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Good electoral system?

August 30, 2012

India follows the ‘first past the post’ (FPTP) electoral system and I believe simply moving to Proportional representation (PR) can substantially improve our overall well-being over a period of time!

To examine this rather tall claim, let us first agree on the objectives of a good electoral system. No system is perfect but a good system should try to achieve more of the below features (lets focus on Lok Sabha – India’s lower house of parliament – for this exercise):

  1. Free market: attract talent to politics by ensuring minimum barriers to political entry (monetary and other barriers). Higher supply of talented people will increase competition and voter-choice, hurt the poor politicians and force them to improve.
  2. Democracy: elect a legislature that reflects people’s preferences as much as possible – In a democracy, if a party has support of x% voters in India, then, irrespective of whether the voters are extremists or illiterates or idiots, that party should have roughly x% seats in Lok Sabha so that everyone gets a say even when the majority has its way. (Parliamentary reforms i.e. good rules of govt. formation and Lok Sabha functioning should ensure, to the extent possible, that parties have decision making power in proportion to their seats. Parliamentary reforms should/can also ensure other things like govt. stability, ability to make decisions, effective opposition, etc. Will talk about these in a separate post).
  3. Individual rights: Our Constitution protects (or is meant to protect) the life, liberty and other rights of all Indians by limiting the rights of the State. A good electoral system should give us a govt. / legislature that is most likely to honor the constitutional guarantees.
  4. Accountability: Reward outperformers and punish underperformers such that political parties and elected reps (MPs) are accountable to people and have incentive to work (their work is mainly to enact [and implement] laws that are ‘good’ and reflect the will of the people – if people demand laws that a politician/party genuinely believes are bad, then its tough – the party has to first convince the people to change their demands or take the risk of going agst their demands or going agst its beliefs or step aside).
  5. Inexpensive and easy to understand & implement

This is just a placeholder. Please suggest additions or changes to these features. I’ll update them as appropriate.

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9 Comments
  1. You have addressed the point on accountability in your subsequent post but I am not convinced. If you assume the candidate as the seller, the consumer is not the voter but the Part HQ, since they determine the party list. e.g. if I put up a 543 strong list for the election and I get 20% of the vote, then I get ~110 seats. How do I determine which of the 543 members are selected? The one’s who I can manipulate the easiest.

    How do you redefine a constituency in PR?

    ” Also, nothing stops the voters of an area to vote for and elect someone from their area as an independent MP. ”

    How does that work since the votes are not counted constituency-wise but are counted nationally?

    /* Begin possibly stupid calculation */

    Let us assume we have constituencies — Assume 100cr people divided equally in 500 constituencies = 20 lacs per constituency. Assume 10 lacs vote.

    You say — “An independent needs to win 0.18% (1 / 543) of the total votes across India.” This means 10 lac votes (assuming 50% turnout). This means candidate has to appeal to 4-5 constituency areas at the very least. Very difficult unless celeb.

    /* End Stupid Calculation*/

    Anyway this last analysis is not very sensible given the assumption of constituencies in a PR system. Can you clarify how that works?

    • I am suggesting a full PR / closed list PR where there won’t be any geographical constituency. Entire country (or state in state elections) is one constitutency.

      So, in ur example, yes, an independent candidate needs 10 lac / 50 cr votes (0.2%) to win. Under current system, he needs ~3.5 lacs / 10 lacs (35%).

      Obviously, 35% is easier if your support is concentrated in a particular geographical constituency but 0.2% is much easier if you represent any other type of constituency (women, gays, liberals, libertarians, gun right advocates, sound money advocates, etc)

      What PR does is it removes the unfair advantage that guys with a local mindset have under FPTP. It provides a level playing field.

    • your point regarding party HQ:

      yes, party HQs retain power to decide the ranked list of candidates under PR. However, PR makes the party HQs accountable to both the voters and party members. How?

      – lower entry barriers means new parties will come up and both candidates and people will have a choice to switch parties if not treated well
      – absence of tactical voting (due to wasted votes) under PR also allow candidates and voters to jump ship

      remember, party HQs will declare their ranked list a few weeks BEFORE polling….so, candidates and voters can change parties if party HQ distributes tickets to its cronies

      • If you want to reduce tactical voting and wasted votes then instead of PR you should investigate Instant Runoff Voting. It still keeps the constituency link and thus the accountability to voters which is reduced in PR.

        Tactical voting is a possibility in IRV but it is mostly theoretical.

        • i like IRV and condorcet winnner (slam dunks) but PR is better since it makes every vote count…doesn’t disenfranchise u just because u are a minority in your geographical area. PR also allows candidates to focus on national issues rather than focussing on their constituency (don’t forget, the only job of MPs is to make laws for the nation…MPLAD funds is a bogus new invention. Why should the MPs be tied to a geography area and why should every person be tied to only 1 MP – for whom he probably did not vote)

        • and IRV is ultimately a winner-takes-all system that increases the power of money, muscle and votebanks!

        • and since you insist on the constituency link, you may like the mixed member PR system followed by Germany and NZ, among others. Its probably my second preference.

          http://www.thirdworldtraveler.com/Political/CaseForPropRep.html

  2. Re: Duverger’s law, significant counterexamples exist — https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Duverger's_law#Counterexamples

    • India is also listed as an exception to Duverger’s law since we have ’38 political parties represented in parliament’.

      but that is only because 1 or 2 dominant parties from each state also get into the Parliament because of their concentrated support (thanks to state FPTP elections). This is good for competition but not good enough since these regional parties are again unaccountable (due to FPTP’s lack of competition).

      The other factor that diminishes the impact of Duverger’s law is size of the country or state. So, new parties have been able to displace existing parties or become the 3rd party at state level in India but, at the national level, we took almost 40-50 years to have a 2nd party (BJP). We might eventually get a 3rd party/front if BJP and Congress don’t mend their ways (which they won’t) but the destruction caused in the interim is massive. Also, if the 3rd front simply replaces one of the 2 fronts, then it won’t help much

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