mnmlist: Complexity and spoiled ballots: an inevitable consequence?

At the Nottinghamshire Fabian Society meeting to discuss elected mayors and police commissioners there was a good deal of intelligent discussion and excellent points made on both sides of the argument. Yet one thing stuck with me above all. The leader of Nottingham City Council, Jon Collins, said that in Nottingham twenty per cent of voters either did not have English as their first language or were functionally illiterate. The effect of this, he argued, was to make it harder for such voters to participate in elections run under systems more complex than First-past-the-post (FPTP). What happens, he said, was that you get more spoiled ballot papers. As mayors would most likely be elected under the Supplementary Vote as in London, or the Alternative Vote (AV), Jon’s concerns need to be given serious consideration by mayor advocates, as well as by groups such as the Fabians which have long supported electoral reform for a variety of elections.

Let us assume, for now, that it is the case that illiteracy leads to more spoiled ballots. Does it really matter? It could be argued, for example, that an effective democracy requires participatory citizens able to understand political issues, ponder them, and come to a reasoned conclusion as a basis to decide their vote. In this argument, it doesn’t matter if people are illiterate since, by being so, they deprive themselves of an essential requirement of political citizenship. Politics ought to be left to those with the skills to practice it is the essence of this argument.

Alternatively, we could use a utilitarian approach. Some utilitarians, J.S. Mill for example, argued that the educated should be rewarded with more votes than the common man. That’s an interesting argument but unlikely to find favour with a majority as well as relying upon the same premise as the above argument that there is something particular about politics that requires special skill.

More reasonably from a utilitarian perspective, we could accept that a more complex voting system potentially disenfranchises the illiterate but that the benefits that accrue from the complex system are so great as to more than compensate. Essentially we could perform a cost-benefit calculation for each possible electoral system, weighing the benefit of, say, the emergence of a Labour voice in Cornwall against the loss of a few votes in Nottingham.

Another answer, more in keeping with our democratic practice, while still accepting the argument that complex electoral systems lead to more spoiled ballots, is to say ‘OK, we will not use any system that requires a voter to do more than place an X.’ That still allows for considerable electoral reform. In Germany, and in elections to the Welsh Assembly and Scottish Parliament, voters place one ‘X’ by their preferred candidate for constituency MP, and an ‘X’ by the name of the party whose list they support. In the UK, we have party lists for elections to the European Parliament that just require the voter to place a single ‘X’ by their party choice. This is certainly a complex system, but the complexity is for the Returning Officer, not the voter, and we assume that Returning Officers can read.

So even accepting the premise that complex systems lead to more spoiled ballots, advocates for electoral reform can continue to base their arguments on the basic idea of political equality of all; that no special skill or status is required to cast a vote. Mayoral elections are more difficult to justify accepting the premise but, frankly, the argument for mayors outside London has bigger theoretical and practical problems to overcome than this.

In reality, however, it turns out that it is not necessarily complex voting systems that lead to more spoiled ballots. In the 2007 elections for the Scottish parliament 4.08% of votes in the constituency section were rejected as well as 2.88% of votes in the regional list section. These rates were much higher than expected and far higher than had occurred in either the 1999 or 2003 elections. Critics of PR jumped on the result and declared that PR led to less democracy because more votes were spoiled. What they neglected to mention was that the 2007 election was fought on the same system as 1999 and 2003.

The one change was in the design of the ballot paper itself. In the earlier elections voters were given two papers, one for the constituency, one for the list section. In these elections rejection rates varied from 0.31 to 0.67%. In 2007, however, these were combined onto one sheet with constituency on the right, regional list on the left. The voter was supposed to vote once in each side of the paper. The Gould Committee, established to investigate the cause of the high number of rejected votes, found that 75% of rejected votes were because voters had either only voted on one side of the paper and not the other. A further 15% had two votes on the one side. The Gould Committee found that ballot paper design was the reason for the rejected votes.

It should be noted that FPTP is not immune from bad design problems. ‘Butterfly’ ballot papers and ‘hanging chads’ occurred under FPTP, the simplest of electoral systems. It is ballot paper design, making the voter’s experience central, that is important, not the system itself.

To conclude, high rates of rejected ballots or illiterate voters do not constitute arguments against electoral reform. They do, however, constitute very strong arguments in favour of very careful consideration being given to the design of ballot papers. The design needs to be as easy as possible for the voter to use and recognise particular difficulties faced by the partially sighted and illiterate voter. Combined with a strong public education campaign for any different electoral system, there is no reason to suppose that voters of any description will be unfairly disenfranchised by a change in voting system.

Dr. Adam Spencer (Vice Chair, Nottinghamshire Fabian Society)