The Smallprint Of Democracies
14 Jun 2024

In theory it is simple enough. One person, one vote. This gives power to the people. Which is good. Better than some religious nut, hereditary fat-cat or military hog running the show. But once we have agreed to freedom, it can still take many forms. In Athenian Democracy of yore, every citizen voted on every action the State took (citizen being a qualified term back then, and the State being far less complex than the ravenous and labyrinthine beasts of today).

It’s nice to simply rely on the idea that some guy who lies for a living is going to go to the Shiny Capital and represent you – but once we’ve bought into the theory of democracy, the practice can vary a lot. And the devil usually being in the details, it is in the mechanisms and specifics of electoral systems that the actual “SYSTEM” lives and breathes.

It’s actually a tremendous challenge. How do we capture the public will? How do we translate that will into political power? What implications does our methodologies have on representation, stability and governance?

In reality, every country works differently. History, culture and group impulses all play a part – and in effect creates a free for all. But there are really three ways of doing things – three broad categories of democratic practice, erm, in practice. First Past The Post; Proportional Representation; or Some Weird Mix Of It.

First-Past-the-Post (FPTP)

Simple: the country is divided into electoral constituencies, each one bringing one representative to the legislature. The candidate with the most votes in each constituency wins. If there are two parties, or really only two parties and the rest are window-dressing, it is simple enough. I get 60%, you get 40% I win. When there are more parties and the vote is split up more, First Past The Post remains simple. If I get 45% – then between you and the other guy, you have more votes than me. But your absolute majority doesn’t matter. I have the most votes, thus I win. 55% might oppose me, but I still have the largest count.

It’s the original way of doing things, the simplest and oldest of the electoral systems, and it is still used in the USA, Canada and the UK. It’s straight forward, voters understand it, and typically results in single-party majorities which fosters stable governments.

An important additional advantage is that representatives are linked to constituencies. So there is a link, a close one, between voters and their elected officials. If us folks in Backwoods Country don’t like they way you behave, we’re going to come for you next election cycle. You represent us, Billy Bob, and don’t you ever forget it.

Also, the representative stands with his constituency, not with the party. So you can have a Blue guy voting with the Red, or the Red with the Blue… provided the Rep does what his home constituency voters wants him to do.

The obvious drawback is that the party in power might not have the majority of votes – just the largest number of votes. Smaller and regional parties are sometimes sidelined, and often two parties emerge. Votes for losing parties can also be ‘wasted’, by splitting the vote for a potential strong opposition you can in effect ‘give the win’ to those other assholes.

These are challenges, but they don’t disqualify democracy. At its most terrible, with the drawbacks at their most egregious, this still, hands down, beats any tyrannical system, hands down and twice on Sundays.

 First Past The Post is simple and straight-forward… and the US practices a form of it… but because they refuse to adopt the metric system, drive on the wrong side of the road and like to be different, Americans threw a weird spanner in the works.

The Electoral College.

This is a unique mechanism established by the Constitution of the United States for the indirect election of the president and vice president. This system was designed as a compromise between electing the president by a vote in Congress and election by popular vote of the citizens.

The Electoral College is alternately loved by winners or hated by losers, depending on who won and who lost the last election. If your party was favoured, the Electoral College is an important constitutional mechanism that safeguards the citizens by providing a serious and thought-through balance check to populist sentiments. If your party lost, the Electoral College is an antiquated and outdated anti-democratic relic that oppresses the people and should be disbanded forever at the threat of violence.

In the US System, the people vote in their constituencies for Representatives in Congress (there are 435 of these). There are also 100 Senators (2 for every State), and 3 electors from DC (as provided for by the 23rd Amendment so those DC people can feel they also have democracy). Count them together and you get 538 Electors (the Electoral College).

Before the election, the political parties selects electors.

November: On election day, voters cast their ballots for President and Vice-President – the “Popular Vote”.

December: After the election, Electors meet in their State Capitals and they cast their votes.

January: This is sent to the President of the Senate, who counts them in a joint session of Congress. A candidate must receive a majority (at least 270 our of 538) to win the presidency.

So in a way, the people approve and the people’s representatives ratify (or not – which is when the whining begins). Like it or not, happy with the consequences or not, the Electoral College does prevent the dominance of populous areas, and reinforces the federal character of the USA. It does mean there is a lot of focus on highly contested States during elections, and five times in US History, most recently in 2016, it means the winner of the popular vote did not get to be President.

Other than the Americans and their Electoral College, First Past The Post is direct and simple. On to the next.

Proportional Representation (PR)

These systems aim to align the percentage of seats won by a party with the percentage of votes it received. In theory then, the government includes all proportions of the population. It is used in, for example, Israel and Sweden.

The theory goes that political parties receive a proportion of seats in the legislature that reflects their share of the vote. Smaller parties and minority groups are now better represented. There tends to be higher voter turnout because every vote counts. But while the overall representation is ‘’better’’ – there is now more fragmentation, as coalitions will all kinds of weird and wacky voices now have to be entered into in order to form more unstable governments. Some of these systems can be very complex for voters to understand.

Also, what it gains in national representation, it often loses in local accountability. Systems like this tend to vote in party blocks. This means that majority parties can dominate, since their members can’t cast dissenting votes. If the party says jump, the representatives ask “how high” – and whether they like it or not the constituents are along for the ride.

Mixed Systems

Mixed electoral systems claim to combine elements of First-Past-The-Post with Proportional Representation. One is inevitably reminded of Free Markets, as opposed to Centrally Planned Economies, and the alleged Mixed Systems that are purported to exist. In my view having a mixed system is like being half pregnant – efforts to create utopian design that negate all drawbacks and disadvantages end up with comically complex constructs and whole batches of other unintended consequences, some of them now hopelessly intricate.

Germany’s Mixed Member Proportional Model or Japan’s Parallel Voting systems are examples of these… although the extent to which either actually function in practice as intended is not clear.

Ultimately, you are better of accepting the consequences – positive and negative – and work within that, and compensate within that – than have dreams about blending the two like it’s happy hour at a cocktail bar.

Either way, the people have a say. The nature of governance itself means that – whichever system you go for – the people likely have a smaller say than they think they do. Parties can ignore their own voters, and systems can be manipulated. Voters themselves are often gullible, inept and sometimes downright stupid.

However, dealing with the stupidity of entire countries allow for exceptions – which is not the case when locked into the stupidity of a permanent authority, like a clerical council, a single individual or a politburo.

Politics is messy. We win some, we lose some. Many variables come into play that sometimes make political parties and their manifestos, and the wishes of their constituents, distant afterthoughts to how the games being played are actually unfolding.

But over time, democracies are self-correcting. Sometimes late, sometimes expensively, sometimes frustrating… but they do. As little as your vote counts, it is crucial to use it if you are at all invested in the future of a society.

It is also important to help shape the future of the society you care about and are invested in through extra-political means. Voting with your wallet is at least as important as voting with your cross. Your interactions with fellow citizens, your memberships, what you tolerate, the media you accept, the philosophies you concede or challenge – are all important factors when it comes to the steady, messy progress of democracy.

For all its faults, its limitations, its disadvantages – it still gives you rights that no other people in the history of humanity had, more options than any people ever had, and richer, more abundant and more peaceful outcomes than any other system as yet tried and currently dreamt up on paper.

I’m right there with you, rolling my eyes as much as you do, when I look at the clown show.

But if it’s between the shenanigans of a representative legislature -of whatever sort – and the Divine Wishes of The People’s Holy Voice Of Supreme Truth – I say send in the clowns.