengthening democracy 
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Distinguishing elections from referendums

  • elections are normally held at specific / semi-formal intervals, while referendums can be held at any time they are desired
  • an election is to elect representatives and leaders whereas a referendum involves a single question over a specific issue. elections deal with a wide range of issues
  • the results of an election are binding whereas, in the UK, referndims are advisory wither than binding on Parliament
  • while the result of an election may be complex, the result of a referendum is a simple `yes` or `no`

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Basis of first past the post

  • also known as simple plurality
  • in constituencies voters choose between different candidates and can only vote for one
  • they cannot show any preference between candidates from the same party and must accept the candidate chosen from party leadership
  • the candidate who receives the most votes is elected
  • it isn`t necassary for a candidate to gain a full majority (50%) to be elected
  • in general elections the party that receives an absolute majority or, failing that, the most seats, is expected to form a government
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basics of regional list system

  • country divided into several regions
  • in each region parties are invited to submit a list of candidates with up to the number of seats available in the region
  • voters choose between the list of parties and only vote once - within each region seats are appointed to each party in general proportion to the overall number of votes won by the party
  • a closed list system means that the candidates are elected in the order in which they are placed on the list by the party leaders (the UK system for European elections)
  • open system means that the voters may rank the candidates from one party in order of preference, but may only vote for one party
  • the outcome is highly proportional 
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Basics of Single Transferable Vote (STV)

  • constituencies return more than one member, usually between four and six (6 in Northern Ireland)
  • each party may put up candidates to the number of seats available in the constituency
  • voters may vote for all / any of the candidates in their own order of preference, they may use as many or as few votes as they wish
  • voters may place candidates from the same party in any orderm whatever the parties may recommend. they can also cast votes for candidates from different parties
  • for a candidate to be elected she / he must achieve a certain quota of votes. the quota is calculated as the total votes cast divided by the number of seats plus one. finally one is added to the total - making the electoral quota
  • any candidates achieving the quota on first preference votes are elected immediately
  • thereafter, the spare preference votes of elected candidates are distributed to other candidates until the required number of candidates acheive the quota
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Basics of Additional Member System (AMS)

  • hybrid system - combination of two systems running side by side
  • a proportion of the total seats in the Parliament or Assembly operate on a basis of First Past the Post. in Scotland and Wales this is about two thirds of the total seats
  • the other third of the seats are elected on the basis of regional list
  • there is variation in Scotland and Wales, the regional list seats are not awarded proportionally. there is a `differential top-up`. this means that parties which do less well in constituency elections are awarded more than their proportional shore of the regional list seats. this counteracts the distorting effects of first past the post and the overall result is broadly proportional
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Basics of Supplementary Vote

  • used to elect a single person such as president or mayor
  • in a first vote the voters show a single preference  for one of the candidates
  • if any candidate recieves an absolute majority of these votes they are elected
  • if no candidate achieves an absolute majority, there is a second vote
  • in the second vote the electorate choose between the top two candidates of the first vote - one of the candidates must recieve an overall majority
  • a variation of this system is used in the London Mayor election - voters show their first and second preference in the same vote so there is no need for a second ballot
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Mandate and Manifesto

  • Mandate = the authority to govern, granted by voters
  • at UK general elections it is accepted that the party which wins the election has been granted a mandate to govern by the people.
  • as each party produces an election manifesto, it also accepted that the governing party has a mandate to implement all aspects of the manifesto
  • parliament can act as the guardian of the manifesto and the Lords in particular may challenge measures which do not conform to the mandate
  • there is also an implied `doctor`s mandate` suggesting that the winning party has the authority to do whatever it deems necassary to further the national interest, even if such measures were not included in the election manifesto
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Main consequences / effects of first past the post

  • most MPs are elected on less than 50% of the votes in their constituency - more people voted against their MP than voted for them
  • means that governments normally acheive an absolute majority of the seats in the House of Commons without winning an absolute majority of the total votes - no party since 1945 has one an overall majority of the votes cast and there was one occasion where no party received an overall majority of seats in the Commons (Feb 1974)
  • Britain has more many years featured single party governments because it could command the majority in the Commons and virtually guarentee to pass all of its legislation
  • Postitive = government can be strong and decisive and do not suffer normal weaknesses of coalitions, as well as government has a very clear electoral mandate and can be judged on how well it has delivered this
  • negative - creates politics that is too adversarial / not consenusual enough - excludes smaller parties from power permanently and creates elective dictatorship (executive seen as over-powerful)
  • most critical assessment = system distorts representation in the House of Commons. Parties with concentratd support (i.e. Labour) receive disproportionately higher number of seats compared to parties like the Lib Dems with spread support
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How do elections promote democracy?

