Response to the States Assembly Constitution Committee on electoral reform

Posted on the 31st January 2007

We note the Committee’s instructions to undertake a comprehensive review of all practicable methods of introducing Island-wide voting. There are possible models for all-island voting, but unfortunately, they all present significant practical difficulties, because of the size of the States of Deliberation, and the lack of political parties in Guernsey.

  1. The first model would be to hold elections under a variant of First-Past-the-Post, called the Multiple Non Transferable Vote (MNTV). This system is used for a number of local elections in England and Wales. Each voter has the same number of votes as there are seats to be filled. However, this means that the system is ill-suited to elections where a large number of seats are up for election. Under present circumstances in Guernsey, it would require a voter to place an ‘X’ beside as many as 45 candidates, a task that would quickly become laborious. In the event that an issue arose that split voters and candidates 60-40, the candidates in the majority viewpoint would tend to be elected, and there would be no guarantee of representation of the minority view.
    One refinement of this process may be a ‘Limited Vote’ system, whereby voters may be given a set number of votes – say six or seven as at present – and could thereby place an ‘X’ next to their most favoured candidates. However, the mechanics of the system mean it would have the potential to produce perverse and unrepresentative results. There would also be the danger that not all 45  seats would be filled, particularly if most votes gravitate towards a handful of popular candidates.
  2. A second possibility would be the Single Non Transferable Vote system (SNTV). This system would give each voter one vote, and they would simply be required to place an ‘X’ next to the candidate of their choice. The 45 candidates who gained most votes would be elected. This is perhaps the most theoretically feasible of the Island-wide models. However, it has clear limitations. Firstly, it places large restrictions on the ability of voters to exercise any real choice between candidates. Whereas at present voters have seven votes to choose seven members, under SNTV they will be limited to one vote, with little or no say over which of the other candidates they would like to see elected or not. In addition, SNTV would present a logistical problem in that voters would be choosing between as many as 82 candidates. Again, such a task could quickly become laborious, and an element of random luck could enter the equation – voters simply opting for the name at the top of a long and daunting list. There would again also be the danger of not all posts being filled if votes gravitate towards popular candidates.
  3. A third possibility for a national constituency would normally be a proportional list system. These are used in countries operating a nationwide constituency such as the Netherlands and Israel. Unfortunately, it is virtually impossible to operate in a culture where no political parties operate. In the Netherlands and Israel, the vast majority of votes are cast for a party, and seats are thus allocated in strict proportion to the number of votes gained by each party. Voters thus have a limited number of choices between the parties standing for election. In Guernsey, this will be impossible to implement unless candidates form parties or electoral blocs, which would enable seats to be allocated proportionately according to the number of votes each group receives.
  4. The fourth possibility would be to use the system that the Electoral Reform Society advocates, the Single Transferable Vote (STV). STV allows voters to rank candidates in order of preference, and allows seats to be allocated proportionately based on multi-member seats. It would be theoretically possible to operate STV on a nationwide constituency, but again it would be a laborious process, requiring voters to rank as many as 82 candidates in their order of preference. This is unlikely to be popular with voters.

In short therefore, a nationwide constituency system could only feasibly operate in Guernsey if one of the following conditions were met:

  • Candidates coalesced into political parties, or (at the very least) electoral blocs
  • There were fewer seats to be filled (however any more than twenty seats would make any of the above systems problematic, and a twenty-member assembly would not seem appropriate).

The Electoral Reform Society, therefore, recommends that the Committee consider alternative models based on the present electoral districts. The system that we believe would best represent the views of Guernsey voters is the Single Transferable Vote, based on the current seven electoral districts. Voters would be asked to elect between six and seven members for each district by ranking candidates in order of preference. Those candidates who reached the following quota of required votes would be elected:

(Number of votes cast) ÷ (Number of seats in the electoral district +1) +1

If any candidate reaches the required quota on the basis of first preference votes (those votes ranking the candidate first), the candidate is declared elected and its surplus votes (the number of votes over and above the quota) are redistributed in proportion to the second preferences indicated by voters. Once the surpluses of all elected candidates are redistributed, the votes of the candidate with fewest votes are also redistributed according to the next preference. The process continues until all seats have been filled by candidates reaching the quota. If  one seat remains to be filled and there are two candidates remaining short of the quota, the remaining candidate with the most seats takes the final seat.

The system operates successfully in Northern Ireland, the Republic of Ireland, Malta, Australia, and, from May 2007, local elections in Scotland. The Electoral Reform Society advocates it because it gives maximum power to voters, and is more representative of their views than First-Past-the-Post, which can tend to produce skewed results in favour of the ‘largest minority’. If STV was based on the current electoral districts, the problems mentioned above would be alleviated, since voters would only be required to choose between 10-12 candidates each – a far more feasible prospect. STV elections to the Northern Ireland Assembly for instance elect six members per constituency, and voters choose between an average of fifteen candidates. However, STV could also easily work based on smaller electoral districts, electing between four and six members per constituency as in the Republic of Ireland. However the Committee should note that the more seats per district, the more representative the result will be. It is purely a matter of balance between proportionality and practicality – any more than seven seats to fill and the number of candidates to choose from would once again become a laborious process.

Stuart Stoner
Parliamentary Officer

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