Serving up a dog’s breakfast

5 Apr 2012

The Urban Dictionary defines a dog’s breakfast as “an unappealing mixture of many things... a hodgepodge... a disorganized mess.”

And sadly that’s what the Joint Committee on Lords Reform is offering us with their recommendations on the voting system for the upper house.

As the Guardian reports today; the Committee are backing an ‘Open Preferential Voting System’ – as used in Australia. Voters will have the option to chose between candidates and parties. So much so good. That’s effectively what the Single Transferable Vote offers - and STV has been long regarded as the best fit for the Lords.

But the Committee wants to mix things up a bit – with an ‘above the line voting’ option.  Under this system the ballot paper would be split in two, and voters confronted with an ‘either or’ option. They could choose between backing individual candidates – voting ‘below the line’ - or a list of candidates compiled by party central office – voting ‘above the line’.

In Australia major parties actively discourage voters from voting ‘below the line’ saying that there is ‘no need’ or even ‘do not mark’ below the line:


Election Preponderance of Above the Line Voting
Federal Senate Elections 95%
Federal Senate Elections – Supporters of Major Parties 98-99%
Federal Senate Elections – Supporters of Minor Partues 80-90%
NSW Senate Elections 95%
Tasmanian House of Assembly Elections 80%
Australian Capital Territory Legislative Assembly 80%

Source: Antony Green’s Election Blog


As so many people use above the line voting, below the line voting also becomes a largely pointless exercise. The way that Above the Line voting works means that ‘surpluses’ travel down the party list. So if the Australian Labor Party gets enough votes for 2.5 quotas, the first two candidates on their list will get massive surpluses which transfer down to the third candidate.

Therefore only a large concentration of votes in a ‘below the line’ candidate, can change the order, and if 98% of ALP voters are voting using the Above the Line set-up then a below the line vote for an ALP candidate becomes practically worthless. The above the line system therefore creates a system where parties de facto have more control over candidature than in many semi-open list systems.

The Senate electoral system has become by default a closed party list system whereby voters vote for a party rather than candidates”

According to Marian Sawer of the Australian National University.

Depending on the variant of above the line voting used it can also discriminate heavily against independents. The system used in Federal Senate elections places independents ‘below the line’, so the only way for an independent to get elected is to form de facto parties. This is not true of some of the state-level systems, however.

Above the line voting therefore changes STV in such a way as to remove perhaps its most admirable attribute. STV allows voters to transfer votes both within and between parties. Voters can choose to first preference any candidate, and they can second preference any other even if the candidate is from another party. STV therefore promotes independence. Above the line voting, by contrast, allows parties to choose candidates on the basis of patronage, and the very issue with the current Lords is that is appointed on the basis of patronage.

STV gives voters almost total control, above the line voting places control directly into the hands of political parties.

We think that if you hold the power to decide how Britain is run, you should be elected by us, the British public. That's democracy.

This dog’s dinner of a proposal is a cynical attempt to sneak appointments in through the back door.


5 Responses to Serving up a dog’s breakfast

Chris Prosser 7 Apr 2012

While in general I agree with the ERS when it comes to electoral reform, in this case I think you're looking at things too simply. Please see my analysis of your objections on the Oxford-Cambridge Politics in Spires blog:   

In short: 1) the fact that Lords in a reformed chamber would be elected for non-renewable terms would neutralise the effect that closed party lists has on party discipline. 

2) Although it is far from perfect, the reason open preferential voting was introduced in Australia was to try and solve the very real problem of large numbers of votes being discounted because they weren't filled in correctly. 

Simon Gazeley 27 Apr 2012

Chris may be right, but another reason for "informal" votes (as the Australians call them) is the fact that voting is compulsory and that "below the line" voters are compelled to cast preferences for all the candidates.  This shows that Australians don't understand democracy.

David Hill 9 Apr 2012

Your system has cut off the end of my reference which should read ISSUE12/P7.htm

David Hill 9 Apr 2012

See my paper "How to ruin STV" in Voting matters:
I entirely agree that this proposal is appalling, but only to be expected with politicians in charge of the discussions.

David Hill 

Anthony Tuffin 9 Apr 2012

The ERS and Chris Terry are absolutely right to criticize “above
the line” STV.  It is a travesty of STV that
defeats the main advantage of real
STV over all other systems – the freedom of choice that it offers voters.
Although Chris
Prosser may have a point that “the fact that Lords in a reformed chamber would
be elected for non-renewable terms would neutralise the effect that closed
party lists has on party discipline”, such a system would still restrict
voters’ choices. 

David Hill
makes an excellent point when he writes, “I entirely agree that this proposal is appalling,
but only to be expected with politicians in charge of the discussions”. 
If war is too important to be left to the generals as someone once said,
voting systems are far too important to be left to politicians. A cricket club
committee would not decide how it should be elected.  The club members themselves would
decide.  Why should politicians be exempt
from this commonsense practice?

There is
more on about