The problems of first past the post

| 24/05/2009

One of the questions that is often asked in jurisdictions such as ours where elections are conducted on a first past the post basis is how democratic that system really is, because more often than not those that end up winning a seat in the legislator have not got the support of the majority of the electorate.

For example, Wednesday’s result may on the surface appear to be an emphatic vote for the United Democratic Party. In reality, however, only two of that party’s candidates and one from the PPM actually received a majority of support of the total electorate. McKeeva Bush, Rolston Anglin and Arden McLean were the only three candidates to reap more than 50% of the actual electorate in their respective constituencies. This means that the other 12 candidates received more votes in their districts than any other candidate but in every case more voters chose not to vote for them by voting for a number of other candidates or not turning up at all.

In four of Cayman’s six districts even the first elected candidates failed to secure the popular support of all those entitled to vote, and in some cases MLAs have been returned to office with only around a third of the potential vote.

There is an argument that if people do not turn up to vote for someone or spoil their paper deliberately to make it clear they do not believe any candidate deserves their support their failure to take part in the election process cannot be considered. If, therefore, we are to look at the results based purely on those who did turn out then we must also add the remaining West Bay candidates Cline Glidden and Cpt Eugene, as well as Mark Scotland in Bodden Town, both of the Sister Islands MLAs and Ezzard Miller in North Side, who all polled more than 50% of the vote that turned out.

What this means is that we still have candidates that will form part of the new government that did not win a majority of the popular vote. Moreover, there are some candidates who received a greater percentage of the popular vote than others that were elected but who have not won a seat in their constituency.

This issue is not unique to Cayman. It is a common problem with a first past the post system and is further compounded where the electorate has multiple votes. In many cases on Wednesday voters chose not to use all of the votes available to them further distorting the result, and where those that did use all their votes, when they voted ‘straight’ for independents they effectivley split the vote and cancelled themselves out.

Whether or not Cayman will in the future move to single member constituencies with one man one vote or not remains to be seen. What is clear, however, from this recent election is that now the party system is firmly entrenched independents cannot win under a first past the post system.

If the majority of Cayman voters are not satisfied with the party system, the only way is for independent candidates to form some kind of alliance that will enable candidates to be fielded in organised opposition to the parties, or more realistically to campaign for proportional representation which is arguably a more democratic way of electing political representatives.

While first past the post remains a popular form of vote because of its simplicity, it is not the most democratic. Various forms of proportional representation exist, including party lists or the single transferable vote which does not depend on the existence of political parties but where the elector effectively lists candidates in order of preference.

These systems are criticized, however, for producing coalition governments, which can often be unstable and unproductive. But if the pre-election debate and the pattern of voting in Cayman in this election are anything to go by, a coalition government was what voters had in mind. An assessment of how votes were distributed in George Town and Bodden Town, for example, would suggest that is exactly what people wanted, with the result clearly indicating that the majority of voters did not vote straight for any party but mixed their vote with party candidates and independents, but then failed to achieve their goal.

The party system is far more entrenched in Cayman than the electorate has understood and if the voters of this country really don’t want that, voting for a combination of party candidates and independents will not have the desired effect. If Cayman wants a coalition government it needs a new voting system. First past the post will always favour the party and will either result in the status quo or a complete flip, as occurred in this election, the result being almost a mirror image of the 2005 one right down to the almost ‘party’ independent.

The argument for proportional representation has not been won in the world’s major democracies such as the UK and the United States but it is catching on. At the last count more than 70 countries around the world use some form of proportional representation.

The party system and first past the post is clear; people know what they are voting for and what they will get. Proportional representation on the other hand can be more complicated and throw up unexpected results, with winners being less clear. An informed observer of the political scene in the Cayman Islands, however,would probably conclude that the political glove of proportional representation may well be a better fit for the local electorate than the current system.

With the new constitution receiving a ‘Yes’ in the referendum there is provision for Cayman to change its electoral system, and as the debate begins about how and when to move to one member one vote, Cayman would be well served to at least begin considering if ‘first past the post’ is truly serving its democratic  interests.

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  1. Anonymous says:

     I solved the problem of ensuring that when voting using Proportional Representation, only those candidates with a majority of electors votes will win seats.

    Sadly, like Fermat, my margin was not wide enough to contain the proof.

  2. Anonymous says:

    Many countries have gone through a similar political evolution from multi-member constituencies with independent representatives to the development of political parties which is evidence of entrenched formalised organisation (not necesarily a bad thing). Ultimately, in the best case scenario the Westminister system of governance evolves into an accountable system dominated by two parties while representing many interests which embraces single member constituencies with a one man one vote format. In the worst case it can manifest itself as a very powerful democratic dictatorship or one party system which plagues many of today’s ‘banana republics’.  Caymanians must pay attention to our politics throughout the term and ensure that the Constitution and the rule of Law is upheld at all costs.    

  3. Anonymous says:

    Anther option would be to take something from PR systems and have one person, one vote but within the existing structure (eg 3 seats in Bodden Town), that way the three persons who receive the most single votes get in.

    Anyone voting in a multi-member constituency will surely remember that last week they had one or more votes that they felt more strongly in favour of that candidate than perhaps some of their other votes.

    If they only had one vote, they’d give it to their top pick, that way the 2 (Sister Islands), 3 (BT) or 4 (GT/WB) candidates who get in would know they got the first and only vote of everyone who voted for them, they wouldn’t ride in on the coattails of the strongest party candidate in that district



  4. Karl Marx says:

    Worst of all, McKeeva got about 2,000 votes in one district and gets to run the entire country of 60,000 people. He will rule over people he does not answer to. He only has to keep 2,000 West Bayers happy.

  5. jelly roll says:

    Preferential voting is a good system …

  6. Anonymous says:

    This is all so depressing to me. My poor Cayman Islands is hopelessly lost.