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Voting on Voting

By Griffin W. Huschke, Mayme and Herb Frank Research Fellow

Voting in the 2004 plebiscite

The leaders of the United Kingdom’s ruling coalition, David Cameron and Nick Clegg, have seemed a bit like the odd couple in the last several weeks.  Cameron, the conservative leader who famously slashed governmental services and raised tuition for students, has thus far been effective at maintaining the coalition’s focus on the Conservative party’s agenda, even if many of those planks were expressly repellent to the coalition’s junior partner.  But Nick Clegg and the Liberal Democrats were only going to play nice for so long, and part of the reward for holding their nose through all this NHS drama was a referendum to revamp First Past the Post electoral system currently in place.

The Liberal Democrats argue that the current system is broken because it isn’t proportional, and marginalizes minority parties.  Opponents of the Liberal Democrat’s proposed system, including the Conservative Party, say the new system is confusing, and would create weaker ruling parties, leading to more dissolved Parliaments and ineffectual government.  And in general, the public has agreed with the Conservatives–in a referendum held last weekend, voters widely rejected the Liberal Democrats proposed “Alternative Vote” system by almost 2 to 1.

In thinking about various voting systems used around the world in governments and international institutions like NATO and the EU, it’s almost impossible to offer some sort of objective analysis; voting systems are the result a country’s culture, history, and underlying political philosophies.  The system used to elect officials or make decisions speak to the values a country places on intangibles like preoperational representation, consensus, minority opinion, and the amount of political agency in the electorate.   While there are changes that can be made that affect the efficacy of an institution—the Streit Council has long argued for changes in the decision-making processes of NATO and the election methods of the European Union—the counter-arguments to these changes are usually rooted in arguments about political philosophy and state sovereignty that are convincing to many state leaders.

It seems that the public of the United Kingdom has spoken loudly about the value it places on these issues, but that doesn’t mean the First Past the Post system is necessary better or more capable of electing the best leaders in the most democratic way possible.  Sometimes issues are just a matter of public opinion.


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