Voters dislike disproportionate results – even when their own party benefits

Megan Collins, former Student Placement

Posted on the 11th February 2020

As political parties and commentators continue to digest the result of the 2019 general election, one issue that keeps coming up is how unjust Britain’s electoral system is. But how do voters feel about it?

In a recent study published in the European Journal of Political Research, authors Carolina PlesciaAndré Blais,and John Högström investigate whether having a more or less proportional votes-to-seats conversion matters to individual satisfaction with electoral rules – ultimately, whether the ‘winners’ and ‘losers’ of such systems react similarly to a possible ‘unfair’ distribution of seats.

To test this, the authors use a randomised survey experiment to measure how satisfied voters are with their electoral system in four countries: Austria, Ireland, Sweden and the UK. The UK stands out in this study as the only country using a majoritarian system in the form of first-past-the-post. The other three countries use a proportional system, allowing the authors to rule out a ‘status quo bias’ in the results (where people would prefer the system that they are familiar with).

The results provide interesting revelations about how voters react to different electoral systems. The authors find that voters of both larger and smaller parties are significantly less satisfied under disproportional outcomes – even when the unfairness benefits their own party.

[bctt tweet=”Voters of both larger and smaller parties are significantly less satisfied under disproportional outcomes – even when the unfairness benefits their own party.” username=”electoralreform”]

This dispels the idea that those who support larger parties favour whichever electoral system is in place, while those who support smaller parties are simply ‘sore losers’.

Indeed, the academics find that even if large parties are ‘unfairly’ advantaged by the disproportional system in terms of seats, supporters of these parties will still prefer the more proportional – and fairer conversion to seats (as do supporters of smaller parties). This suggests that more proportional systems increase voter satisfaction, regardless of whether they are supporters of the winning or losing party.

As the only majoritarian system in the study, it has long been noted that Westminster does not properly represent Britain – with seats in Parliament failing to match how people actually want to vote. This was seen in the 2019 general election, where there was a stark difference between the ‘winners’ and ‘losers’, as reported by the ERS. The Conservative Party, for example, was rewarded with a majority of seats (56.2%) on a minority of the vote (43.6%) – with a 1.3 percentage point increase in its 2017 vote share but a 7.4% increase in its seats. Similarly, in Scotland, the SNP gained 7.4% of seats in Westminster on just 3.9% of the vote.

On the ‘losing’ side, the Liberal Democrats fell victim to our broken electoral system, who despite winning 11.5% of the vote, only took 1.7% of the seats. The Green Party also won one seat yet gained 3% of the vote, while the Brexit Party failed to secure any representation despite getting 2% of the vote. With the results of this study, it is no wonder why people are fed up with a toxic, divisive political system that benefits the already powerful.

This not only has short-term implications, where the issues we care about become easy to ignore, but also in the long-term stability of our democratic system. Recognising the legitimacy of the process and accepting the result of elections is necessary for its survival.

As the results of the study have shown, however, growing dissatisfaction with majoritarian systems, where election results continue to highlight its divisive and unfair nature, threatens our democracy.

At the ERS, we argue that a starting point to reversing these threats is to have an electoral system where seats match votes – so people feel truly represented. To help end the broken politics of Westminster and ensure that all voices are heard, sign our petition calling for a fairer, more proportional system to elect MPs.

Megan Collins is a placement student at the ERS from the University of Nottingham. 

Sign our petition calling for a fairer, more proportional system to elect MPs.

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