Are Guernsey about to hold the strangest election in the world? 

Michela Palese
Author:
Michela Palese

Posted on the 6th October 2020

On 7 October, voters in Guernsey will head to the polls for what is likely to be the ‘strangest [election] in the world’. For the first time, the vote will be held across one island-wide constituency which will see each 38 deputies elected to the States of Deliberation (the Guernsey parliament) with each voter casting up to 38 individual votes on one ballot paper.

The election will take place using the Multiple Non-Transferable Vote, or Bloc Vote, electoral system – a variant of First Past the Post, used in local elections in England and Wales (Scotland and Northern Ireland use the much fairer Single Transferable Vote system for their local elections), where each voter has the same number of votes as there are seats to be filled.

The 2018 Referendum

The election comes following a referendum in 2018, to replace the previous system which saw voters cast their ballots on a district basis that saw the island divided into seven individual constituencies. The poll presented voters with five Multiple Non-Transferable Vote electoral systems from which to choose.

Number of electoral districts Number of deputies to be elected Frequency of elections Numbers of votes per voter Term length
Option A One island-wide 38 Every 4 years 38 4 years
Option B 7 districts 38 Every 4 years 5 or 6 depending on population size of each district 4 years
Option C One island-wide and 7 districts 10 (island-wide)  28 (seven districts) Two elections held every 4 years 10 votes for island-wide deputies; 3, 4 or 5 votes for district deputies 4 years
Option D 4 districts 38 Every 4 years 9, 10, 11 votes depending on population size of each district 4 years
Option E One island-wide 38 with one third elected at each election Every 2 years 12 or 13 votes 6 years

Source: https://www.gov.gg/CHttpHandler.ashx?id=115309&p=0 

The winning proposal was chosen using the Alternative Vote system, with option A achieving 52.48 percent of votes in the fourth count.

The 2020 Election

There are one hundred and eighteen candidates standing in Guernsey’s first island-wide vote this week (though 119 originally put themselves forward and appear on the ballot paper, one candidate had to drop out due to illness). Historically, parties have not been a feature of Guernsey politics, with deputies standing as independent candidates. In February 2020, the Alliance Party, which is contesting the election with 11 candidates, was the first to register as a political party on the island.   In addition to the 11 Alliance Party candidates, the Guernsey Party has put forward nine, while 21 would-be deputies have joined together in the Guernsey Partnership of Independents – with candidates free to set their own manifestos and not subject to the party whip. Of the 119 candidates on the ballot, 78 are not affiliated to any party. Around a third of candidates (24.4%) are current or past deputies, while 81 are contesting an election for the first time.

Total standing New candidates Current deputies Past deputies
Not affiliated 78 55 18 5
Alliance Party 11 11 11
Guernsey Partnership of Independents 21 6 4
Guernsey Party 9 9
Total 119 81 29 9

Source: https://election2020.gg/ 

On the face of it, such a large number of candidates might appear to provide voters with greater choice, but, when combined with a very limited party system, it can make it difficult for people to make an informed decision. This appears to have been recognised by the States of Guernsey: in addition to sending a booklet with candidates’ combined manifestos to every address with a registered voter, the States have set up a dedicated, detailed voter information website. This allows voters to view all candidates standing in the election (including their contact information and detailed personal statement/manifesto), filter according to affiliation and other criteria, and use a ‘yes, no, maybe’ feature to save candidate preferences. The website also contains candidates’ answers to questions submitted by the public on issues such as the environment, housing, and social wellbeing.

Postal voting was also strongly promoted as a way to make it easier for voters to fill out the ballot paper. The uptake in postal voting on the island has been remarkable, with over 20,000 requests, which, according to an election observer, is likely to be the ‘highest proportion of postal votes of any vote ever’.

A lottery election

Though a candidate information website and postal voting may offer some mitigation, the election is still likely to be a difficult and overwhelming experience for voters, who must wade through 119 candidate statements and keep track of whether they have used all 38 votes (though no more, so as to avoid spoiling their ballot). Indeed, one potential voter said the election would be a ‘big hassle’ and that most voters would not read through all the manifestos.  According to Dr Adrian Lee, a former politics professor at Plymouth University, ‘there’s no other jurisdiction of this size trying to elect that many people at once using first-past-the-post’ – both Israel and the Netherlands, for example, have a single nationwide constituency, but use a Party List system (a form of proportional representation) to elect their representatives.

Dr Alan Renwick of the UCL Constitution Unit commented that election would be a ‘lottery for who gets voted in’ given that the low number of voters relative to candidates makes it impossible to make meaningful choices.  While simply giving voters more votes might appear to enhance democratic choice, a single nationwide constituency, combined with a lack of political parties and an unrepresentative electoral system, is unlikely to help generate meaningful engagement among the population.

A fairer electoral system, such as the Single Transferable Vote, based on smaller, multi-member constituencies and which allows voters to rank candidates in order of preference, would give real power to voters.  How successful Guernsey’s new system, and their experiment in mass multiple non-transferable vote remains to be seen.

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