What is the ideal voting system? Meghnad Desai explains

By: | Published: September 4, 2017 3:37 AM

While FPTP offers the possibility of a strong government, proportional representation is more fair in terms of voting share.

European Union, Parliament, FPTP, Single Transferable Vote It is not clear which system is best for India, voters understand the FPTP system.

Parliament is about to investigate the merits of different voting procedures. This has been long overdue. In the UK and the European Union countries, voting systems are constantly being debated and experimented with. The UK had a referendum six years ago about moving its voting system for the House of Commons from First Past the Post ( FPTP) to Single Transferable Vote ( STV). The STV proposal was rejected. In many European countries, Germany for example, the system is Proportional Representation (PR).

In India, there has been no debate about this. Parties often get a substantial vote. Take the UP elections last March. BSP got 22.23% of the vote and only 19 (4.7%) seats. The SP-Congress coalition got 28.07% voters and 54 (13.5%) seats BJP got 41.35% votes and 325 seats (80). In a PR system, seats would be exactly proportional to,vote share. Unlike in the FPTP system, the constituency would not be the deciding arena. Each party would put up a list of candidates in order of their own preference. Thus, if BJP put up 403 candidates, then by PR, the first 165 candidates would be declared elected, SP 112 and 76 of the BSP, etc. Thus, PR treats the entire state as a single constituency and divides up seats by the overall share of the total vote.

Obviously, while proportionality is fairer to parties scoring votes but not winning seats than under FPTP, the constituency connection is lost. FPTP retains that connection. If there were only two parties contesting in each constituency, the results would not be very different between FPTP and PR. But once more than two parties contest, it is not majority but plurality (largest single vote) which wins. Typically, in a multi-party poll, the proportion of seats diverges away from the proportion of votes if a Party goes above 30% in its total share. No party which won majority in the Lok Sabha—Congress mostly and BJP in 2014—got more than 50%. Rajiv Gandhi got 49% in 1984. During the interim period of 1989-2014, India came very close to proportionality between seats and vote shares. The French Presidential elections take place in two rounds. In the first round , many candidates contest. Then, the top two contest in a second round. Thus the winning candidate has a majority of votes cast.

The disadvantage of PR is that most governments would be coalitions, often of rival parties, as happens in Europe. Strong, single-party governments become impossible. This, plus the loss of the constituency connection, tilts opinion in favour of FPTP. The STV Vote operates at constituency level. Each voter is asked to rank all the candidates in order of preference. Then the first preferences are added up. The candidate with the lowest first preferences is eliminated and her votes are allocated to the remaining candidates in proportion to her second preferences. This continues till one candidate emerges with majority of total preferences. This is a complicated, but fair system.

It is not clear which system is best for India, voters understand the FPTP system. It would be difficult to try out STV if there were more than about four candidates. PR would lead to coalitions as well as sever the connection with constituencies. Fairness is in conflict with intimate contact with MP as well as the possibility of a strong government. One compromise tried in some parliaments, for example the Scottish Parliament is to have FPTP system for a substantial proportion of the total seats but then use PR to ‘top up’ with the remaining seats. Thus, for example for UP one could say that in addition to the 403, seats at present, there would be 100 extra seats which would be allocated by PR. Then, the BSP would get 19 plus 22 seats, etc.

In the Lok Sabha, the 545 seats are covering an electorate of 850 million voters which gives you more than 1.5 million voters per seat. One way to reform the system would be to say one MP per million. But another way would be to say we add 305 seats (or whatever number necessary to bring it up to one member per million voters for 2019) and choose them by PR as ‘top up’. Thus, the current system of choosing constituency MPs by FPTP can stay as voters understand it. The top up then can bring a system of fairness. If you wanted to introduce extra fairness, we could restrict the top up MPs to be women and increase women’s representation in Lok Sabha.

There will be no immediate change in the election system. Parliament can initiate a national debate, that itself will be educational for citizens who can learn about the different voting system and the issues of fairness. When the total number of seats are adjusted to take into account the larger number of voters, these considerations of fairness can be taken on board.

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