Is Our Voting System Flawed?

Image: GaneshBhakt/ Creative Commons
Does the current voting system give us a choice to effectively elect our leaders? What are our options?

In the third century BC, the emperor Ashoka was sowing the seeds of democracy in India with his Buddhist council meetings. He encouraged public discussions without discriminating against one’s faith and religion. It led to the idea of electing representatives through the instrument of a single vote.

Today, the election environment in India is grand and larger than life, serving the largest democracy in the world. But in India, and across the world, democracy and the election processes throw up challenges that have yet to be solved.

This year we have seen seven important state legislative elections, including the ongoing Gujarat elections – where it’s a fight between the Prime Minster’s de facto state and the newly appointed president of the oldest party in India. Voting gives the people the power to decide their leaders, deciding who will run the Government. However, looking at some of the 2017 election results, one might wonder if the results reflect the true winners:

In one of the constituencies in the Uttar Pradesh legislative assembly elections, the BJP candidate won with a majority of just 595 votes; 0.28% more share than its closest BSP rival. If one of the 11 candidates had dropped out, the BSP candidate could have been the winner.

Other results are really a close call. The difference between the two main parties was barely 100 votes. In this election too, changes to the number of candidates or voters could have produced a different result.

The first example is more troublesome as it raises the following question — Does a candidate who won only 35.06% of the vote share deserve to be the elected as the representative of a particular constituency?

It wasn’t just a few constituencies where the results were peculiar, but in the overall result as well:

AAP won 10 more seats than SAD and became the second largest party in Punjab – though they had a lower vote share than the SAD. Similarly, INC won Manipur with 7 more seats than BJP, but with a lower voter share.

These peculiar results lie in the election rules used in India, where a party needs to win seats rather than total votes in a region. This happens is not peculiar to India alone. It happens in other countries as well – especially the most controversial election in the last decade — 2016 American presidential elections. Donald Trump won from having more votes from the electoral college, despite losing the popular vote to Hillary Clinton.

This is to ensure that regions with smaller populations are fairly represented against regions with larger populations. But, unless the party candidates win with an absolute majority, i.e. more than 50 percent of the vote, it raises the question of whether candidates who win with the largest number of votes are the true elected representatives of their particular regions.

The answer is a controversial one and casts doubts on the legitimacy of elected representatives across the world. But, it leads to another question – is there a voting procedure where we can get a true majority winner?

The answer could be found in a theoretical proposition by an 18th-century French mathematician and political theorist, Marquis de Condorcet. He devised a ranking system of voting where voters rank their preference of candidates. Based on these preferences, it creates a head to head contest – where the candidate who defeated all other candidates is considered the majority winner – or Condorcet winner.

In this example, we see three showdowns

BJP vs BSP – BJP is the winner as all voters prefer it than BSP
BSP vs INC – INC is the winner as two voters prefer it than BSP
BJP vs INC – BJP is the winner as two voters prefer it than INC

Hence, BJP is the majority winner as it defeats all other parties. This voting procedure has many strengths, the most important being the equal representation of voter preferences. If the majority are opposed to one party, that party cannot win.

However, during the discussion of this voting procedure, Condorcet discovered a paradox in the voting result. Consider the following case:

BJP vs BSP – BSP is the winner as two voters prefer it than BJP
BSP vs INC – INC is the winner as two voters prefer it than BSP
BJP vs INC – BJP is the winner as two voters prefer it than INC

Now, no one is the majority winner. This is called the Condorcet Paradox, where the electorate demonstrates indecisiveness – no matter who you pick as a winner, two-thirds of voters will be unhappy with the result!

Condorcet raised another paradox – the paradox of voting itself. There, he argued that the larger the electorate, the less the individual vote mattered. This was later developed into a rational choice theory by Anthony Down in 1957, who argued that the cost of voting exceeded the benefits of the act itself.

For many centuries, the idea of voting has been used to make decisions in democratic states. However, upon a closer look, the actual process of elections, can make us doubt the results of our decisions.

Are we effective enough in electing leaders or changing politics? We may even doubt the true functioning of democracy.

Gujarat’s election results will be out in the coming weeks and soon we would know the winner of the final and the most important election of 2017. The hope is to have a majority winner, but if we have the situation like 2017’s other elections, it’s worth asking again whether our leaders are truly the ones who represent us.


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