Come October 2018, we’re all expected to participate in a peculiar referendum on various ways we might introduce island-wide voting. Five choices are on offer (that is why it is peculiar), but only two of them can properly be called “island-wide voting”.
One proposes that we choose our most-favoured 38 out of whatever number of candidates will be standing. It is not fanciful to imagine that more than 100 might put their names forward.
Good luck to the average voter who manages to read 100 manifestoes and then use his 38 votes to pick the candidates he most favours. Not an easy task, and certainly a time-consuming one. Note, for example, the fears of Deputy Gavin St Pier, Guernsey’s most senior politician, about this.
In a speech in January, he said: “Be under no illusions: a full blooded, pure island wide system in which each voter is given 38 votes, presents systemic risks for government in Guernsey. That sounds apocalyptic – so let me explain my fears. In practice, very few voters will use all their votes. The consequence of that, will be that a handful of candidates – perhaps 10 or 12 – will probably romp home and be elected with a very high number of votes; whilst it will become eminently possible for those at the bottom to be successfully elected with just a handful of votes. That will almost certainly produce some very odd results, making the coherence and effectiveness of government even more challenging in the future.”
The other “authentic” island-wide proposal on offer suggests that we vote only for a third of the assembly every two years, and that deputies serve for six years rather than four in the proposal above. Presumably if this proposal is approved, only a third of the next assembly’s deputies will be elected by an island-wide electorate, and more elections will follow at two-year intervals until every deputy is so elected. This choice will surely confuse many voters at referendum time, let alone once this option wins – if it does.
On this, Deputy St Pier said: “Even if a hybrid electoral system is chosen, with just a few seats elected island wide, the absence of a policy basis to the election will make them popularity contests. And I know I do not need to elaborate on the impact of populism on global politics in recent times…”
The other three options come nowhere near yielding an assembly elected by an island-wide electorate. One is for no change from the present position. Another confines the number of deputies elected island-wide to a proportion of the assembly only. And the third simply reduces the number of constituencies through some unexplained enlargement process. You might have thought each of these, or at least the second and third of them, would have been rejected by those investigating the matter.
Still, let’s consider the obvious choice they should have made: one vote every four years to select 38 deputies. Is there a way to make it workable?
A first step might be to limit the number who actually stand by setting some kind of criteria of fitness for office. We all want representatives of diverse backgrounds, but it would be helpful to know answers to various questions.
Like: Have you lived in Guernsey longer than five (or eight, or ten) years? Have you lived elsewhere? Are you over (say) 30? Do you have the written support of at least (say) 10 residents in each of the island’s parishes? Do you have a clean police record? What professional qualifications or similar do you have? Have you ever run an organisation – a business or charity? How many jobs have you had? Have you served in any douzaine capacity? Can you absorb reams of information quickly to make a decision? Do you have the time for this? Might any other roles prove a problem, or perhaps a conflict of interest?
Then, at the start of the campaign, insist that each candidate list his own five top policy priorities from among a broadly agreed collection of up to (say) 20 priorities debated and agreed by the previous assembly when it rises. That should encourage some semblance of continuity between assemblies. And allow at least 250 words for any personal statement. Separately: declare all other relevant interests up front.
Now, give each voter (say) 20 votes (which happens to be just over a majority of the number of seats in the assembly). Ask each voter to allocate them in order of preference among those standing for office. (If 100 are standing, 80 will attract no vote from that voter). Point out that the voter is not obliged to use the full 20-vote allocation, but that preferences which are not expressed will amount to wasted votes. Help the voter practically with his task of selection by using modern technologies of electronic voting.
Finally, consider counting votes under a preferential system. If no candidate has an absolute majority, the candidate with the lowest number of first preferences is eliminated and his second preferences are then distributed among the other candidates. If this does not give any candidate an absolute majority, the next lowest candidate is eliminated and his second preferences are distributed, and so on.
Yes, it is a laborious process, especially if the counting is done manually. But it looks fair, and it seems plausible given that there is no perfect way to have island-wide elections. Had it been chosen, it would have permitted a Yes-No decision by the electorate – assuming we really needed a precedent-setting referendum in the first place.