  • crucial that government is carried on with the consent of the people and elections ensure government by consent - effectively reinforce general consent to the democratic system. without elections there would be no wy to guarentee this consent
  • ensures government is accountable to the people - regular elections allow them to be held to account and removed if necassary
  • key oppurtuunity for citizens to be involved in the democratic process - this participation underpins consent and help to ensure popular obedience to elected government
  • elections are a means by which suitable candidates are chosen to hold office or to be representatives in elected assemblies
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impact of proportional representation in Britain

  • PR operates in Northern Ireland (STV), Scotland, Wales and London (AMS) and the regional list system is used for European elections. the impact varies depending on place and method used
  • NI - STV results in multi party outcome with five of the larger parties all acheiving significant representation
  • STV also allows a number of independent candidates to be elected
  • AMS - roughly proportional result. Smaller parties have done well - especially the Greens in Scotland. AMS doesn`t produce absolute majorities leading to minority / coalition government
  • the list system has meant a very proportional result with several small parties winning seats, notably the Greens and UKIP. the same is true for the Greater London Assembly, where even the BNP won a seat in 2008
  • The use of PR has changed the party system in various parts of the UK and has resulted in examples of minority and coalition governments
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To what extent do elections promote democracy?

Can promote democracy

  • ultimate expression of popular will besides referendums - people can show a preference between ideologies, parties and candidates - also give people chance to express views on current government`s performance in office. more direct than other measures of expressing public opinion
  • vital to democracy - force governments to be accoutnable to the electorate. the people are independent of the government, while Parliament is controlled by government, meaning they are less effective at ensuring accountability at times
  • satisfy need for government by consent and ensure peaceful transition of power from one government to the next
  • they are the only way some people can be involved in politcs. Participation is also impotant for maintaining a healthy democracy and reinforce consent
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To what extent do elections promote democracy? Par

Do not promote democracy:

  • mandate = a problem - its assumed that the entire manifesto is accepted if a party is elected, there is no way for the public to state what policy they do / do not agree with
  • elections in Britain limit democratic choice - candidates are pre-elected and electors cannot show second / subsequent choices
  • FPTP means that results are distorted and not all votes have the same weight (those supporting potential wonners in marginal seats have greater value than a vote for a smaller party in a safe seat)
  • consensus politics - choices presented at elections are largely illusions as there are so few differences between the main parties. Democracy in Britain today is much more a case of pluralist group politics rather than party politics
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Assess the arguments in favour of adopting proport

arguments in favour:

  • most fundamental argument = current FPTP system is unfair, it distorts party representation and means votes have unequal value as well as restricts voter choice. in contrast PR produces fair representation
  • current system excludes smaller parties from decision / policy making processes - narrowing the political spectrum and creating the danger that the two main parties maintain a duopoly that damages accountability and creates an undynamic system
  • the current system creates adversary politics rather than consensus politics and this prevetns the continuity from one government to the next while consensus politics provides oppurtunities for the development of longer term policy making
  • current system - one of main causes for political disillusionment in Britain and PR would increase public support for the political system by giving voters more choice and fair choices - more accurately reflecting the political views of the electorate
  • PR is the most common basis for electoral systems in modern democracies - the most notable exception being the USA - and adopting PR would, it can be argued, bring Britain into the modern world of democracy
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Assess the arguments in favour of adopting proport

Arguments against PR:

  • key argument = almost certainly prevent there being a majority government in the HoC. A coalition or minority system can be seen as weak and indecisive and above all, coalitions are seen as governments that no one voted for
  • the current system has stood the test of time and produced a stable political system. A conservative would argue that changing the system exchanges the known for the unknown (PR would have unknown consequences)
  • FPTP is a simple system to understand, while PR is more complex and therefore the lack of understanding would result in a loss of public confidence and even lower turnout
  • would almost certainly end the relationship between MPs and constituents 
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