Election Methods, Additional Comments
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Additional comments on election met­hods

Contemporary methods of election

The proposed constitution encourages innovation in election methods as well as other governmental innovations. This appendix describes some alternatives suited to different circumstances. (The listing is adapted from Kendall, Frances: Let the People Govern page 150-)

Plurality Voting

This system, popularly known as "first past the post" or "winner takes all" is used in the UK, Canada and other countries with a British tradition. Whoever receives the most votes (but not necessarily more than half) in each constituen­cy wins the election for that con­stituen­cy and is represented in Parliament or Congress or whatever the rep­resentative body is called. Plurality voting may be subdivided into two categories depending on whether you have a) a single representative con­stituency (e.g. U.K. and House of Representatives in the U.S.), in which case, the voting often boils down to selecting a person rather than a party and b) multiple represen­tative constituencies, where party voting is more predominant.

Plurality voting in general, and especially plurality voting in multiple representative constituen­cies seems to be declining in popularity. Two hold-outs of the last category may be the  electoral college for the election of the U.S. President[1] and the election of "senators"[2] in Switzer­land.

Majority voting

Majority voting is similar to plurality voting, except that the winning candidate must receive more than 50% of the votes. If none of the candidates receive a majority in the first ballot, a second ballot is held. Either some candidates are eliminated in the first round (thereby increasing the chances of a majority) or some other means (voting method) is used in the second ballot.

Majority voting is used in the first round in for instance, Australia and France.


Single Transferable Vote

As a candidate receives enough votes for his election, all remaining votes in his favour are transferred to other can­didates, listed by the elector in order of preference. May be combined with proportional representation.

Proportional Representation

Parties get representation in the legislature depending on their proportion of the total vote. There are several complex methods for calculating the actual proportions and dealing with the inevitable rounding. This is currently the most popular system world-wide.

It has the serious drawback that it leaves in the hands of party organizations much power that ought to rest in the hands of the voters. In many countries the parties alone draw up the list of candidates which may not be amended by the voter. To a very large extent, the parties then actually decide who is going to sit in Parliament. In other cases, the voter has limited choice within each party.

Switzerland and Luxembourg have free lists, which means that even though each party lists its candidates in order of preference, each voter may change the order, include candidates from other lists or cast two votes for the same candidate.

Alternative methods


This subchapter describes modes of election that haven't yet been implemented, but may prove attractive in the future or at least merit further discussion and perhaps testing. The proposed constitu­tion is flexible enough to accommodate small scale testing in individual states if the people so desires.

Continuous voting

Continuous elections may take place with either of the voting methods described above. It is most powerful however, when combined with plurality voting in single representative con­stituencies, in which case it equals a continuous recall provision.

Continuous elections, or rather a continuous recall provision have been proposed previously by the Danish philosopher Johannes Hohlenberg in "Kampen mot Staten", Copen­hagen 1947. What makes this a more realistic alternative today is the advent of adequate technology.

Continuous elections may for instance, be organized through a system of automatic voting machines similar in principle to an automatic teller machine. Instead of depositing or withdrawing money from a bank account, each voter would be depositing or with­drawing his vote from a particular party or candidate. Obviously, checks would have to be built into the system to ensure that each voter didn't withdraw or deposit more than one vote. But this in principle, is no different from, or more difficult to achieve than the bank making sure that you don't withdraw money you don't have.

The cost would be minimal, on the order of a bank trans­action, and the machines themselves may in fact be combined with com­mercial atm's (automatic teller machines).

Probably a continuous election system ought to be combined with a popular initiative and perhaps some moving averaging[3] for stability. The popular initiative would give the voter a chance to disagree with his representative without turning him out of office. The moving average would give the represen­tative protec­tion against being turned out of office on a short term flare of discontent.

The major benefit of the described system is improved and continuous accoun­tability. It might also lead to less emphasis on campaigning and more emphasis on actual results. It is not clear however, whether candidates on the average would sit longer or shorter in office. On the one hand, the lack of a definite election might make it harder for new candidates to launch themselves and get the requisite attention. On the other hand, the old hands would be vulnerable if somehow they ceased doing a good job.

This idea has ramifications beyond what can be given here. Representative democracy would again become truly representa­tive. If at any time a voter changed his mind as to a particular candidate's fitness, he would withdraw his vote and give it to someone else. If enough voters agreed, the representative would be out of office. Any official enjoying widespread respect could sit as long as he pleased. On the other hand, candidates with fresh ideas, wouldn't have to sit and wait for the next election.

Representatives as agents

Alternately representatives may be given voting power in Congress according to the number of votes received. Thus a candidate with widespread support would have substantial­ly more voting power than a candidate who barely made it to the legis­lature. (Adapted from Johannes Hohlenberg: Kampen mot Staten.)

This concept may be used together with plurality or majority voting to put some proportionality into the system without sacrificing the advantages of individual accountability in single representative constituencies.

It might also be combined with continuous elections to provide a representative that is the true (personal) agent of each of his individual electors.

Since this concept requires changes to how votes are counted in Congress, it cannot be decided at the state level (as different election modes might), but must be decided for the House of Representatives as a whole.


Copyright © 1991-2003 John F. Knutsen

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    [1] The U.S. President is formally elected by an electoral college consisting of representatives from each state. However, as all such representatives in modern times have met with a fixed mandate to vote for a particular presidential candidate, this is more form than substance. By electing the representatives to the electoral college the voters have in reality also decided who is going to be the next president.

    [2] Members of the federal "Council of States" in Switzerland are elected according to the plurality method with the exception of Jura that uses proportional voting. (Junker, Beat p. 109)

    [3] A moving average is an average that is measured over time. For instance, each candidate's "vote" at any time may be measured as the average of the actual vote over the last three months.